12th April 2011
So what should be the position of the state re: fast unto death?
Now, back to analysis. The following is the current version of the discussion re: fast unto death in DOF. This was revised many weeks ago, but based on the discussions at the moment, I'll probably need to review this section.
A few other methods of self-harm raise particularly prickly questions. A mahasamadhi is (apparently) an event in which someone, as part of religious belief, wills himself to death. Whether this is at all feasible without causing direct violence on one’s body is a question best reserved for another day (noting my scepticism about such events, and that I would need sturdy data that might not be readily forthcoming). The key issue is this – that people with the purported power of mahasamadhi are usually highly revered. Such self-destruction is charged with widely perceived moral and spiritual properties. Another challenging method of self-harm is fast unto death. Thus, when Gandhi undertook his (relatively frequent) fasts unto death, he did so with full public disclosure. The main thing to note is that he aimed to protect, not harm life: for instance, he often aimed to prevent communal or other mass violence.
These acts appear to violate Proposition 1, and yet, undertaken with wide public awareness, they are not comparable with garden variety suicide. Proposition 1 aims to maximise life. When people, in following a particular moral path, undertake such acts of self-destruction, their actions raise many questions of justice and accountability. I would think that the key is to prove that such actions are not in someone’s vested personal interest. Should that have happened, or the truth distorted, then placing such a person under arrest and force-feeding him would be perfectly valid. There is a very fine line distinguishing these actions, and calls for the exercise of considerable judgement.
The intent is quite clearly outward-oriented in the Gandhian case – to bring about a net social improvement. There must also be a desire for self-purification, and love for the enemy. Gandhi does not do such things for personal gain, but for a religious objective. When he wants to reform society (e.g. highlight the plight of the Harijans), or bring about Hindu-Muslim accord, then, too, one can understand: it is a life-affirming act.
However, would this method be appropriate to compel a government to enact a particular piece of legislation? How would the Gandhian method play out in a democracy?
I think the conditions attached to this method are so many and so stringent that NONE can legitimately aspire to them. In a democracy, as well, it is inappropriate for any one to use the threat of self-harm to over-ride normal electoral processes.
Therefore I'm inclined to rule out this method of self-harm in the free society. It is simply too hard to understand and explain. It will invariably lead to confusion and emotional excitement.
I obviously can't speak for Gandhi, but I'd imagine that he would have agreed that this method should NOT be used to over-ride the democratic process in FREE, INDEPENDENT INDIA.
My position – re: the need to prohibit all such attempts to over-ride democratic processes – therefore stands.