Thoughts on economics and liberty

Further thoughts on fast-unto-death (and Ambedkar)

Thanks to an excellent post on Karthik's blog I was reminded that I had written something on precisely the subject of fast-unto-death many years ago in the draft manuscript The Discovery of Freedom.


After flattering tyrants and lodging petitions with them, civil disobedience must be considered. Not all liberals agree to this, though. Dr Ambedkar, who was broadly a liberal, felt that civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha are inconsistent with constitutional democracy. In India’s Constituent Assembly he said on November 25, 1949:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us[1] [emphasis mine].
However, constitutional democracy is only a necessary, not sufficient condition for freedom. Democracy does not guarantee freedom. Elections are only held infrequently, and systems to recall representatives are non-existent. Under these circumstances, democracies can exceed their legitimate powers. More problematically, as with India today, it can become impossible for good people to enter electoral politics because only the corrupt are permitted. If voice is curbed, and liberty and life are at risk, then vigilant citizens must step outside constitutional frameworks. Civil disobedience is an option for such cases, being an act of civic responsibility. The disobedient citizen demonstrates a commitment to live on in that society, subject to reforms. Non-violent disobedience is not a direct assault against the government.
There are varieties of civil disobedience. Simple non-violent protest may include chanting slogans or protesting a particular issue. A stronger form of disobedience breaks a specified law. The Dandi march is a classic example. The objector is prepared to face the consequences. He does not resist arrest, trial, or punishment: indeed, he insists on breaking the law precisely to draw attention to the illiberal law. The tyranny is brought to light, and popular support demonstrated.
In BFN, I regretted that today ‘[w]e never find any political leader protesting against our freedoms being trampled upon. No Dandi marches; no fasts to death to protest the absence of the rule of law or against corruption.’ True, a few websites speak out against corruption, but unfortunately, there is no national movement.[2] It is time to offer satyagraha and march against corruption. The battle for liberty can’t be won by sitting on one’s haunches and letting the corrupt rule.
The more extreme form of civil disobedience is a fast to death, a la Gandhi. Being potentially self-harm, this needs a nuanced approach. It is not suited to everyone nor suitable for every cause. The moral character required for a fast unto death is well beyond most of us. In chapter 4 I explored the ethics of a fast unto death and found that under certain circumstances, it is ethical. The ‘faster’ must, above all, have earned ‘a right to risk his own life in order to preserve it’ (Rousseau). Gandhi’s fasts helped reduce communal violence and saved thousands of lives. However, fasts can’t be permitted as blackmail and must be undertaken out of love, including of the government that one opposes. They must arise from generosity of the heart, not hatred.

[1] Proceedings of the Constituent Assembly of India – Volume XI. Friday, the 25th November, 1949

[2] E.g. See the Fifth Pillar [], and the Anti Corruption Movement Chennai, []


In my view the approach of Anna Hazare does not meet this requirement. No only that, I’ve reviewed my views further recently, after studying Gandhi in more detail, and am no longer comfortable with the fast unto death concept which requires so much finesse and nuancing as to become impossible to generalise. That kind of an approach fails the basic liberal requirement: of general rules and principles.
I’m going to modify my para on fast unto death, in the next draft of the manuscript.
You have done well to point out the constitutionalism that should underpin a civilised free society. Ambedkar was right.


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24 thoughts on “Further thoughts on fast-unto-death (and Ambedkar)
  1. Chaitanya

    … right, that against the fact that the only constitutionally available methods are to contest elections. I do not see any difference in how India attained freedom from non-cooperation and how Anna Hazare is trying to bring about the law that is so desperately needed but so obtusely opposed by the people in power. In many ways the failure of the constitution brings about radical responses. In this case if Anna meant nothing his fast unto death would have achieved nothing but a blink from the general populace.
    The only sensible option left is to flush the system – get every politician currently in power to resign and not contest for atleast 1 term. Not to allow anyone to become remote controls (Manmohan singh, Lalu's wife etc;) by not allowing close relatives to contest. Our constitution did not really help us for the last 60 odd yrs. Time to give something else a shot. Some change is better than status quo, especially in the case of India.
    I agree that we need to find a sustainable means to provide proper democracy. Somehow for all the development that's been going on in the technology world, no one;s thought about using tech to solve some of the problems with democracy. There has to be a solution to eliminating representative democracy and having a direct form of democracy. If the only way to pass a bill is to influence everyone, we will not see ugly scenes like horse trading and tossing microphones in the "house". Rep democracy needs to evolve because it still puts far too much power in the hands of far too few people as against monarchy where it is with just one person.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Chaitanya

    Please consider: “Rep democracy needs to evolve because it still puts far too much power in the hands of far too few people as against monarchy where it is with just one person” and then imagine what Hazare has got this time.

    Basically you have substituted democratic process with coercive street politics.

    And yes there is GREAT difference between Gandhi’s methods for freedom against an UNREPRESENTATIVE British government, and what Hazare has done.

    I have written extensively on this blog about this difference. Please read these and think.

    Hazare has made a mockery of democracy. LET HIM CONTEST ELECTIONS AND CHANGE LAWS. How hard is that for him to understand?


  3. Arjun

    I do realise the importance of the "Grammar of anarchy" that is raised today but the case is quite different today. Look at the environment today
    1.  Main stream media is totally corrupt- just not credible.
    2. hazare himself tells he will lose deposit amount if he contests elections. worst thing, he doesnot have even have the sources to fund him
    3. today the 2g case was brought out not by elected representatives but by genuine journalists, people who have lost elections but have not let off values (dr. swamy) and patriotic bureaucrats. So does it prove that the changes can be brought out only by elected people?
    4. if non violent methods cannot be used, what are the legitimate methods that can be used other than addressing the issues being elected representatives?
    5. Don't the non elected representatives have any voice in democracy? you realise that hardly 47-50% of people exercise their franchise. So for any coalition, not a single party, to form govt- it needs genuinely only max of 25% votes; for a country of more than 1.21 bn population, i dont think this is a democratically elected govt to follow constitutional methods.

    6. It is the same person (ambedkar) who told he would burn the constitution (on the floor of the house) if he found people misusing the constitution, how can you call these methods of ramdev or hazare of using non violent satyagraha unconstitutional? (since the creator himself had disregarded the constitution)
    7. 2 countries have adopted new constitutions this year- kenya and kyrgystan. Egypt was also democratic but kept in indefinite emergency. Did the people resort to constitutional methods? Lot of reforms to be brought about are being talked today, why dont we relook at the constitution itself directly and plug as many loopholes?
    8. The lokpal bill today is essentially rework of the constitution specially the judiciary part which is the custodian of the constitution.
    9. Is there any request of ramdev that is unconstitutional or harmful to our democracy?

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    RE: “hardly 47-50% of people exercise their franchise” – WHO has stopped them from doing so?

    And WHY are people like Hazare and Ramdev unelectable? Have they made an attempt to offer a serious national alternative?

    Indeed their attempts to kill themselves are illegal in India and they can be (as others are) force fed.

    By all means have a street demonstration/ etc (I’ve written a lot about such methods in DOF), BUT a threat of suicide amounts to the TOTAL REJECTION OF DEMOCRACY. It is like someone saying that his voice is MORE important than the voice of billions of others.


  5. Ashwin Agrawal

    I do not think it is right to club Hazare and Ramdev together.. As was very clear after his arrest fiesta.. He threatened to create an army.. What for?.. To show his might.. Juvenile behaviour from a safron clad monkey with a following..
    Now Anna Hazare's action is a grey area..  For a bigger cause I might have agreed with this tactic.. and subtlety should have been ensured.. But not for such a thing as a Lokpal..
    The reason this cause does not warrant for such an action, in mind mind, is since it does not address the issue of corruption in the first place.. It just addresses the question of blame and justice.. Which, as evident throughout history, is not a good/complete deterrent to stop politicians from corruption..
    Mark my words.. No matter how strong this so called Lokpal is.. It won't make a big difference in ending or reducing corruption..
    If this action (fast) was done to change the electoral system of India itself.. I would support this.. This would address the main reason for corruption.. party politics, election funding, vote bank politics etc.. the very reasons that cause corruption..
    Arun Shourie had a great alternative for the present electoral system in his book.. The Parliamentary System..
    As for Gandhi using this method (fast-unto-death).. We can see the results.. Only time will tell if this cause (Lokpal) was as rewarding as Gandhi's.. In my mind I don't see it as being close to the one as Gandhi's or even one that merely warrants a national action..
    Having said that.. Seeing the unity and enthusiasm from the Indian populace encompassing all classes was a nice surprise.. Too bad it went to such a small cause and that too being adopted by people like Ramdev.. Now the big causes in the future wouldn't be taken too seriously..

  6. ramesh

    @Ashwin and Dear Sabhlok,
    Re: Now the big causes in the future wouldn't be taken too seriously.
    It is a big cause of worry for the success of efforts like FTI (itself being big cause of future).
    Re: Seeing the unity and enthusiasm from the Indian populace encompassing all classes was a nice surprise.
    Such a surprise is not coming for the cause of FTI.
    But the champions of FTI still believe the Indian Populace. Greatest wonder is that reasons are not put forward given the above situation and still the claim is being made that people are not stupid.

  7. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    FTI is not engaging directly with citizens at this stage. It is important to first find the leaders. 

    The people of India are not stupid – that goes without saying.

    The "educated" people of India are also not stupid – but they are very cautious about taking part in politics. Once that hesitation goes and good leaders are found, the reform of India can begin in right earnest.

  8. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    The citizens we refer here are mostly the 'Educated Class' only. Given the pace at which the awareness and participation is generating about things like FTI the caution and hesitation they exercise is too much compared to their participation in the movements like those of Hazare and Ramdev. Did not you prefer to call these people something like inactive, stupid out of tiredness and frustration and for this their preference?

  9. Ashwin Agrawal

    @Ramesh.. I would agree that something like what the FTI currently is promoting is a big cause..
    I agree with Sanjeev.. It has to identify its leadership before any solidarity will be shown towards its cause..
    I'm really hoping someday there will be a group such as the FTI rooting for a change in our electoral system.. without which everything is just a moot point..
    Maybe you guys should look into that too..

  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    I urge the educated people of India to become citizens. Citizenship is more than being educated or even voting in elections. It is about taking responsibility for their society. I haven’t called the educated people “stupid” (that they are not!), but reluctant to take responsibility, to become citizens.

    The same applies to you. When are you going to take responsibility for India’s governance?

    Note that this is a JOINT responsibility – we are all required to step in. It is not my sole responsibility nor yours.


  11. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    Re: When are you going to take responsibility for India’s governance? {{by way of joining FTI or otherwise}}
    I have been craving for this question for a quite some time now.
    This is a question which represents the urge within us for the WELFARE of the people. Since the time I realized that ultimate essence of all philosophy, scientific advancement and all that human endeavours lays in the WELFARE of the society as a whole few years ago.
    The basic difference between you and me is that you ask this question after repeated instigation to you and I ask the same question every moment to all those who come across me and that every moment I CONFIRM AND REVISE MY STRATEGY TO COME THIS TRUE. Reason: You prefer to be safe under freedom and liberty granted to every individual to take their decision. This approach of yours expects every individual to be a leader. Instead I take it upon myself and the likes to arrange the few basic things for them (like good governance etc) for they do not understand the truth arrived at either by science ( for you it is yet to be decided or evolving subject or to be decided by each individual!!!) or by philosophy and thereby make the RIGHT JUDGEMENT/DECISION. The principle behind my approach is that leaders are quite different from the rest and are few unlike that of your approach.
    Other but most important difference between you (~FTI) and me are:
    1.         You (~FTI): Means justify the Ends. This method is very slow and faces many ideological problems since the nature of ‘means’ varies from person to person; time to time and place to place. Many controversies may come up. Advantage is that risk is minimal in respect of social moral impact and can be practised by every individual without qualifications. Hindu traditional approach; Jain approach are examples of the same e.g Mahatma Gandhi. Even Hazare, Ramadev fall under this category.
    It is a result of Dvaita philosophical approach and is justified for all endeavours that ONLY follow the basic setup (good government etc). e.g. misinterpretations/misuse of rules and regulations etc.
    But this method should not be used for things like formulating basic rules which has to be done by experts only (e.g. system of governance etc) which you do presently.   
    This approach is based upon ‘BELIEF’. People are made to believe the ‘MEANS’. Your/FTI approach fails here because you leave the people at their liberty and freedom and still expect them to use ‘THE SAME MEANS’ WITHOUT BELIEF. Even though you harp on the good leaders here, hardly any importance is given to them for want of enough belief in them. And thus LEADERS ARE UNMADE IN THIS SYSTEM (you might have experienced the same when free and liberal people attack you in comments more than who support it-proof- majority have not joined FTI). Gandhi succeeded in his approach because most people believed him even blindly, not that his approach was understood by every individual using his own freedom and liberty. You won’t allow such a belief. That is problem.
    Here success is unlikely to be within the lifetime of ours. Makes me less interested but I will surely participate in this as no other alternative.
    2.         Me: Intentions justify the Ends. For me intentions are far more important than the mean of their achievement.  The problem with this system is that it is very risky and may be misused. However it is far faster than your above method and is solely based on the availability of integrated (~realised~enlightened ) leaders. Charisma of the leaders may work here. It has to be executed by the leaders/wise/knowledgeable alone and the rest are expected to follow it. It is here in this system that the concept of LEADERS with quality and integrity originates. Here ALL the people are not required to understand the things as they are but charmed to follow the GENUINE leaders. I prefer this method because it is faster and success is likely to be in our lifetime. This system is based the understanding of the nature of people.  This system is result of Advaita philosophy.

    Such few things have made me waiting to take the responsibility for the country by way of joining FTI at present. I hope anytime FTI may intake me if they satisfy with my integrity and if there is a place.
    I would like to bring to your kind notice that there are many many leaders waiting for joining the FTI or such things. Effort is needed to identify and sort out all the things like above and many more so that gap is minimised and they are all taken into confidence. This is the greatest strategy to which FTI is giving least importance. I accuse it.
    All I that can expect from you now is that you will shift the focus to the above issue which limits the upcoming of the leaders from that of trivial/expertise based blogs and accelerate the SUCCESS of FTI.
    I am presently working/contributing on the basics which may bridge the gap between the above two thoughts based on the ‘truth’ with you (Vichar Sagar- The study of this should end only in the WELFARE of people as lasting as the truth itself). Hope it will be taken to fruitful end.
    Pray you understand what I intend and mean!

  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    FTI is focused on FREEDOM not welfare. Welfare is an automatic consequence of freedom (cf.”invisible hand” of Adam Smith).

    Your approach seems to be paternalistic and inconsistent with equal respect for all individuals.


  13. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    Welfare is inclusive of freedom and much more. There could not be restrictions on the welfare. Here individual is happy along with the society.
    Freedom, even if there is a welfare it is centric. There are restrictions like accountability and responsibility on freedom. These conditions need not be complete.  Only individual may be happy but not necessarily as a society.
    Why follow blindly (cf.”invisible hand” of Adam Smith)? There is a gross negligence of the human nature as a SOCIAL ANIMAL.

  14. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    I am not blind. I’m FULLY aware of the implications of different models of thought. Your model is “welfare” based and “society” centric. That is the one that leads quickly to socialism and the “welfare state” – and in the end to communism.

    Let people associate with whomsoever they wish. There is no such thing as society. Let that be very clear. There are ONLY individuals. And their freedom is paramount. All else is a paternalistic imposition.

    Btw, how do you reconcile your vedantic views with your socialistic views?


  15. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    It is true that my model is “welfare” based and “society” centric. But it never takes the form of “Socialism” which is being presently practised in India. There is a world of difference in recognising Human as Social human being and practising the Socialism. You are confused about the same. An individual and his behaviour are defined only in relation to the society, family he lives in. In such a model everybody gets according to his worth nothing more, nothing less only opportunity is made available so. In socialism all are equated. That cannot be my model.
    My model is essentially that of yours as far as efficiency/prosperity is concerned but takes into account of the human nature as SOCIAL ANIMAL when it comes to the SUCCESS of transformations like the present one (which FTI etc try to bring about)
    Here the issue is not of model. But how the transformation is brought about SUCCESSFULY. Your approach is individualistic in nature and my approach takes into account his basic social nature.
    Advaita is basic truth. Dvaita is repercussion. Advaita is ultimate form of freedom and liberty. Nature of Dvaita e.g. the human, society, transformations (like which FTI etc bring about) could not be understood without the basic knowledge of FREEDOM AND LIBERTY as Advaita puts it. I am sure there is a confusion on your side as to the ‘true nature of freedom and liberty’ and I feel sorry I am yet to be successful in proving it to you effectively. [Rope and snake are not contradictory in illusion but complementary and cannot be isolated so is the case with individual and his social nature.]
    So let it be clear I cannot be ‘socialist’.

  16. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    I do not deny man’s social nature, but deny the primacy of “society”. I believe that FTI has not even started working at the level of social transformation since the first step has not been fulfilled: sufficient leaders of high quality who understand good policy and agree on key steps.

    Let that happen. Then the other things will occur on their own. Leaders know how to leader – of that I have no doubt.


  17. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    It is exactly this first step of gathering leaders about which I am elaborating so much and you twisted it as societal etc. The strategy in the first step won't differ much than from the second step. What is the percentage who join FTI of those who visit this blog, FTI blog and all connected links, so will be the percentage in future who will be voting the FTI. I am discussing about the former percentage and problems along with solutions associated with that. Are not you worried about that?

  18. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    I’ve not been paid by anyone to take the “theka” or contract for India’s development. I do what I think is my obligation as a citizen (I am now only an overseas citizen). I have seen a SEVERE shortage of leaders in India of the sort that is needed. Lots of corrupt “leaders”, lots of communal “leaders”. Very few of the type I’m looking for.

    If enough leaders don’t exist, then they must be created. FTI is trying to create them. It is a slow process. I’ve interacted with a LOT of “leaders” by now, including from Jago Party, Lok Satta, Professionals Party, etc. etc. etc. – and unfortunately very few of them make the cut. Many are deeply confused (some are even socialists).

    One can’t create leaders overnight in a country where the education system has been tailored to create CLERKS.

    Even you are claiming to not be a socialist but I’ve not seen much evidence of your policy capacity yet. You have interesting things to say, but you are still a clerk, not a leader. That stage is hard for most Indians. What can I do? I can’t get inside the heads of people, can I?


  19. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    Forget about “theka” or contract for India’s development. We are here to share our strategy to see that our hobby (FTI-etc) reaches its maturity. Let us be professional and sportive in our attitude and just like a citizen in free society let us mean only Business, the SUCCESS (FTI etc). Let us take the advantage of human nature to our cause.
    Leaders are those who give directions to the policy makers. These are the experts/intellectuals/clerks who formulate the policies accordingly.
    For giving directions he has to be crystal clear about all the basic issues under the universe. For you it is STILL an evolving subject! It is exactly here which weakens a leader.
    I mean only adding positive catalysts in the your slow process of creation of leaders by way of understanding human nature and be the leaders of the caliber or more of Lincon, Gandhi, Rajaji etc who took the benefit of human nature to their cause.
    This is what I mean all.

  20. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    I want an India where curiosity never ends because presumably people are “crystal clear about all the basic issues under the universe”. Second, I’m looking for leaders who are NOT “crystal clear” about everything and have a scientific attitude of examination and exploration.

    This is not the “typical” leader most people have in mind. The very concept of freedom is linked with uncertainty, change, and progress. It is clear that India does not yet have enough leaders of this sort, hence the concept of liberty needs time to be understood.

    Those in India who understand a little bit about liberty (and its uncertainties) are predominantly clerks and slaves, not citizens. They do not understand that their next step is to lead. They must rise if they understand liberty. Else, like you, they’ll lecture OTHERS.

    The day you start asking yourself: “What am I doing to lead India?” you would understand what I’m trying to say. Till you keep lecturing me, you are still a clerk. Sorry, but I’m pretty blunt about the truth.


  21. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    If at all "The very concept of freedom is linked with uncertainty, change, and progress" is true then let it be known to you that the essence of Bhagavat Geeta is " परिवर्तनहि सन्सार का नियम है/” as has been abundantly known and still it is "crystal clear" about all the issues under the universe. So confuse not about "crystal clarity". I am not wishing you to 'believe' the Geeta but just to say that "being crystal clear' is inclusive of all your understanding that you can.
    re: They do not understand that their next step is to lead.
    I totally agree.
    Still I have been lecturing you not because I wish not to lead but because I/We lack the enough resources to carry out the task successfully just as a free entrepreneur thinks.
    Here my effort is to discuss the ways to gather and share the resources available to us.
    Is not I am doing the minimum at least by supporting the FTI outside if not financially? In the due course I will be full time member of FTI to contest the elections if the cirmumstances/finance so allow. In the mean while I am discussing the idealogical differences. Does it amount to lecturing? At present I am not in position to leave my job and leave my family to the care of others or not even afford to neglect the present job. Do you think apt me to do the otherwise? Even if I do the otherwise just like you is the SUCCESS guaranteed?
    What do you mean by "leading" actually if not all this?

  22. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Nice. I like the Gita reference. Which precise sloka?

    We are approaching the pointy end of the conversation now.

    Ramesh, you are aware that on FTI no one is required to commit to contesting elections immediately, but only when their circumstances permit. The advantage of being a member of FTI is that you get involved in a discussion of your ideas with OTHERS, not just me. I am NOT FTI. I’m just one of its members. There are more than 100 others members. All have agreed IN-PRINCIPLE to contest elections, some will do so after ten years. Some are too old to contest elections ever. But this is the core of a future political movement, when sufficient leaders have assembled and agreed to key ideas.

    Let me say that FTI members are doing their LITTLE bit, whenever they can. They are not required to sacrifice family obligations. That would be totally unacceptable. But over time, FTI will become a group of like-minded people that will work together in small ways, to show India the way out of this mess. One day, when ready, FTI members will contest elections and change the rules – in a systematic manner – to bring out lasting improvement in the governance institutions.

    So my point is this – if you have it in you to lead, the join FTI. It doesn’t cost anything (there is a membership fee in the rules, but we haven’t started charging it yet), but what it does is to bring you in touch with like minded people who will ultimately change India.

    Don’t debate with me, alone. I’m NOT FTI. Let me repeat that!

  23. ramesh

    Thanks Sabhlok,
    " परिवर्तनहि सन्सार का नियम है/” is the last statement in the 'गीता सार’ by an unknown writer. This गीता सार’ is hung in many office premises, households. I need not confirm its authenticity since सन्सार is माया which has infinite versions, every moment it changes, it has infinite rules for its action or equivalently it has no rules to rule it. Confuse not statement is not contradictory but complementary.

    Anyway I am applying for FTI and try minimise the ideological differences to bring 'crystal clarity' to the "freedom and liberty'' of an individual scientifically and critically.

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