Thoughts on economics and liberty

Hazare’s and Ramdev’s methods “the worst form of coercion” (so said Mahatma Gandhi)

It has become fashionable for deluded, half-baked Indian "leaders" (including Hindu gurus, one of whom recently died as a result) to undertake "fasts-unto-death" the moment their views are questioned by democratically elected representatives of India, or the onus put on them to contest elections, get elected, and change laws in the proper, constitutional way.

I've dealt with this issue on a number of blog posts (and indeed, have dealt with it in detail the draft manuscript, DOF, which has been under preparation for a number of years – noting that I have changed the views (on this matter) found in the current version, but not yet found time to change the text). Some of my posts on this subject include:

Gandhi’s views

But now, there comes a startling piece of information from from the book, Great Soul; Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, by Joseph Lelyveld. Not only did Gandhi question the use of "fast unto death" by others on numerous occasions (see my research notes above), this book tells us that he actually knew that fasting unto death was the “the worst form of coercion”.
This I found from Christopher Hitchens's excellent review of this banned book
Banned? Yes, recall that this book is banned in India. No less than the "luminary" Narendra Modi has banned the book. This great hero of BJP and many "internet Indians", and communal fanatic, statist who opposes liberty (but is apparently a "good" administrator) banned this book because it might have made some true statements (Narendra Modi loses all credibility).  Surely Modi can't hide the truth just by banning the book. This is the internet world, Modi. Get real – you delusional, medieval enemy of freedom! Who cares about your ban! 
Indeed, the ban is all the more reason to buy this book (but I won't since I have many other things to read and I'm not "preaching" Gandhism but classical liberalism, and freedom). 
Let me admit I'm a bit disturbed by reading Hitchens's review, for it forces me to review some of my views on Gandhi. Lelyveld basically shows that Gandhi was a staunch conservative (but confused) Hindu. That's a perspective I've already noted in DOF (in relation to his use of the "Ram Rajya" slogan which put the spanner in his relations with Jinnah). But his treatment of the "Harijans" marks him out for further analysis when I find more time.
Gandhi was not a clear headed classical liberal (of which he did show some elementary knowledge – as I've outlined in BFN ). He was also not an anarchist, nor a socialist. He did have a rather Hazare-like view of himself, that he somehow "represented" everyone. A bit of megalomania surely suggests itself with some of his statements, such as: “I claim myself in my own person to represent the vast mass of the untouchables”!! 
Anyway, this blog post is not about Gandhi or his theories, but about those who practice "Gandhigiri" without having read Gandhi. (Has Hazare or Ramdev written extensively on the subject of "fast unto death"? How do these two justify their public attempts at suicide?)
I hope Hazare and Ramdev are informed that (as Hitchens writes) their threat to starve themselves to death involves them "in the deliberate and believable threat of violence". Thus they become votaries of VIOLENCE, not of non-violence.
And they shouldn't forget that they are, as Gandhi wrote, practicing the "worst form of coercion". They need to explain the logic of their coercive, violent actions. The only thing that currently distinguishes them from terrorists like ULFA is that they threaten to conduct their violence in public. That's a savings grace. But protectors of democracy, advocates of non-violence – that they are not.

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13 thoughts on “Hazare’s and Ramdev’s methods “the worst form of coercion” (so said Mahatma Gandhi)
  1. Kishan

    I could not find in the references you gave anything like "worst form of coercion". Two instances of fast by the Mahatma have been mentioned, one he says is for bringing in an end to inter-community violence. If it was a coercion then it was for a good cause.Do you imply that Hazare's and Ramdev's cause is unworthy or immoral?
    Second instance is for no cause in particular, only for self-purification.It is not comparable to the fasts by Hazare or Ramdev.
    In your misplaced enthusiastic effort to discredit these two you have even turned the commonly understood meaning of violence on its head. 

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    The citation from Gandhi is referred to in Hitchens’s review – in which he cites from Lelyveld’s book. Please check Hitchens’s article for yourself. I assume Lelyveld cites the precise place where Gandhi said/wrote this. It should perhaps be possible to confirm through google since all of Gandhi’s work is available on the internet. I have no doubt that Gandhi recognised that his ‘fast unto death’ method was a real problem, and he wrote a lot on this issue, trying to explain why this method shoudl be accepted as an instrument of civil disobedience.

    I also showed clearly earlier that Gandhi had strongly opposed the idea of fast unto death being conducted without meeting the extremely stringent conditions he set for such action. He basically said no one else should do this kind of a thing. I don’t think Hazare or Ramdev have demonstrated even REMOTELY any understanding of these conditions, primary among which is the greatest love for one’s “enemy”. These two are using the hollow shell of Gandhi method without taking the basic steps necessary (that were necessary, in Gandhi’s view) for ensuring that the use of such a method does not deteriorate into plain blackmail. That’s why I’ve invited these two to tell us why is public suicide such a great thing in their philosophical system. Let’s wait to hear from them their justification of this method. I don’t think they can justify their approach.

    And yes, suicide is an EXTREME form of violence. That’s a basic truth.

  3. Bhagwad Jal Park

    There are different types of coercion. Some are legitimate. Some are illegitimate. For example, putting a gun to someone's head and forcing them to do what you want is illegitimate coercion because you simply can't ignore a gun to your head.
    On the other hand, suppose a parent disapproves of their daughter's love marriage. They can threaten to go on a fast unto death unless she stops it. This is emotional blackmail, and though I feel sorry for the girl, it's a legitimate form of coercion since the girl has the ability to ignore her parents. She can physically turn around and walk away without threat a to her life or bodily safety.
    Any threat which you can physically ignore is a legitimate threat. Any threat which you can't ignore because of the danger of real harm to you is illegitimate. It's that simple.

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    The child threatens to not eat food and melts his mother’s heart. That’s a childish strategy and even the child will eat food after some time if the mother ignores (which she won’t).

    The example you give is somewhat similar, of a childish girl who, instead of eloping (which is her legal right presumig she is above 18) under the circumstances and taking responsibility, uses childish threat.

    I’m referring here not to childish suicide attempts (which are the vast majority of them – possibly 90%), but to grown up adults who are threatening suicide to achieve specific goals that they believe they have a right to impose on the entire nation.

    Gandhi’s goals were usually correct: to prevent communal violence and thus save lives. On a couple of occasions he was wrong (as cited in the case by Hitchenson when he threatened against the law re: Harijans). But note he did NOT have access to democratic bodies to express his views. India was NOT independent and could not make its own laws.

    Now, if you generalise from CHILDISH cases to that of resonsibile adults, or you generalise from cases under an IMPERIAL government to that of a functioning democracy, you are making huge errors of judgement.

    I know libertarians are childish in the extreme. They are also irresponsible and will not participate in democratic processes but merely criticise like Bhadralok from the outside. But you do realise that such childishness and irresponsibility can’t be made the benchmark of a functioning ADULT DEMOCRACY.

    I have seen millions of voters in India behave with EXTREME responsibility. And let me tell you that their voice must be respected by any tom dick or hazare who decides that his view is the ONLY view that the country must listen to. We have ONE person ONE vote formula. Everyone’s voice counts equally in India. I know this is hard for statists and “experts” and busybodies and “civil society” to accept – who treat the “janata” with great contempt. But if they pretend to become a Gandhi under a democratic government, they better explain themselves.

    Gandhi at least saw that this method was in-principle wrong, and went to great length to justify himself. But these modern “Gandhis” have not offered even a SHRED of reason why they use this method.


  5. Bhagwad Jal Park

    If you re read my comment, you'll see I'm talking about the PARENTS going on a fast to death – not the other way around. The parents want to emotionally blackmail to the girl not to go for a love marriage.
    This situation isn't very uncommon either.
    So tell me – are the parents "forcing" the girl by threatening to commit suicide?

  6. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Sorry, I misread. Yes, indeed, that’s totally incorrect for parents to do this – assuming the daughter is an adult. Let the daughter do what she thinks best and take responsibility. The girl should inform the parents that they are her well-wishers but don’t own her. And re: two adults (parents) committing suicide on such a matter – I can only say this is a typical case of emotional, irrational suicide. We can only advice them against this option, and move on. Such an act is indefensible and must be condemned.

    Re: are the parents “forcing” the girl? Yes, they are effectively blackmailing the girl. This is grossly incorrect behaviour.

  7. Bhagwad Jal Park

    And see, this is the fundamental point of disagreement between us.
    I use the word "force" only when there's absolutely no way for a person to do something else. Here, the girl CAN just walk away and just let her parents die. Only SHE is stopping herself and no one else.
    Is she being emotionally blackmailed? Yes of course! Is she being FORCED? No.
    Unless the parents make it physically or financially impossible for the girl to walk away, she is NOT being forced or coerced.
    Similarly I believe that no fast unto death can "force" someone to do something. As long as the person has a choice to ignore it, there' s no question of forcing or coercion.

  8. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    You are right – if you restrict your definition of coercion this way. Extreme emotional blackmail is, however, not responsible conduct. That’s my point. And indeed, Gandhi himself FULLY understood that – and therefore put in a huge number of restrictions on his own use of this tool. Gandhi was a responsible man, unlike AH and his “followers” including libertarians of all sorts (regardless of your claims otherwise, you are an irresponsible advocate of liberty – hence a libertarian not a classical liberal). Gandhi’s words are therefore worth reading, AH’s rants not.

    Also, in the case of threats of suicide (whether thro’ fasting or otherwise) the government has a role to PREVENT them, since it is constitutionally bound to defend our lives.

    But to you this won’t make sense – since for you so-called “liberty” and “ownership” of body over-rides everything else. So let’s leave it there.


  9. Shravan

    Dr Sabhlok what do you have to say about drug abuse? Should the government ban drugs using your logic of 'Government is constitutionally mandated to save our lives'?
    This talk of proper regulation is all hot air, this cannot be enforced, either there is regulation or there is not. please read about Ron Paul to understand this.

  10. Shravan

    If government can decide what is good for my body why can't the government decide what is good for my mind? why government cannot ban books?

  11. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Pl. see

    The idea that proper regulation is “hot air” is your call. The reality is that good regulation underpins good institutions, and good institutions underpin markets, which underpin economic growth.

    From Adam Smith onwards, this has been not just theoretically but empirically identified. BFN talks all about the reform of India’s institutions and regulation to ensure these are compatible with world-best practice. That is the easiest way for India to become a corruption-free, prosperous society.


  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    The government does not decide what is good for your body. It is hired to secure our life from violence.

    Should anyone wish to die, he/she can always commit suicide. That is a fundamental animal power everyone has. It is not a “right” (to die) but no one can stop it – provided it is not done publicly: in which case it becomes an obligation for a government (and society) to stop it.

    A book is not a weapon of destruction and no cause exists to prevent books from circulating. But why do you ask? On the one hand you cite Ron Paul and on the other you want book bans. Pl. get your ideas sorted out first.

  13. nvltec

    Fast unto death has been mis understood here. Gandhi's fast unto death was an emotional/political tool where by Gandhi was hurting himslef and inflicting pain upon himself to send signal/appeal to the good part in the British to state that "look because of your misdeeds, I am punishing my self". This worked well not because the Britishers' goodness saw that Gandhi is punishing himself for their misdeeds, but because the msg that Gandhi is on Fast spread everywhere all round the world including the Great Britain, and the common people of Britain spoke about their Govt's misdeeds and cruelty and condemned the Govt of it's actions in India. Gandhi had great support from the common people of Britain. Even when Gandhi aksed Indians to not to buy foreign goods, the London's factories had to cut down productions and lay off people, people were jobless but they supported Gandhi.
    So this kind of fast unto death can either be successful to melt an opposition which has some goodness remaining in their hearts or be successful against someone who fears a voter's backlash in the next elections. Anna Hazare and Ramdev are pitted against a different kind of hybrid Organization with no mercy and devoid of any humanity.
    So no amount of Hunger strike by who so ever will not work against this kind of governance. Gandhi's hunger strikes worked well in his times because Gandhi knew the pulse of the British and where it will pinch the most. Gandhi with his hunger strikes were ditto on the spot. Anna Hazare and Ramdev is clueless about the insanity/deafness of the present day. So in my opinion,[may be useless advise for All such teams] is that, just like Gandhi, they should pinch the govt where it hurts the most. And in the present day circumstances, the only institution that pinches the govt most is 'Judiciary'. It will be difficult and slow process, but continued pressure delivers as we see in 2G case. So they should turn to the judiciary and challenge Govt from Legality points of views of it's laws and rules, and RTI can be used as an effective tool.
    The present day govt is like a rudderless ship whose master/captain is busy in pleasing his higher up and the higher up is busy supporting the Missionaries who are the only tool which can push the minority to 45% population guaranteeing the majority seats in the next elections. Media is spineless and to expect anything from it is like expecting moon/sun. So the only last question that remains to be asked urgently to the common man is "AAB TERA KYA HOGA KAALIYA??"


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