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Can the hungry go on a hunger strike?

(by ARUNTHATHI ROY) Our country is poised at a dangerous place right now for many reasons. There are all kinds of battles for supremacy. There are real resistances, there are theatrical and false resistances, revolutions from the top, revolutions from the bottom. And sometimes all of this is interpreted by an increasingly hysterical media which doesn't allow space for reflection, for thought, that will only bombard, control the public imagination. Deep inside the forest in a tribal village, when 500 policemen surround and burn your village and there is no TV camera, you can't go on a hungerstrike. You can only fight back. In any case, can the hungry go on a hungerstrike? What does a hunger strike mean in a country where 49 per cent children are malnourished and perennially hungry? Our county is poised at a dangerous place right now.

At times like this, activists and writers have the job to try and understand what is going on, not just what appears to be going on. That is what I think about a lot and try to play my part. Right now, while we are watching 24 hours, seven-day week coverage of one particular kind of movement, what is not being told to us is that the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force are preparing to be deployed to be used against the poorest of the poor in the forests of central India. I am not on the streets and I am not wearing the cap that says `I am Anna'. I am rather uncomfortable with what is going on. I find it difficult to understand how you can even have a conversation when the only answers you can receive are `Vande Mataram' and `Bharat Mata Ki Jai'. I think when people are fighting corruption, the fundamental thing is to understand what we mean by corruption. Is it just an accounting problem, is it just financial irregularity or bribery? Or is corruption the currency of social transaction in a very unequal society, in which power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and so we address that.

Let us say, we are living in a city of shopping malls, where hawkers are illegal. If there is a woman on the road who sells samosas in a cart and pays the municipal officer and the police, is that a crime? Will she have to pay the Lokpal too? Are we creating two oligarchies that she has to deal with? If the Lokpal is meant to oversee from Prime Minister to the lowest government functionary, may be at the top you will have 11 morally upright people, carefully chosen, but you are creating an entire bureaucracy that is a second oligarchy. The other big problem, I have with this is that this agitation began when the country was dealing with a series of scams that implicated the government, opposition, media, corporations, NGOs, judiciary. Those 2G conversations laid bare the entire nexus of corruption in which all these people were involved. Obviously, the people who were making all the money were the corporations but in this agitation which is now being sponsored by some corporates, the NGOs, the corporates, the media have been left out. This at a time when the corporates and NGOs are taking over the traditional functions of the government. They are taking over electricity supply, water supply, phones, roads, education, health. Then I would have imagined the Lokpal Bill would bring these people also in its jurisdiction. But instead they have been left out and by continuously hammering away only at the corruption of the government, it is creating a platform where they are asking for less government, more reforms, more privatisation, more liberalisation. All these things have led to huge amounts of corruption. So you have a situation where there is a collapse of representative democracy. There is not a single institution in the country where the poor can go for justice. We have a legislature full of millionaires and what is sought to be created is another side of oligarchy. Power is concentrated once again in fewer hands. In some ways, oddly enough, in totally different ways, what the Maoists are fighting for and what this Jan Lokpal Bill is about, both in some ways seek to overthrow the Indian state in different ways. One through armed struggle and the other in a bloodless, Gandhian coup. But both seek to do that. One from the bottom, one from the top. I would say we need to look at what is going on quite closely to understand it more deeply than the clamour with slogans. There is no doubt we are in a crisis but is this the solution to that crisis is something to think about. When the Jan Lokpal movement started, the government, the Opposition, the corporation, the media needed cover because they were disgraced and in an unprecedented move, a joint drafting committee was agreed to. But the government then forgot all about it and tabled its own Bill. A Bill that is so flawed and ridiculous that you can't take it seriously. It is a Bill that protects the accused and punishes the person complaining.

On August 16, by arresting Anna Hazare, they allowed the movement to spin in a new direction. It was outrageous to arrest him when he had not even begun to break the law. By doing that, they allowed it to coalesce into the right to protest and what people started to call the second Independence struggle. Within 12 hours, he was released but was allowed to stay on in a high-security prison, was allowed to send out video messages that were broadcast nationally again and again. The movement was built over those three days of fasting for the right to fast. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi's 250 employees, six bulldozers and 15 trucks were working day and night to prepare Ram Lila ground for the fast. Now the fast is happening, with the most expensive doctors, with 24-hour TV coverage and there is no other news except that. The irony is the government is collaborating in the effort to overthrow itself in this movement and we have to wonder why. During the reforms in the 90s, the government spoke about how it was corrupt and there was systemic corruption and so privatisation was needed. Corruption was used as a reason for systemic change. When privatisation happened and corruption increased hugely, it suddenly became a moral problem and the solution is more privatisation. So the Prime Minister says more privatisation, the newspapers and TV channels campaigning say we must do second round of reforms, take away government's discretionary powers. It is a situation that is not easy to decode, when so much noise is around. And then they talk of the right to protest. The right to protest of the people in Posco, Kalinganagar, Dandakaranya were taken away a long time ago. Even in Delhi, at the Jantar Mantar, people from Bhopal or the Narmada Valley cannot stay overnight. The Right to Protest is only for the middleclass. People running this campaign, many of them have generously funded NGOs. But the NGOs. corporates, media have been left out of Lokpal whereas they are forming public opinion in this country. People are shutting their brain and shouting slogans. Many people who feel genuinely humiliated by corruption, may be the gun is being fired from their shoulder. It is not true that people have suddenly woken up. All over, there are people who know exactly what is happening and will explain to you what

salinisation is, what waterlogging is, because they experience it, in places like Dandakaranya, Posco, Kalinga Nagar. When you talk of the `Fast', you only mean Anna Hazare's fast. Right now, 10,000 villagers in Koodankulam are on a relay hunger-fast against a nuclear plant. Sharmila Irom has been on a fast for 10 years against an Act that allows soldiers to kill on mere suspicion. But we are not talking about these fasts. It is wrong to assume that people are all asleep and suddenly someone has woken them up. People have been awake. They know about their issues. They are not voiceless, they are deliberately silenced. Deep inside the forest in a tribal village, when 500 policemen surround and burn your village and there is no TV camera, you can't go on a hungerstrike. You can only fight back. In any case, can the hungry go on a hungerstrike? What does a hunger strike mean in a country where 49 per cent children are malnourished and perennially hungry? Our county is poised at a dangerous place right now.