The Power of the Hunger Strike


The hunger strike has a long political pedigree.  It combines sensationalism with moral anger, but it also minimizes harm to others who are not directly involved in the conflict.  “Collateral damage”, the military argot’s most vicious euphemism, is avoided – at least in principle.  Instead, harm comes to the person initiating the strike.  Privations are made public.  The demise is gradual.  There is no spectacular image of a man set on fire, or the instantaneous moment of bomb blast.  The hunger strike enables a narrative to be fashioned by the protester.

That said any political weapon has its limits.  Measuring the success of the hunger strike is no different.  Illusion can be as convincing as fact.  Legends are easily born – and a legend, claimed the habitually acerbic H. L. Mencken, is often a lie that has merely attained the dignity of age.

On Sunday, some 1700 Kurdish militants and supporters ended a 68-day hunger strike in an assortment of Turkish jails, urged on by their leader Abdullah Ocalan of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).  This occurred amidst of flurry of talks and discussions that have been taking place between Turkish MIT intelligence officials and PKK representatives.  Even Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan mooted the possibility that further talks were possible (Daily Times, Nov 19).

Fears by Turkish officials that Kurdish inmates might expire were genuine enough, despite sarcastic remarks by Erdogan that MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) were “in serious need of dieting” (The Economist, Nov 17).  In the words of Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, “I hope we will not face such protests from now on.  Turkey is democratic country.”

It remains to be seen how successful the strikes will be. Some of the demands were modest enough: more teaching of Kurdish in schools and institutions being foremost amongst them.  Erdogan, mindful of that fact, has kept an eye on improving Kurdish cultural and language rights.  Others were more problematic – an end to Ocalan’s isolation on Imrali island south of Istanbul (read “better prison conditions”), and greater access to legal representation.  Speculation is now rife – will this pave the way to ending the decades-old conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people?

Herein, we see the first legends taking hold.  Lies and variegated half-truths have been spun.  Was Ocalan shunning the lawyers to begin with, given a desire to move to house arrest?  Or did the Turkish government wish, via the lawyers, to send messages hoping to break the nexus between Ocalan and his fighters?

On May 8, 1932, Mahatma Gandhi gave the world an example about the hunger strike as a political weapon.  For 21 days, he would protest through self-privation in his cell in Yerovda Jail near Bombay, his target being the British authorities in India.  He did it, so he claimed, for those he called the Children of God – the Harijan or “untouchables”.  Figures such as the acutely insightful Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar had their doubts – was he really genuine about such protest, or merely making a spectacle of self-righteous purity within an immutable caste system?  By default, Gandhi was defending entrenched traditionalism, captured most strikingly by the archaic cult of the spinning wheel.  He would do the same thing India was partitioned, a protest against sectarian violence.  The more optimistic, rosy-tinted accounts suggest that it was a technique that worked.

Such a display was certainly powerful.  The hunger strike would be employed with an almost global sensationalism with the IRA prisoners who British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to acknowledge – at least as Prisoners of War. They were merely a species of common criminal – albeit a bit higher up the food chain of crime. Ten IRA members, with Bobby Sands being the most conspicuous, paid with their lives in their common pursuit for recognition in the summer months of 1981.

Those sympathetic with the IRA saw the employment of this form of protest as the high water mark of IRA-British confrontation.  Sands was intent on making a lasting impression. “Everyone, Republican or otherwise has their own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small, no one is too old or too young to do something.”  Last year, the release of secret government papers suggested that the British were far from being in any position in terms of negotiating a “deal” with the prisoners.  There was to be no “hunger strike deal” (Belfast Telegraph, Dec 31, 2011).

Other accounts show a different story. The Thatcher cabinet was “wobbled” by the actions of the hunger strikers, flustered by the use of starvation diets rather than armed weapons.  Compulsory feeding was proposed to prevent further deaths.  A “secret” cabinet paper release by the National Archives in Kew last year notes an “informal discussion” at the end of a cabinet meeting on July 2, 1981 (The Guardian, Dec 30, 2011).  “Many people now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area should be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives.”

The election of Sands as an MP was deemed transformative.  Other approaches were needed.  Thatcher herself summed up by concluding that further thought needed “to be given to all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Island, however difficult or unpalatable.”  If the Iron Lady can be swayed and wobbled by hunger strikes, those who advocate such weapons might well be on to something, whatever legends they might produce.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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