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 [http://india.5thpillar.org/], and the Anti Corruption Movement Chennai, [http://anticorruptionchennai.com]


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.