Prisoners engaged in “extra-legal” nonviolent protest have of course a short menu of means from which to select from, and a hunger strike is one of the more prominent and time-honored such means. A hunger strike is similar to “fasting,” but the two are not identical, as the latter is often motivated by medical or religious reasons, while the former is more frequently undertaken in a largely socio-economic or political context of some sort. In India, for example, a hunger strike (dhurna), has long been a weapon of “passive resistance,” employed by entire communities to shame a ruler into granting their just demands, for example, or even by creditors sitting “at the door of debtors who ignored legitimate claims on them.” In more intimate spheres like the family, a fast has frequently been used as “a means of arousing the conscience of a loved one,” a practice that serves to blur the boundaries between a hunger strike and a fast. Moreover, a “fast” can take on political dimensions,* as was the case with Mahatma Gandhi (who happened to set quite stringent standards for employing this ‘fiery weapon’ of last resort from the armory of satyāgraha) and, in our country, César Chávez who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, better known later as the United Farm Workers (UFW). While Chávez fasted under the justificatory rubric of “spiritual personal transformation” and thus for Catholic penitential reasons, there was an ineluctable political aspect involving nonviolent protest and preparation for civil disobedience campaigns.
Incidentally, my interest in this topic is not attributable solely to the fact that “[h]unger strikes have deep roots in Irish society and in the Irish psyche,” with the 1981 hunger strike coming quickest to mind owing in part to the fact that its leader, Bobby Sands, was elected to the United Kingdom Parliament during its course, although he soon died as a result of the hunger strike at HM Prison Maze in Northern Ireland (ten prisoners starved themselves to death before the strike was called off).
See too this post by Sara Mayeux (of Prison Law Blog fame) at The Informant, the crime-and-punishment blog of NPR affiliate, KALW. And I have a post from last year titled “Cruel and Unusual Punishments” that may be of interest.
*A fairly recent exemplary instance of this took place among the revolutionary and reformist democratic opposition in Poland from 1976-1981. In particular, members of KOR, the Workers’ Defense Committee (later: Komitet Samoobrony Społecznej KOR/Social Self-Defense Committee, KSS-‘KOR’) engaged in several fasts believed to clearly reflect a “Christian ethos” even among majority of its non-religious member: hence, for example, the title of Jacek Kurón’s essay (published in Znak under the pen name Elzbieta Borucka), “A Christian Without God.” In this case, such an ethos meant refusing to make a distinction between “private” and “public” ethics, a refusal perversely reinforced within an authoritarian society when ostensibly private or intimate behavior often has, for better and worse, political reverberations. Recall that it was KOR that played a direct “service” role in the emergence of Solidarity (or Solidarność, the first non-Communist party-controlled trade union in the Warsaw Pact countries) in 1980. Fasts in which KOR and other opposition members participated took place in the first instance at Catholic churches (which provided some measure of political ‘protection’), although sympathizers unable for one reason or another to frequent the churches fasted in support of these collective nonviolent protests. Fasts were undertaken on behalf of the release of imprisoned workers and in solidarity with Czechs fasting in defense of political prisoners. The “spillover” or “by-product” effects of one such fast is intriguing, as it was said to
“create an atmosphere of seriousness and deep concentration, which was achieved not at the price of isolation, but in relation to others, to the human ties and feelings among friends. In addition, the fast united both believers and non-believers around common values and the goals ensuing from them, and therefore it became a great event of what might be called ethical ecumenical significance.” Please see the book from which this quote was taken for further discussion of this and other methods of nonviolent action employed by KOR: Jan Jósef Lipski (Olga Amsterdamska and Gene M. Moore, tr.). KOR: Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland, 1976-1981. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
For a list of ”further reading” please see the cross-post.