Terence MacSwiney, Hunger-Striking, and the Intertwined Histories of India & Ireland

No one in India today remembers the name of Terence MacSwiney, but in his own day his name reverberated throughout the country.  He was such a legend that, when the Bengali revolutionary Jatin Das, a key figure in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army and a comrade of Bhagat Singh, died from a prolonged hunger-strike in September 1929, he was canonized as ‘India’s own Terence MacSwiney’.

Terence MacSwiney died this day, October 25th, in 1920.  Ireland, in the common imagination, is a land of poetry, anguished lovers, political rebels, verdant greenery—and drunkards. All of this may be true; one can certainly spend far too many evenings in an Irish pub, downing a pint of Guinness or Harp.  MacSwiney was a poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and a political revolutionary who got himself elected as Lord Mayor of Cork, in south-west Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence. Indian nationalists followed events in Ireland closely, for though people of Irish extraction may have played an outsized role in the brutalization of India during the British Raj, the Irish themselves were dehumanized by the English and waged a heroic anti-colonial resistance.  In India, the Irish were called upon to suppress such resistance.  One has only to call to mind Reginald Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, who though born in Murree (now in Pakistan) was educated at Middleton College in County Cork and subsequently at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons, and Michael O’Dwyer, the Limerick-born Irishman who as Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab gave Dyer a free hand and even valorized the mass murder of Indians as a ‘military necessity’.

England did little in India that they had not previously done in Ireland, pauperizing the country and treating the Irish as a sub-human species.  The Irish were ridiculed as gullible Catholics who gave their allegiance to the Pope.  They were no better, from the English standpoint, than the superstitious Hindus.  MacSwiney, born in 1879, came to political activism in his late 20s, and by 1913-14 he had assumed a position of some importance both in the Irish Volunteers, an organization founded ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’, and the Sinn Fein, a political party that advocated for the independence of the Irish.  He was active during the ill-fated Easter Rebellion of April 1916, an armed insurrection that lasted all of six days before the British Army suppressed it with artillery and a massive military force.  Much of Dublin was reduced to rubble. It is unlikely that the uprising would have disappeared into the mists of history, but in any case William Butler Yeats was there to immortalize ‘Easter 1916’:  ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’  For the following four years, MacSwiney was in and out of British prisons, interned as a political detainee.

It is, however, the hunger-strike that MacSwiney undertook in August 1920 that would bring him to the attention of India and the rest of the world.  He was arrested on August 12 on charges of being in possession of ‘seditious articles and documents’—an all too familiar scenario in present-day India—and was within days convicted by a court that sentenced him to a two-year sentence to be served out at Brixton Prison in England.  MacSwiney declared before the tribunal, ‘I have decided the term of my imprisonment.  Whatever your government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’  He at once started on a hunger-strike, protesting that the military court which had tried him had no jurisdiction over him, and eleven other Republican prisoners joined him.  It was one thing for the large Irish diasporic population in the United States, whose predilection for Irish Republicanism was pronounced, to support him; but far more arresting was the fact that from Madrid to Rome, from Buenos Aires to New York and beyond to South Australia, the demand for MacSwiney’s release was voiced not only by the working class, but by political figures as different as Mussolini and the black nationalist Marcus Garvey.  The days stretched on, and his supporters pleaded with him to give up his hunger-strike; meanwhile, in prison, the British attempted to force-feed him.  On October 20, MacSwiney fell into a coma; seventy-four days into his hunger-strike, on October 25, he succumbed.

The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Euston, London, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M
The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Cork, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M

In India, MacSwiney’s travails had similarly taken the country by storm.  It is assumed by many, as a matter of course, that Gandhi was greatly ‘influenced’ by MacSwiney, but though he was doubtless moved by his resolve, patriotism, and endurance, Gandhi distinguished between the ‘fast’ and the ‘hunger-strike’.  Nevertheless, MacSwiney was a hero to armed revolutionaries—and to Jawaharlal Nehru.  Writing some years after MacSwiney’s death to his daughter Indira, Nehru noted that the Irishman’s hunger-strike ‘thrilled Ireland’ and indeed the world:  ‘When put in gaol he declared that he would come out, alive or dead, and gave up taking food.  After he had fasted for seventy-five days his dead body was carried out of the gaol.’  It is unquestionably MacSwiney’s example, rather than that of Gandhi, that Bhagat Singh, Bhatukeshwar Dutt, and others implicated in the Lahore Conspiracy Case had in mind when in mid-1929 they commenced a hunger-strike to be recognized as ‘political prisoners’.  That hunger-strike was joined by the Bengali political activist and bomb-maker, Jatindranath Das, in protest against the deplorable conditions in jail and in defence of the rights of political prisoners.  Jatin died after 63 days on 13 September 1929.  The nation grieved:  as Nehru would record in his autobiography, ‘Jatin Das’s death created a sensation all over the country.’  Das would receive virtually a state funeral in Calcutta and Subhas Bose was among the pallbearers.

A nationalist print from around 1930 called ‘Bharat Ke MacSwiney’ (‘India’s MacSwiney’).  It shows Jatindranath Das, who died on the 63rd day of his hunger-strike on 13 September 1929, in the lap of Bharat Mata, reposing in ‘eternal sleep’ having done his duty to the nation.  Image:  Courtesy of Vinay Lal.

Though Gandhi was the master of the fast, the modern history of hunger-striking begins with Terence MacSwiney. It is quite likely that Gandhi recognized, more particularly after MacSwiney’s martyrdom, how the hunger-strike as a form of political theatre could galvanize not just a nation but world opinion.  However, the life story of MacSwiney should resonate in India for many other reasons besides the singularity of MacSwiney’s admirable defence of the rights of his own people.  As I have suggested, England under-developed Ireland before laying India to waste, and Ireland was in many respects as much a laboratory as India for British policies with regard to land settlement, taxation, famine relief, the suppression of dissent, and much else. It is equally a highly disconcerting fact that the story of the Irish in India suggests that those who have been brutalized will in turn brutalize others.  The precise role of the Irish in the colonization of India requires much further study.  On the other hand, the legend of Terence MacSwiney points to the exhilarating if complicated history, which in recent years has begun to be explored by some scholars, of the solidarity of the Irish and the Indians.  Indians have long been familiar, for instance, with the figure of the Irishwoman Annie Beasant, but transnational expressions of such solidarity took many forms.  At a time when the world seems convulsed by insularity and xenophobic nationalism, the story of MacSwiney points to the critical importance of sympathy across borders.

*Fast, Counter-Fast, Anti-Fast

An epidemic of fasting has of late engulfed India.  Some months ago, the social reformer Anna Hazare, whose activities over the last three decades had been largely confined to his village Ralegan Siddhi or the area around it, or at most to his native Maharashtra, burst upon the national scene with a 5-day fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to highlight the problem of corruption.  Hazare again pressed his demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill with a spectacular show of force at the Ramlila Grounds in August, and much of India’s attention was riveted on the 74-year old man who, having put his body on the line with an indefinite fast, seemed to have stunned the government into submission.  Many decades ago, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, George Orwell, in an appreciative if critical assessment of his life, marveled at the fact that Gandhi would take a public decision to fast and, as it seemed to Orwell, the entire country would come to a standstill –– not once, or twice, but on a dozen or more occasions.  Not for nothing was Gandhi the Mahatma.  Some in our times have marveled at the fact that a former truck driver who has something of the appearance of a country bumpkin, and who seems to have little in his personal appearance, demeanor, oratorical skill, or worldview that might resonate with the middle classes, should be the one to revive memories of a time when Gandhian nonviolent resistance rewrote the rules governing dissent.

 

When Hazare went on a fast, so did 65 other men and women at Azad Maidan in Mumbai.  Seventeen of them persisted to the end, breaking their fast on the thirteenth day alongside Hazare.  One other who followed in Hazare’s wake has now come into the limelight:  Anna Hazare and Narendra Modi, the detractors of both say, are joined at the hip. They have openly expressed admiration for each other, though Hazare has stated that his advocacy of Modi does not extend beyond the Chief Minister’s apparent skills in shepherding Gujarat to the model ‘development state’ in India.  Two weeks ago, Modi commenced his ‘Sadbhavana’ mission, and his letter to the public, issued as a full-page advertisement in newspapers across India and featured on his slick website, which is available in five languages, described his 72-hour fast as ‘a prayer for togetherness’.

 

The twenty first century, wrote Modi, ‘did not begin well for Gujarat.  In 2001, the devastating earthquake on our Republic day, took a very heavy toll.  In the subsequent year, Gujarat became the victim of communal violence.  We lost innocent lives, suffered devastation of property and endured lot of pain.’  Many see this statement as the first expression of atonement by Modi in the nearly ten years since the pogrom against Muslims, in which Modi and many senior officials in his government are believed to be implicated, took over 2,000 lives and rendered tens of thousands more homeless.  ‘I am grateful to all those’, Modi adds, ‘who pointed out my genuine mistakes during [the] last 10 years.’  Modi does not, of course, admit that it was largely the Muslims who were the victims; indeed, like any good officer of the law, he is careful not to mention any community by name.  It is Gujarat that became ‘the victim of communal violence’:  the passive construction encourages the reader to believe that there was no agency in the killings; no responsibility can be assigned for the crimes that occurred.

 

Every action, Modi had infamously said when the killings were taking place, leads to a reaction, ‘Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai’; as Donald Rumsfeld put it, apropos of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad and other atrocities following the American invasion of Iraq, ‘Stuff happens.’  When the Supreme Court ruled that it would send the case against Modi back to the High Court, Modi and his friends swiftly interpreted the gesture as a vindication of the Chief Minister.  ‘God is great’, Modi had tweeted, but his public letter on the eve of his fast does not even remotely advert to this background.  His letter concludes with the rationale for his fast:  Modi will ‘continue to pray to the Almighty’ so that he develops the strength that prevents him from harbouring ‘any ill-feeling or bitterness’ towards those who defamed the state of Gujarat and maligned him personally.

 

No sooner had Modi announced his fast than he began to be taken to task.  The Congress, not surprisingly, described it as a ‘gimmick’, and it was soon characterized as a ‘five-star’ fast and public ‘spectacle’ when it surfaced that Modi would hold the fast in Gujarat University’s Convention Hall amidst 2,000 policemen, elaborate media arrangements, LCD screens, ten counters to receive bouquets and gifts, and teams of medical specialists.  Meanwhile, Shankersinh Vaghela, a one-time BJP leader who is now one of the more prominent faces of the Congress in Gujarat, announced that he would counter Modi with his fast at Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram.   The Sabarmati Ashram is a hugely symbolic site, but not only for the obvious reason that it was here that Gandhi established a foothold upon his return from South India or that it is from the ashram that Gandhi launched his march to Dandi.  Sabarmati Ashram, in a shocking repudiation of everything that Gandhi stood for, shuts it doors to Muslims seeking refuge from marauding bands of killers in 2002.  Even if Gandhi’s legacy has been mercilessly dumped in his home state, even if at every turn middle class Gujaratis have rejected him as the very antithesis of what a modern, developed, and respected nation-state ought to look like, Modi and Vaghela have not been slow to understand that Gandhi’s name still carries immense cultural capital.

 

Hazare, Modi, Vaghela:  these are only the more visible faces among countless numbers who in India have taken to fasting, and in their midst are the likes of Irom Sharmila, a 38-year old woman from Manipur who has been fasting since 2000 in her quest to have the state repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian piece of legislation that activists describe as the death-knell of democracy.  Gandhi never had to suffer the indignity of being force-fed; Irom Sharmila, by contrast, has often been force-fed, released, and then re-arrested on her resumption of fasting.  Her long struggle is more reminiscent of the ‘cat and mouse’ game waged between English suffragettes, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and the British government which led to the imposition of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act in 1913, popularly dubbed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.  Nevertheless, in India the comparison with Gandhi is almost always unavoidable.

 

Gandhi was the modern master of the fast; and, yet, he did not just stumble upon fasting, nor was he the first to come to an awareness of how the body could be inserted into the body politic and create waves.  In one of his lesser-known plays, “The King’s Threshold”, William Butler Yeats wrote about a practice long extant in Ireland (and, though Yeats was not entirely aware of this, in India).  When a creditor was unable to collect an outstanding loan from a debtor, and found himself unable to call upon the forces of the state to help in the redressal of his grievance, he would come and sit outside the debtor’s door and refuse to move –– and thus refuse to eat.  To sit dharna in India similarly means to render oneself into an obstacle; and this act of ‘door-sitting’, as more than one Indian medieval text in India informs us, has fasting as its necessary concomitant.  India even had its own form of the medieval duel.  It was not unknown for the debtor to commence fasting when the creditor refused to partake of food at his doorstep.  We speak today of surrogate mothers and fathers, but India had long pioneered the idea of surrogate hunger strikers.  If, as was often the case, the creditor was a moneylender, he occasionally hired a Brahmin to sit and fast in his place.  Whoever prevailed could claim justice on his side.

 

There can scarcely be as dramatic a text for insights into traditions of political fasting in India as Kalhana’s 12th century ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir’ known as the Rajatarangini.  This book by a Kashmiri Brahmin furnishes incontrovertible evidence of the widespread recourse to fasting.  King Chandrapida himself fasted as a form of penance, in atonement for his inability to bring to justice the murderer of a man whose widow sought death by starvation unless punishment were inflicted on the guilty man (IV:82-99).  The remedy of fasting, however, appears generally to have been available only to Brahmins, and Kalhana was not averse to passing sharp remarks on the ease with which members of his community would, singly or collectively, stage a hunger strike to safeguard their interests.  As an illustration, Kalhana describes the events that transpired in the year 1143, in the reign of Jayasimha.  Enraged by a plot to overthrow the king, in which they suspected the hand of the ministers Trillaka and Jayaraja, ‘and anxious to safeguard the country’, the Brahmins commenced a hunger strike ‘directed against’, notes Kalhana, ‘the king’ –– the king because he had, through his weakness and inaction, permitted the kingdom to fall into ruins.  Kalhana suggests that the Brahmins may at first have been moved by noble intentions; but, ‘intoxicated with their own knavery’, they ‘obstinately persisted in their perfidious course’ until they had prevailed upon the king to dismiss his honest minister Alamkara and promise them that he would ‘uproot Trillaka after he had disposed of the pretenders to the crown’ (VIII:2737).    Elsewhere Kalhana describes the contagion of fasting:  in 1211 AD, when the Brahmins at Aksosuva ‘held a solemn fast directed against the king’ to protest against the pillage of their monastery, the Brahmins ‘in the capital’ followed suit, and were in turn emulated by ‘the members of the Temple Purohit Association’ (VIII:898-900).  Hunger strikes had become so common, if Kalhana is to be believed, that officials were appointed to be especially ‘in charge of hunger-strikes’ (VI:14).

 

Though there is nothing to suggest that Gandhi was aware of the Rajatarangini, there is but no question that he had some familiarity with Indian traditions of hunger striking.  He termed most hunger strikes, which he distinguished from fasts, as a form of ­duragraha –– a distinction that today is upheld in the contrast between anshan and upvasa.  Gandhi would have been the first to recognize that there may never be anything like a pure fast, entirely free of coercion –– certainly not if one’s fast is in the public domain, or likely to have political consequences.  Many of the principles of fasting to which he adhered are now common knowledge, and everyone recognizes, for example, Gandhi’s insistence on listening to one’s inner voice, or his idea that fasting is a form of communion between oneself and one’s own God.  Rather than trying to resolve whether Hazare, Modi, Vaghela, and others meet the standards that Gandhi set for himself when he embarked on a fast, we might try to aim at a different comprehension of the Gandhian universe itself.  Gandhi’s many fasts, his enemas, his weekly day of silence, and much more:  all this was a way of emptying himself, reducing himself to zero, silencing the noise within, rejuvenating his tired limbs and mind –– all the more so that he could lead life to the fullest.  How does one begin to comprehend the enormity of a life where one’s own body becomes the site of ecological homage to mother Earth?

First published in The Times of India, The Crest Edition (1 October 2011), p. 10.

*Obama’s Dinner with Gandhi: Part II, A Few Thoughts on Food, Hunger, and Power

Obama, as I wrote a couple of days ago, told a young girl on the day that he addressed the nation’s school children that if he could have dinner with anyone, it would have to be Mohandas Gandhi. It is perhaps to Obama’s credit that he picked the least likely person with whom one might, from the culinary standpoint, enjoy a meal.  Such a meal would have been bereft of wine, lobster thermidor, meat, fowl, or fish in any form, indeed even cooked vegetables.  Gandhi, incidentally, never ate after sunset, but Obama, being the President of the United States and not of Spain, where dinner commences at 10 PM, would have had at least no difficulty on this score.  So Obama’s choice of a dinner companion, if only for a night, suggests that he has a real appetite for something other than food – an appetite for conversation and the exchange of ideas.   Moreover, who one allows at one’s dinner table tells a lot about that person, just as one can say a good deal about a society from the rules of commensality that govern it.

Nevertheless, the sight of the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s mightiest army partaking of a meal with the man who authored the idea of mass nonviolent resistance and helped to bring the British Empire to its knees is an intriguing one.  There will, of course, be many who will at once chirp in with observations about the Mahatma and his many ‘myths.’  It will be argued, in a rehearsal of what has been heard many times before, that the British were exhausted by War World II and decided to give up India, which in any case had become a liability.  On the Indian side, one encounters the argument that violent revolutionaries had a far greater hand in forcing the British to quit India than has been acknowledged.  And so on.  But, overlooking these predictable objections, one must consider another constellation of facts surrounding Gandhi and his eating habits.  Gandhi is history’s most astounding master of the fast.  Obama quipped about Gandhi’s small meals, but often Gandhi had no meals at all.   The term ‘hunger strike’ has often been used to describe Gandhi’s deployment of fasting as a weapon in a political cause, but fasting and hunger strike operate on two very different sets of assumptions.  The hunger strike is directed at someone else; the fast is always directed at oneself, even if it is also intended to influence another party.   Gandhi fasted not only in an endeavor to influence the actions or thinking of someone else, but because he viewed it as a way of cleansing the body:  if silence, which Gandhi observed one day a week, is another form of fulfilling the idea of emptiness, so is fasting.  But on such distinctions hang many other narratives.

Something like the dinner that Obama envisioned took place when Gandhi met the King Emperor at a tea party in his honor at Buckingham Palace on his last visit to London to negotiate for Indian independence.  I seem to recall that his companion and aide, Mirabehn, has narrated what transpired at that meeting.  The King Emperor was somewhat rude, since Gandhi had caused immense trouble in his realms.  Now, to top it all, the seditious Gandhi took out a pinch of salt that he had saved from the Salt March – which had forced the British to the negotiation table – and put it in a bowl of yogurt.   It is hard to think of Gandhi as a man rubbing salt into one’s wounds, but he may have done just that on that evening.  I daresay that Obama would have met more than his match at the dinner table with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.