Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

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:

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

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future