Thoughts on economics and liberty

Tag: Suicide

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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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.

b) Mahasamadhi, and fasting to death for a public cause
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.

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Research into Gandhi’s views on suicide and fasting #3

I've found two statements about fasting by Gandhi (Vol.61). These are reproduced here without comment.


By M.K. Gandhi in [April 30, 1933], published in The Harijan, under the title, “Fast for Purification”.

A tempest has been raging within me for some days. I have been struggling against it. On the eve of the ‘Harijan Day’ the voice became insistent, and said, ‘why don’t you do it?’ I resisted it. But the resistance was vain. And the resolution was made to go on an unconditional and irrevocable fast for twentyone days, commencing from Monday noon the 8th May and ending on Monday noon the 29th May.
As I look back upon the immediate past, many are the causes too sacred to mention that must have precipitated the fast. But they are all connected with the great Harijan cause. The fast is against nobody in particular and against everybody who wants to participate in the joy of it, without for the time-being having to fast himself or herself. But it is particularly against myself. It is a heart-prayer for the purification of self and associates, for greater vigilance and watchfulness. But nobody who appreciates the step about to be taken is to join me. Any such fast will be a torture of themselves and of me.
Let this fast, however, be a preparation for many such fasts to be taken by purer and more deserving persons than myself. During all these months since September last, I have been studying the correspondence and literature and holding prolonged discussions with men and women, learned and ignorant, Harijans and non-Harijans. The evil is far greater than even I had thought it to be. It will not be eradicated by money, external organization and even political power for Harijans, though all these three are necessary. But to be effective, they must follow or at least accompany inward wealth, inward organization and inward power, in other words, self-purification. This can only come by fasting and prayer. We may not approach the God of Truth in the arrogance of strength, but in the meekness of the weak and the helpless.
But the mere fast of the body is nothing without the will behind it. It must be a genuine confession of the inner fast, an irrepressible longing to express truth and nothing but truth. therefore, those only are privileged to fast for the cause of truth who have worked for it and who have love in them even for opponents, who are free from animal passion and who have abjured earthly possessions and ambition. No one, therefore, may undertake, without previous preparation and discipline, the fast I have foreshadowed.
Let there be no misunderstanding about the impending fast. I have no desire to die. I want to live for the cause, though I hope I am equally prepared to die for it. But I need for me and my fellow-workers greater purity, greater application and dedication. I want more workers of unassailable purity. Shocking cases of impurity have come under my notice. I would like my fast to be an urgent appeal to such people to leave the cause alone.
I know that many of my sanatanist friends and others think that the movement is a deep political game. How I wish this fast would convince them that it is purely religious.
If God has more service to take from this body, He will hold it together despite deprivation of earthly food. He will send me spiritual food. But He works through earthly agents, and everyone who believes in the imperative necessity of removing untouchability will send me the food I need, by working to the best of his or her ability for the due and complete fulfilment of the pledge given to Harijans in the name of caste Hindus.
Let co-workers not get agitated over the coming fast. They should feel strengthened by it. They must not leave their post of duty; and those who have temporarily retired for much needed rest or for being cured of ailments are as much at the post as healthy workers serving in their respective quarters. No one should come to me unless it be for necessary consultation on matters connected with the movement.
It is, I hope, needless for me to pray to friends that they will not ask me to postpone, abandon or vary the approaching fast in any way whatsoever. I ask them to believe me that the fast has come to me literally as described above. I, therefore, ask friends in India and all the world over to pray for me and with me that I may safely pass through the ordeal and that, whether I live or die, the cause for which the fast is to be undertaken may prosper.
And may I ask my sanatanist friends to pray that, whatever be the result of the fast for me, the golden lid that hides Truth may be removed?
By M.K.Gandhi in Harijan, 8 July 1933
It is, perhaps, meet that the very first writing for the Press I should attempt after the fast should be for the Harijan, and that in connection with the fast. God willing, I hope now to contribute my weekly quota to the Harijan as before the fast. Let no one, however, run away with the idea that I have regained my pre-fast capacity for work. I have still to be very careful how I work. Correspondents will, therefore, have mercy on me. They should know that for a while yet I shall be unable to cope with all their letters. Whatever they may have for my special attention will have still to wait for some time, probably yet another month. Who knows what will happen a month hence? We are short-lived and do not know even what will happen the next moment. Then what can one say about the ambitions of a Harijan worker like myself? To those who buy and read Harijanbandhu in a spirit of service, my advice is that they should not wait for my writings and opinions. The way for rendering service to Harijans is quite clear. The field is vast. Harijanbandhu endeavours to give an idea of the week’s activities. It also attempts to indicate what needs to be done, what can be done and how it is to be done. From that all could find one or the other way of service. Then where is the need of my writing or opinion? If I am tempted to write about it, it is only for my own satisfaction. I have to write only when I have something to say or explain to the readers. I hope readers won’t be disheartened and will maintain their relations with Harijanbandhu irrespective of whether I have something to write or not and whether I have the strength and the leisure.
Now for the fast.
The first question that has puzzled many is about the Voice of God. What was it? What did I hear? Was there any person I saw? If not, how was the Voice conveyed to me? These are pertinent questions.
For me the voice of God, of Conscience, of Truth or the Inner Voice or ‘the still small Voice’ mean one and the same thing. I saw no form. I have never tried, for I have always believed God to be without form. One who realizes God is freed from sin for ever. He has no desire to be fulfilled. Not even in his thoughts will he suffer from faults, imperfections or impurities. Whatever he does will be perfect because he does nothing himself but the God within him does everything. He is completely merged in Him. Such realization comes to one among tens of millions. That it can come I have no doubt at all. I yearn to have such realization but I have not got it yet and I know that I am yet very far from it. The inspiration I had was quite a different thing. Moreover, many get such inspiration quite often or at some time. There is certainly need for a particular type of sadhana1 to obtain such inspiration. If some efforts and some sadhana are necessary even to acquire the ability to have the commonest thing, what wonder if efforts and sadhana are needed to get divine inspiration? The inspiration I got was this: The night I got the inspiration, I had a terrible inner struggle. My mind was restless. I could see no way. The burden of my responsibility was crushing me. But what I did hear was like a Voice from afar and yet quite near. It was as unmistakable as some human voice definitely speaking to me, and irresistible. I was not dreaming at the time I heard the Voice. The hearing of the Voice was preceded by a terrific struggle within me. Suddenly the Voice came upon me. I listened, made certain that it was the Voice, and the struggle ceased. I was calm. The determination was made accordingly, the date and the hour of the fast were fixed. Joy came over me. This was between 11 and 12 midnight. I felt refreshed and began to write the note about it which the reader must have seen.
Could I give any further evidence that it was truly the Voice that I heard and that it was not an echo of my own heated imagination? I have no further evidence to convince the sceptic. He is free to say that it was all self-delusion or hallucination. It may well have been so. I can offer no proof to the contrary. But I can say this—that not the unanimous verdict of the whole world against me could shake me from the belief that what I heard was the true voice of God.
But some think that God Himself is a creation of our own imagination. If that view holds good, then nothing is real, everything is of our own imagination. Even so, whilst my imagination dominates me, I can only act under its spell. Realest things are only relatively so. For me the Voice was more real than my own existence. It has never failed me, and for that matter, anyone else.
And everyone who wills can hear the Voice. It is within everyone. But like everything else, it requires previous and definite preparation.
The second question that has puzzled many is whether a fast in which an army of doctors watch and guide the fasting person, as they undoubtedly and with extraordinary care and attention watched and guided me, when he is coddled in various other ways as I was, could be described as a fast in answer to the call of the Inner Voice. Put thus, the objection seems valid. It would undoubtedly have been more in keeping with the high claim made for the fast, if it had been unattended with all the extraordinary, external aids that it was my good fortune or misfortune to receive.
But I do not repent of having gratefully accepted the generous help that kind friends extended to me. I was battling against death. I accepted all the help that came to me as godsend, when it did not in any way affect my vow.
As I think over the past, I am not sorry for having taken the fast. Though I suffered bodily pain and discomfort, there was indescribable peace within. I have enjoyed peace during all my fasts but never so much as in this. Perhaps, the reason was that there was nothing to look forward to. In the previous fasts there was some tangible expectation. In this there was nothing tangible to expect. There was undoubtedly faith that it must lead to purification of self and others and that workers would know that true Harijan service was impossible without inward purity. This, however, is a result that could not be measured or known in a tangible manner. I had, therefore, withdrawn within myself.
The nature of the fast deserves some more consideration. Was it mere mortification of the flesh? I firmly believe that a fast taken for mortification of the flesh does some good from the medical point of view; apart from that it produces no particular effect. I know my fast was not at all meant for the mortification of the flesh. Nor was I ready for it. The time of the fast was beyond my imagination. From the letters then written to friends it is clear that I did not foresee any immediate fast. For me, this fast was a supplication or prayer to God coming from the depth of my heart. The fast was an uninterrupted twenty-one days, prayer whose effect I can feel even now. I know now more fully than ever that there is no prayer without fasting, be the latter ever so little. And this fasting relates not merely to the palate, but all the senses and organs. Complete absorption in prayer must mean complete exclusion of physical activities till prayer possesses the whole of our being and we rise superior to, and are completely detached from, all physical functions. That state can only be reached after continual and voluntary crucifixion of the flesh. Thus all fasting, if it is a spiritual act, is an intense prayer or a preparation for it. It is a yearning of the soul to merge in the divine essence. My last fast was intended to be such a preparation. How far I have succeeded, how far I am in tune with the Infinite, I do not know. But I do know that the fast has made the passion for such a state intenser than ever.
Looking back upon the fast, I felt it to have been as necessary as I felt it was when I entered upon it. It has resulted in some revelations of impurities among workers of which I had no knowledge whatsoever, and but for the fast I would never have gained that knowledge. All the letters that have come under my notice go to show that it has led to greater purification among the workers. The fast was meant not for the purification of known workers only who had been found wanting, but for all the workers, known and unknown, in the Harijan cause. Nothing probably could have brought home to the workers so well as this fast the fact that the movement is purely religious in the highest sense of the term, to be handled in a religious spirit by workers of character above reproach.
The work of removal of untouchability is not merely a social or economic reform whose extent can be measured by so much social amenities or economic relief provided in so much time. Its goal is to touch the hearts of the millions of Hindus who honestly believe in the present-day untouchability as a God-made institution, as old as the human race itself. This, it will be admitted, is a task infinitely higher than mere social and economic reform. Its accomplishment undoubtedly includes all these and much more. For it means nothing short of a complete revolution in the Hindu thought and the disappearance of the horrible and terrible doctrine of inborn inequality and high-and-lowness, which has poisoned Hinduism and is slowly undermining its very existence. Such a change can only be brought about by an appeal to the highest in man. And I am more than ever convinced that that appeal can be made effective only by self-purification, i.e., by fasting conceived as the deepest prayer coming from a lacerated heart.
I believe that the invisible effect of such fasting is far greater and far more extensive than the visible effect. The conviction has, therefore, gone deeper in me that my fast is but the beginning of a chain of true voluntary fasts by men and women who have qualified themselves by previous preparation for them and who believe in prayer as the most effective method of reaching the heart of things. How that chain can be established I do not know as yet. But I am striving after it. If it can be established, I know that it will touch, as nothing else will, the hearts of Hindus, both the opponents of reform and the Harijans. For the Harijans have also to play their part in the movement no less than the reformers and the opponents. And I am glad to be able to inform the reader that the Harijans have not been untouched by the fast. A number of letters received from abroad suggest that even there many hearts have awakened. If an imperfect fast by a man like me could create such awakening, who could then estimate how great and far-reaching the result would be if innocent men and women unassumingly, without any hope of medical or other aid and without one or the other concession, sacrifice their lives in an unbroken chain of fasts?
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Research into Gandhi’s views on suicide and fasting #2

Back from the gym. This intriguing topic is compelling me to study the issue some more. Hence a second tranche of research findings, to be (separately) followed by another – an entire article by Gandhi on fasting. 


Yet Gandhi did not advocate the mere exaltation of life as an end in itself; nor did he believe in martyrdom. He said about a follower of his, who was threatening to fast unto death to gain his interest and was on the point of death: "I would rather that he lost his life than that untruth succeeded." And he shocked some of his more orthodox and literal interpreters of ahimsa, when he permitted the doctor to put to sleep, by an injection, a calf in his ashram which was in excruciating pain. [Source: N. A. Nikam, Gandhi's Philosophy, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Jun., 1954), pp. 668-678]


This one is from: Anthony Parel, Symbolism in Gandhian Politics, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), pp. 513-527


Of all the Gandhian symbols, fasting was probably the most typical. It represented the following set of values. First the value of vicarious suffering in political action. Gandhi believed that all social and political conflicts had a dimension of sinfulness, and that atonement for them, by means of vicarious suffering, was necessary.Through the use of this symbol one sought to remind the community of the spiritual and moral foundations of social and political relations, and to reduce, if possible, the volume of moral evil in oneself and in society, and consequently, the volume of political violence. The most obvious example of the use of this symbol is Gandhi's famous fasts to restore political harmony between Hindus and Muslims.

Secondly, fasting was a means of self-purification, of acquiring mastery of the spirit over the body, of obtaining spiritual clarity in times of political and social confusion.

Thirdly, fasting represented the value of voluntary suffering. In conflict situations one resorted to it as a means of non-violent political persuasion. Gandhi attached very stringent conditions to the adoption of this symbol in the political arena. First of all, one had to take into account the state of the public opinion in regard to the effectiveness of the fast.' Secondly the issue on which a fast is contemplated must be just. Thirdly, the motive which prompts fasting must be the vindication of truth and justice as the one who fasts sees them, and not embarrassment or blackmail of the adversary. Fourthly, one must be sure, at least subjectively, of a divine inspiration to undertake the fast.

Because of the difficulty in meeting these conditions, and because of the abuses most likely to occur, Gandhi most frequently discouraged others from using this symbol. He claimed for himself an expert knowledge of how and when to use this symbol. Gandhi's idea was that great moral integrity was required for the effective use of this symbol; otherwise it would be merely an exploitation of the public's high regard for a spiritual act."
Gandhi had also a strict code of manipulating the fast-symbol. After fulfilling all the conditions mentioned above, the one who fasts must declare his intention to fast to the public, to the individual or group in regard to whom the fast is going to be undertaken. This must be followed by bargaining and negotiations. If the negotiations fail, the fast must be actually undertaken. During the fast, however, negotiations must be continued. Such devices as press conferences, private meetings with the "adversary," mass petitions, pacification councils, joint declarations, even token sympathy fasts, hartal (that is a token general strike for a specific period of time), renunciation of public honors and offices may also be used to press home the truth and justice of the issue involved.
If there are related symbols they may also be utilized during the time of fasts. Thus during the first fast, undertaken to restore Hindu-Muslim harmony, Gandhi stayed in the home of his famous Muslim friends, the Ali brothers. Similarly, if the fast was undertaken to restore religious harmony, during the days of the fast, sections from the sacred books of the relevant religions would be read, and appropriate religious hymns would be sung by eminent leaders. Gandhi attached great dramatic significance to the manner of ending a fast. For example, the famous fast in favour of the outcastes, undertaken in 1933, was supposed to have been ended by Gandhi taking the glass of orange juice from the hands of an Outcaste. Similarly, the Calcutta fast of 1947, undertaken to restore Hindu-Muslim peace was ended when Mr. Suhrawardy, the Muslim leader (and later the chief minister of East Bengal), handed the orange juice, and the last fast (1948), undertaken also for Hindu-Muslim peace, was ended with Abul Kalam Azad, the Muslim minister of education handing the orange juice. Gandhi clearly understood mass psychology, and the fact that without the aid of political imagination and political emotions the most rational and just of political goals could never be restored. He verified this insight by the method of manipulating the fast-symbol.
The virtues particularly relevant to the effective use of the fast-symbol were chastity, truth, and fortitude. For fasting was a means "for the attainment of the spirit's supremacy over the flesh," of "crucifying the flesh" which was necessary for the practice of Gandhian politics. With the aid of fast one acquired spiritual vision, and thus arrived at a better grasp of the truth of the question involved." Recall also Gandhi's dictum, "What eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner." And without fortitude one could not endure the hardships and suffering involved in the use of this symbol.'

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