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In political anthropology, the hunger strike is seen as a front-of-stage social drama. It is a cultural performance for a broad audience. It is not just the hunger striker who is on stage. The authorities, politicians, media and general public all become performers in the drama too. Their behaviour and responses to the hunger striker are there for all to see. In this sense, a hunger strike is a “communicative act,” one clearly intended by the individual undertaking it.
Yet generally and somewhat peculiarly, the hunger striker him- or herself tends not to be held responsible for the intended consequences of their action. That is, the striker ascribes intentions to their action but it is the Government that should and would be held responsible for the consequences of letting a hunger striker die.
A long history and tradition of hunger strikes around the world illustrates this. Most generally, researchers have come to describe such strikes as a tool of the politically disenfranchised. They are a means of empowering the powerless by using the weight of public opinion against the powerful. A jiu-jitsu ethic, if you will, to get a much stronger political opponent to grant particular demands that they don’t agree with and would not for the most part consider granting.
As the Irish Republican Terence MacSwiney, who died after being on a hunger strike for 74 days in 1920, suggested: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will conquer.” A famous example of this includes members of the Suffragettes’ Movement from early 20th-century Britain who, when imprisoned, refused to eat.
The prison authorities were worried the public would hold them responsible if a hunger striker died in custody and this often led to early release or force-feeding. The latter— a violent experience—was of great symbolic value and the Suffragettes recognised this early on, successfully using the strategy of public outrage to force the Government into changes.
In popular consciousness, the most famous hunger striker is Gandhi. Technically, however, Gandhi wasn’t actually a hunger striker, but developing and practising his version of the philosophy Satyagraha— a fast and form of non-violent resistance designed to convert those in power rather than coerce them.
One reason suggested for why hunger strikers are credited with the intention to strike but absolved of the responsibility for its effects on themselves is the absence of choice. As the striker has no political channel left open to him or her, the personal becomes political. There is nothing else they can do to get political power to listen, hence they cannot be held responsible for the consequences of their actions.
Another reason is that unlike other forms of life-threatening communicative acts like self-immolation (setting oneself on fire) or standing in front of a tank, there is a relatively long time period between the beginning of the hunger strike and its end. Researchers suggest this interval allows the hunger striker to displace the responsibility for his/her political act onto the powerful in a way that other extreme political acts don’t.
Any analysis of the hunger strike as cultural phenomenon should not be taken to mean that a person embarking on a hunger strike is not “deadly” serious. Nor should we imagine that hunger strikes are a regular event and occurrence. While it is hard to provide a true account of the frequency of hunger strikes around the world, some researchers have tried to compile a figure. That number is far less than one might imagine.
Between 1906 and 2004 the estimate is 1,441 reported hunger strikes across 127 different countries, with the median strike duration being 12 days. Of course the data might be shaky, but a low incidence would suggest the hunger strike is a final and last resort of the politically disenfranchised.
And that is a key point revealed in the literature. One of the clear things about hunger strikes is that they generally emerge when there is little hope or opportunity for change within the existing political system. As such, their existence is said to be symptomatic of a damaged political culture.
In that sense, whether one agrees with Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike or not isn’t the only drama in front of us. Rather, the spectacle that his symbolic and life-threatening protest puts on stage for everyone to see clearly is just how damaged our post-Independent, neo-colonial, class-based society and political culture really is.
• Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI,