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A hunger strike is a method of non-violent resistance or pressure in which participants fast as an act of political protest, or to provoke feelings of guilt in others, usually with the objective to achieve a specific goal, such as a policy change. Most hunger strikers will take liquids but not solid food.

In cases where an entity (usually the state) has or is able to obtain custody of the hunger striker (such as a prisoner), the hunger strike is often terminated by the custodial entity through the use of force-feeding.

Early history

Fasting was used as a method of protesting injustice in pre-Christian Ireland, where it was known as Troscadh or Cealachan. It was detailed in the contemporary civic codes, and had specific rules by which it could be used. The fast was often carried out on the doorstep of the home of the offender. Scholars speculate this was due to the high importance the culture placed on hospitality. Allowing a person to die at one's doorstep, for a wrong of which one was accused, was considered a great dishonor. Others say that the practice was to fast for one whole night, as there is no evidence of people fasting to death in pre-Christian Ireland. The fasts were primarily undertaken to recover debts or get justice for a perceived wrong. There are legends of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, using the hunger strike as well.[1]

In India, the practice of a hunger protest, where the protestor fasts at the door of an offending party (typically a debtor) in a public call for justice, was abolished by the government in 1861; this indicates the prevalence of the practice prior to that date, or at least a public awareness of it.[2] This Indian practice is ancient, going back to around 400 to 750 BC. This can be known since it appears in the Valmiki Ramayana, which was composed around that time. The actual mention appears in the Ayodhya Kanda, (the second book of the Ramayana), in Sarga (section) 103. Bharata has gone to ask the exiled Rama to come back and rule the kingdom. Bharata tries many arguments, none of which work, at which point he decides to do a hunger strike. He announces his intention to fast, calls for his charioteer Sumantra to bring him some sacred Kusha grass, (but Sumantra won't do it since he's too busy looking at Rama's face, so Bharata has to get the grass himself), lies down upon it in front of Rama. Rama, however, is quickly able to persuade him to abandon the attempt. Rama mentions it as a practice of the brahmanas.

Medical view

In the first 3 days, the body is still using energy from glucose.[citation needed] After that, the liver starts processing body fat, in a process called ketosis. After 3 weeks the body enters a "starvation mode". At this point the body "mines" the muscles and vital organs for energy, and loss of bone marrow becomes life-threatening. There are examples of hunger strikers dying after 52 to 74 days of strike.[3]

Notable historical instances

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Gandhi & Bhagat Singh

Mohandas Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922, 1930, 1933 and 1942. Because of Gandhi's stature around the world, British authorities were loath to allow him to die in their custody. It is likely Britain's reputation would have suffered as a result of such an event. Gandhi engaged in several famous hunger strikes to protest British rule of India. Fasting was a non-violent way of communicating the message and sometimes dramatically achieve the reason for the protest. This was keeping with the rules of Satyagraha.

In addition to Gandhi, various others have used the hunger strike option during the Indian independence movement. Such figures include Jatin Das (who fasted to death) and Bhagat Singh 116th day of their fast, on October 5, 1929 that Bhagat Singh and Dutt gave up their strike (surpassing the 97 day world record for hunger strikes which was set by an Irish revolutionary). During this hunger strike that lasted 116 days and ended with the British succumbing to his wishes, he gained much popularity among the common Indians. Before the strike his popularity was limited mainly to the Punjab region.

After Indian Independence, freedom fighter Potti Sreeramulu used hunger strikes to get a separate state for Telugu-speaking people. Morarji Desai went on fast twice during NAVNIRMAN in the seventies and prior to that Indulal Yagnik alias Indu Chacha went on a long fast during Maha Gujarat and thereafter in the seventies.

Jatin Das

Jatin Das was an Indian freedom fighter and revolutionary who died after a continuous hunger strike for 63 days in 1929 and it shocked the whole of British India.

The memorable hunger strike started on 13 July 1929 and lasted 63 days.[4] The jail authority took many measures to forcibly feed Jatin Das and the other freedom fighters, beat them and did not even provide them with drinking water.[5] However, Jatindra did not eat. The jail committee recommended his unconditional release, but the government rejected the suggestion and offered to release him on bail. Jatin died on September 13, 1929, his hunger strike unbroken for 63 days.[6] As his body was carried from Lahore to Kolkata by train, thousands of people rushed to every station to pay their homage to the martyr. A two-mile long procession in Kolkata carried the coffin to the cremation ground.[7] The hunger strike of Jatin Das in prison was one crucial moment in the resistance against illegal detentions.[8] After his death, the Viceroy informed London.[9]:

Jatin Das of the Conspiracy Case, who was on hunger strike, died this afternoon at 1 p.m. Last night, five of the hunger strikers gave up their hunger strike. So there are only Bhagat Singh and Dutt who are on strike ...

Amarajeevi Sriramulu

Potti Sriramulu was an Indian revolutionary who died after undertaking a hunger strike for 58 days in 1952 after Indian independence in an attempt to achieve the formation of a separate state, to be known as Andhra State. His sacrifice became instrumental in the linguistic re-organisation of states.

He is revered as Amarajeevi (Immortal being) in Coastal Andra for his sacrifice. As a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, he worked for much of his life to uphold principles such as truth, non-violence and patriotism, as well as causes such as Harijan movement to end the traditional alienation of, and accord respect and humane treatment to those traditionally called "untouchables" in Indian society.

British and American suffragettes

File:Djuna Barnes Clipping.jpg

Clipping from World Magazine, September 6, 1914.

In the early 20th century suffragettes frequently endured hunger strikes in British prisons. Marion Dunlop was the first in 1909. She was released, as the authorities did not want her to become a martyr. Other suffragettes in prison also undertook hunger strikes. The prison authorities subjected them to force-feeding, which the suffragettes categorized as a form of torture. Mary Clarke, Jean Hewart, Katherine Fry and several others died as a result of force-feeding.[citation needed]

In 1913 the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act (nicknamed the "Cat and Mouse Act") changed policy. Hunger strikes were tolerated but prisoners were released when they became sick. When they had recovered, the suffragettes were taken back to prison to finish their sentences.

Like their British counterparts, American suffragettes also used this method of political protest. A few years prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a group of American suffragettes led by Alice Paul engaged in a hunger strike and endured forced feedings while incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.

Irish republicans

File:Raymond Mc Cartney Mural SMC May 2007.jpg

"This Mural Is Dedicated To The H Block & Armagh Prison Struggle And In Memory Of Bobby Sands, Kevin Lynch, Frank Hughes, Kieran Doherty, Raymond McCreesh, Tom McElwee, Patsy O'Hara, Michael Devine, Martin Hurson, Joe McDonnell."

Hunger strikes have deep roots in Irish society and in the Irish psyche. Fasting in order to bring attention to an injustice which one felt under his lord, and thus embarrass him into a solution, was a common feature of society in Early Irish society and this tactic was fully incorporated into the Brehon legal system. The tradition is ultimately most likely part of the still older Indo-European tradition of which the Irish were part.[10]

The tactic was used by Irish republicans from 1917 and, subsequently, during the Anglo-Irish War, in the 1920s. Early use of hunger strikes by republicans had been countered by the British with force-feeding, which culminated in 1917 in the death of Thomas Ashe in Mountjoy Prison.

In October 1920, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, died on hunger strike in Brixton prison. Two other Cork IRA men, Joe Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald, also died on hunger strike in this protest. The Guinness Book of Records lists the world record in hunger strike without force-feeding as 94 days, which was set from August 11 to November 12, 1920 by John and Peter Crowley, Thomas Donovan, Michael Burke, Michael O'Reilly, Christopher Upton, John Power, Joseph Kenny and Seán Hennessy at the prison of Cork.[11][12] Arthur Griffith called off the strikes after the deaths of MacSwiney, Murphy and Fitzgerald.

After the end of the Irish Civil War in October 1923, up to 8000 IRA prisoners went on hunger strike to protest their continued detention by the Irish Free State (a total of over 12,000 republicans had been interned by May 1923). Two men, Denny Barry and Andrew O'Sullivan, died on the strike. The strike, however, was called off before any more deaths occurred. The Free State subsequently released the women republican prisoners. Most of the male Republicans were not released until the following year.

Under the de Valera Fianna Fáil government three hunger strikers died in the Republic of Ireland in the 1940s. They were Sean McCaughey, Tony D'Arcy and Sean (Jack) McNeela. Hundreds of others carried out shorter hunger strikes during the de Valera years with no sympathy from the Government.

The tactic was revived by the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s, when several republicans such as Sean MacStiofain successfully used hunger strikes to get themselves released from custody without charge in the Republic of Ireland. Michael Gaughan died after being force-fed in a British prison in 1974. Frank Stagg, an IRA member being held in a British jail, died after a 62-day hunger strike in 1976 which he began as a campaign to be repatriated to Ireland.

Irish hunger strike of 1981

Main article: 1981 Irish hunger strike

In 1980, seven Republican prisoners in the Maze Prison launched a hunger strike as a protest against the revocation by the British government of a prisoner-of-war-like Special Category Status for paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. The strike, led by Brendan Hughes, was called off before any deaths, when Britain seemed to offer to concede their demands; however, the British then reneged on the details of the agreement. The prisoners then called another hunger strike the following year. This time, instead of many prisoners striking at the same time, the hunger strikers started fasting one after the other in order to maximise publicity over the fate of each one.

Bobby Sands was the first of ten Irish republican paramilitary prisoners to die during a hunger strike in 1981. There was widespread support for the hunger strikers from Irish republicans and the broader nationalist community on both sides of the Irish border. Some of the hunger strikers were elected to both the Irish and British parliaments by an electorate who wished to register their support for the hunger strikers. The ten men survived without food for 46 to 73 days,[13] taking only water and salt, before succumbing. After the deaths of the men and severe public disorder, the British government granted partial concessions to the prisoners, and the strike was called off. The hunger strikes gave a huge propaganda boost to a severely demoralised Provisional IRA.

Cuban dissidents

See also: Human rights in Cuba and Censorship in Cuba

On April 3, 1972, Pedro Luis Boitel, an imprisoned poet and dissident, declared himself on hunger strike. After 53 days on hunger strike, receiving only liquids, he died of starvation on May 25, 1972. His last days were related by his close friend, poet Armando Valladares. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Cólon Cemetery in Havana.

Guillermo Fariñas did a seven-month hunger strike to protest against the extensive Internet censorship in Cuba. He ended it in Autumn 2006, with severe health problems although still conscious.[14] Reporters Without Borders awarded its cyber-freedom prize to Guillermo Fariñas in 2006.[15]

Jorge Luis García Pérez (known as Antúnez) has done hunger strikes. In 2009, following the end of his 17-year imprisonment, Antúnez, his wife Iris, and Diosiris Santana Pérez started a hunger strike to support other political prisoners. Leaders from Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Argentina declared their support for Antúnez.[16][17]

File:Orlandozapata martir vtrtxtr.jpg

Orlando Zapata

On February 23, 2010, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a dissident arrested in 2003 as part of a crackdown on opposition groups, died in a hospital while undertaking a hunger strike that had been ongoing for 83 days, in Cuba's "Kilo 8" prison. He had declared the hunger strike in protest of the poor conditions of the prison in which he was held.[18] He was one of 55 prisoners of conscience in Cuba to have been adopted by Amnesty International. He was charged with an array of offences including “resistance,” “contempt” and “disrespect”.

Political prisoners in Turkey

Inspired by the Irish Republicans,[citation needed] Turkish political prisoners developed a tradition of hunger strikes, which continues to this day. After the suppression of rising civil socialist movements by a military coup in 1980, many militants as well as civil activists were imprisoned under highly inhumane conditions. In response to torture and mistreatment of political prisoners, the first hunger strike was launched in 1984,[citation needed]taking the lives of 4 Dev-Sol militants, Abdullah Meral, Haydar Başbağ, Fatih Öktülmüş and Hasan Telci.

In the following years, socialist movements have been increasingly marginalized and moved underground. However, many militant Marxist/Leninist groups have survived. For this reason, the number of political prisoners has always been high. In 1996, when the nationalist minister of the Islamist/conservative government launched a policy on segregation of political prisoners from each other, another hunger strike broke down, with the participation of several leftist militant groups. The strike lasted 69 days, took 12 lives, and the indifferent attitude of the government provoked a strong public protest. As a result, with the initiative of intellectuals including Yaşar Kemal, Zülfü Livaneli, and Orhan Pamuk, a deal was achieved between the government and prisoners. The prisoners took most of their rights back, which they recall as a victory.

The last wave of hunger strikes in Turkey, which has become chronic in recent years, was started against F-type prisons, which were designed for efficient segregation of political prisoners. The project was developed starting in 1997, and the strike was started on October 20, 2000, demanding F-type prisons not to be opened, by a large coalition of militant groups, this time including the Kurdish-separatist militants of PKK. The result was tragic. On December 19, 2000, the now democratic left-extreme nationalist coalition decided to break the strike using force, which was named "Back to life" operation. The operation was faced by a well-organized resistance of prisoners, resulting in the death of 28 prisoners and 2 soldiers. Since then, both F-type prisons and related hunger strikes have become an issue of daily life. According to the organization of prisoner relatives, 101 prisoners have died and above 400 have suffered from unrecoverable disease, particularly Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. The governments have consistently denied claims about mistreatment of prisoners, and president Ahmet Necdet Sezer has been pardoning diseased prisoners, only to be criticized by the extreme right, since many of the released militants have been seen in different demonstrations against F-type prisons. The government maintains that 189 hunger strikers received presidential pardons since 2000.

Recent instances (since 2000)

Akbar Ganji

Akbar Ganji is an Iranian journalist imprisoned in Evin prison since April 22, 2000. Ganji was on a hunger strike between May 19, 2005[19] and early August, 2005, except for a 12-day period of leave he was granted on May 30, 2005 ahead of the ninth presidential elections on June 17, 2005. He is represented by a group of lawyers, including the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Shirin Ebadi. While on hunger strike Ganji wrote two letters to the free people of the world.[20][21] On July 12, 2005 the White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in a statement that the US president, George W. Bush, called on Iran to release Ganji "immediately and unconditionally." "Mr. Ganji is sadly only one victim of a wave of repression and human rights violations engaged in by the Iranian regime", "His calls for freedom deserve to be heard. His valiant efforts should not go in vain. The president calls on all supporters of human rights and freedom, and the United Nations, to take up Ganji's case and the overall human rights situation in Iran." "Mr. Ganji, please know that as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you", the statement said.

Swami Nigamanand

Indian seer Swami Nigamanand went on a fast unto death to protest against illegal mining on the bank of the Ganga in Haridwar. Nigamanand, who was on fast beginning February 19, 2011 was declared dead the following June 13, after being on a hunger strike for 115 days. He was shifted to the district government hospital after his health deteriorated on April 27, and thereafter to the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust hospital in Dehra Dun in a state of coma on May 2. Nigamanand was on fast to force the state government to issue an order to stop quarrying in the Ganga. He also wanted the works of Himalaya Stone Crusher to be shifted from the Kumbh Mela area.

Anna Hazare

Anna took part in a 12-day hunger strike protest in Ramlila Maidan, Delhi to protest political corruption and pressure the Indian government to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill.[22] on 5 April, 2011.

His campaign for the strengthening the anti-corruption legislation proposed by the government received widespread support. All over the country people supported his movement, with tens of thousands of people attending protests across the country. Finally, Indian MPs expressed support for proposed changes to anti-corruption legislation on August 27, 2011. Following this Anna Hazare ended his hunger strike.

Legal situation

Article 6 of the 1975 World Medical Association Tokyo Declaration states that doctors can undertake force-feeding under certain restricted rules and only where a second, independent physician is consulted and agrees to the move:-

"Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially. The decision as to the capacity of the prisoner to form such a judgment should be confirmed by at least one other independent physician. The consequences of the refusal of nourishment shall be explained by the physician to the prisoner."

The World Medical Association recently revised and updated its Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers [dead link]

. Among many changes, it unambiguously states that force feeding is a form of inhumane and degrading treatment in its Article 21.

The American Medical Association is a member of the World Medical Association, but the AMA's members are not bound by the WMA's decisions, and neither organization has formal legal powers.

The Code of Federal Regulations rule on inmate hunger strikes states, "It is the responsibility of the Bureau of Prisons to monitor the health and welfare of individual inmates, and to ensure that procedures are pursued to preserve life." It further provides that when "a medical necessity for immediate treatment of a life or health threatening situation exists, the physician may order that treatment be administered without the consent of the inmate."[23]

See also

  • Independent Royalist Party of Estonia held an eating strike to ridicule a hunger strike by Riigikogu members Lebedev and Petinov.[citation needed]
  • Fasting



  1. David Beresford. Ten Men Dead, (New York: Atlantic Press, 1987), 7. ISBN 0-87113-702-X
  2. Ibid., 8.
  3. See, e.g., the 1981 Irish hunger strike.
  4. Heroes of Anti Imperialist (British) Movement
  5. Dr. Premdatta Verma, Punjab University Weekly Bulletin, 19 September 1964
  6. Indian Post article
  7. Gateway for India article
  8. [Durba] (4–5 April 2003). "[ Britain’s Global War on Terrorism:containing political violence and insurgency in the interwar years]" (doc) in How Empire Mattered: Imperial Structures and Globalization in the Era of British Imperialism. {{{booktitle}}}. Retrieved on 2007-04-08. 
  9. The martyr: Bhagat Singh experiments in revolution by Kuldip Nayar
  10. D.A. Binchy, "A Pre-Christian Survival in Mediaeval Irish Hagiography," in Ireland in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 168–178; Rudolf Thurneysen, "Das Fasten beim Pfändungsverfahren," Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 15 (1924–25) 260–275.
  12. Guinness Book of Records 1988, p. 21
  13. The Starry Plough on 1981 Irish hunger strikes
  14. Guillermo Fariñas ends seven-month-old hunger strike for Internet access. Reporters Without Borders.
  15. Cyber-freedom prize for 2006 awarded to Guillermo Fariñas of Cuba. Reporters Without Borders.
  16. Additional Latin American Leaders Join in Solidarity with Antúnez.
  17. Young Uruguayans Support Antúnez, Cuban Political Prisoners.
  18. includeonly>"Cuban prison hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo dies", BBC News, 2010-02-24.
  19. Imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji launches hunger strike. IFEX. URL accessed on 2010-09-01.
  20. 1
  21. 2
  22. includeonly>"Anna Hazare: Indian MPs back anti-corruption demands", BBC News, August 27, 2011.
  23. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations:. URL accessed on 2010-09-01.

External links

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