Three Fasts that changed India

Gandhi’s historic dandi march earned him the Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1930. The Dandi march was followed by civil disobedience and declaration of swaraj by Congress party. This rattled the British, forcing them to pay attention. Discussions followed, resulting in Irwin-Gandhi pact in March 1931. Though the pact didn’t make the British recognize India’s independence, it opened a new relationship between Britain and India. Indian representatives were invited to attend the 2nd Round Table conference in London. The conference was expected to progress the dialogue. Gandhiji attended the conference.

Held the same year in November, the conference turned out to be disaster from India’s perspective. Britain under a new PM, Ramsay MacDonald, went back on her word. Independence now looked more distant than it did earlier in the year.

The worse was to follow. On his return on Dec 28, 1931, Gandhiji learnt that the British Government had passed several resolutions, giving itself sweeping powers, including the authority to arrest anyone without warrant, seize their bank account, suspend trial, confisticate wealth and deny bail. In fact, the attack on Congress was fierce. The organisation was closed and 14,800 congress persons were jailed. The momentum swaraj had gathered evaporated.

Gandhiji tried to reason with the Viceroy and British PM to roll back the resolutions. But he was snubbed.

Six days after his return, on Jan 3, 1932, Gandhiji informed the nation that the “British had banged the door on his face.” The very next day he was arrested.

The British had always worked at dividing Hindus and Muslims. This time, they wanted to divide Hindus. Into two – Harijans and other caste Hindus. They proposed a constitution that divided the Indian parliament by caste, with citizens voting only for candidates of their own caste – Hindus for Hindus, Muslims for Muslims and Harijans for Harijans. Being a suppressed class, they were actually given two votes: one for Hindu candidates and one for their own caste. This was to continue for seventy years.

Gandhiji saw this as a threat to India’s unity. He had worked relentlessly to keep Hindus and Muslims together. Now it was going to be Hindus vs. Harijans? He believed a divided India could never get swaraj. He protested from the jail itself, starting an intense correspondence with Ramsay MacDonald and British Viceroy Willingdon. However, they didn’t relent. It was March 1932.

Later, in August, when the proposal was being given a final shape by British government, Gandhiji expressed his strong disagreement. His views were rejected. Deeply anguished, he announced that he will go on a fast unto death unless the British agreed to drop the plan to reserve seats for Harijan. The fast was to begin on Sept 20.

But before Britain agreed to his demand, they expected Indians leaders, represented by their own caste, to agree to Gandhiji’s views. The Harijan’s interest was represented by Dr. Ambedkar.

Dr. Ambedkar was anti-Hindu. He preferred British rule to Indian rule. A victim of centuries of discrimination himself, at one time he’d even expressed that all untouchables should adopt islam as their religion!

Discussion between the Indian leaders began well before September 20, the day Gandhiji began his fast. His fast, and his rapidly deteriorating health (within 24 hours itself), created a great deal of urgency for the Indian leaders to arrive at a consensus. The toughest challenge was to convince Dr Ambedkar to accept Gandhiji’s view, which to him appeared ‘anti-Harijan’. The discussion brought Dr Ambedkar and Gandhiji face-to-face. Ambedkar was surpised to find that Gandhiji was amenable and was willing to concede a lot of ground for well-being of Harijans.

The Indian leaders reached an agreement on Sunday, Sept 25, and had Gandhiji’s approval on it. Without losing any time, the document was wired to Ramsay MacDonald, who was in Sussex, attending a funeral. Being a Sunday, none of the other official too were available. But Gandhiji’s deteriorating health, and a probability of his death, had created a war-like urgency. The PM rushed to 10, Downing Street by evening. His colleagues Sir Samuel Hoare and Lord Lothian, who had worked on drafting the original proposal, joined him as well. They carefully went through the draft, working well into the midnight. They acted quickly, and by Monday noon announced their acceptance to the proposal. At 5.15pm, the same evening Gandhi broke his 6-day fast.

You will notice, despite being the imperialists at they were, the British government had a conciliatory approach. They acted swiftly to ensure that a delay in their action didn’t result in anything adverse to Gandhiji.  Now contrast this with our democratically elected government and their approach to Anna Hazare’s fast. Arrogant? I’ll come back to it in a bit. 

What did the fast achieve?

It changed India. It made caste Hindus take the first step in accepting Harijan’s as Hindus. Read for yourself:

At the beginning of the fast week, the famous Kalighat temple in Calcutta and Ram Mandir of Benaras, citadels of Hindu orthodoxy, were thrown open 

Mrs. Sawroop Rani Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru’s very orthodox mother, let it be known that she accepted food from the hand of an untouchable. Thousands of prominent Hindus women followed her example. At the strict Benaras Hindu University, Principal Dhruva, with numerous Brahmans, dined publicly with street cleaners, cobblers and scavengers. Similar meals were arranged in hundreds of places.

Villages and small town allowed untouchables to use village wells. Hindu pupils shared benches formerly reserved for untouchables. Roads and street from which they were previously excluded, were opened to harijans.

A spirit of reform, penance and self-purification swept the land. During the six fast days, most Hindus restrained from going to cinemas, restaurants or theatres. Weddings were postponed.

It’s a very interesting to see how news travelled, despite no phones, no TV, limited radio sets and printed newspapers –  word of mouth.

Gandhi’s fasts were means of communication. The news of the fast was printed in all papers. Those who read told those who couldn’t read that ‘The Mahatma is fasting’. The cities knew, and peasants marketing in the cities knew, and they carried the report to villages, and travellers did likewise.

“Why is Mahatma fasting?”

“So that Hindus open our temples to the untouchables and treat the untouchables better”

India’s ear was listening for more news.

“The Mahatma is sinking’. ‘The Mahatma is dying’. ‘We must hurry’.

Gandhi’s pains gave vicarious pain to his adorers who knew they mustn’t kill God’s messenger on earth. It was evil to prolong his suffering. It was blessed to have him by being good to those whom he called ‘the Children of God

Prior to this fast, Gandhi had fasted for exactly 21 days in 1924 to foster Hindu-Muslim brotherhood.

On January 13, 1948, Gandhi fasted for the last time in his life in order stop the riots. He succeeded. Within 5 days, the riots completely stopped. Finally bringing peace to two nations torn apart due to partition.  But he was assasinated 12 days after he broke his fast.

Potti Sreemulu earned himself a stamp of India

There is another fast that changed India. Undertaken by a Gandhian called Potti Sreemulu.

Quick background:

Post India’s independence, the greatest challenge for the leaders was to keep India together. Sardar (Patel) had managed to bring 565 kingdoms (or states) to accede to India. Barring 6, accession was peaceful.

The next challenge was division of India into states. Gandhiji had favoured division on basis of language. Indian leaders were in complete agreement. Despite the will, they had to keep the decision in abeyance as there were far more urgent things to do. “When the right time comes, let’s have them by all means,” Nehru had told the parliament in May 1952.  In fact, division began only post the first election in 1952.

However, Andhras started demanding a separate state a year earlier. In 1951.

India map – 1947

They wanted to be separated from Madras province and form their own state. Telegu, language spoken by Andhras, was the second most popular language in India in those days. Moreover, the Andhras hated being governed by Tamilian C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji). Congress politician turned swami, Sitaram fasted for 5 weeks in 1951 to draw attention to Andhra’s demand for a separate state. He called off his fast in response to an appeal from respected Gandhian leader Vinoba Bhave.

During India’s first election, both Nehru and Rajaji were greeted by protests demanding Andhra Pradesh. The election results to the state legislative assembly too showed a dip in both votes and seats for Congress. In fact, the protesters got a short in the arm from election results. Protests intensified. Sitaram began a march through Telegu speaking areas, seeking support. He wanted the state to be created ‘immediately’.

India map – 1953

Unhappy with government’s response, or rather lack of response, a man named Potti Sreemulu went on fast unto death on Oct 19, 1952. He had the blessings of Swami Sitaram. Needless to say, Sreemulu’s fast fueled more protests.

Government’s attitude, however, was apathetic. (We see history being repeated during Anna’s fast!).

On Dec 3, a full six weeks after the fast began, Nehru wrote to Rajaji: “Some kind of fast is going on for the Andhra province… I’m totally unmoved by this and I propose to ignore it completely.” Sreemulu hadn’t eaten anything all this while. Meanwhile, support for the cause continued to swell. Strikes were called in many towns. Trains were stopped. Normal life was being disrupted continuously.

By now Nehru was forced to recognize the popular sentiment. On Dec 12, he wrote to Rajaji, suggesting that time had come to accept the Andhra demand. “Otherwise complete frustration will grow among Andhras, and we’ll not be able to catch up with it.” he wrote. Two days later, Raja cabled Nehru, “If you invite Sitaram for a talk, the atmosphere may change and probably the mischief may dwindle.” He was still hoping to prevent formation of Andhra Pradesh.

The next day, Sreemulu died, 58 days into his fast.

The situation turned completely chaotic. Government offices were attacked; trains were stopped and defaced. Several protestors were killed in police firing. Damage to property ran into crores.

Fearing worse, Nehru gave in. Two days after Sreemulu’s death, he said that state of Andhra Pradesh will come into being.

India map – once states were created – 1956

Two things resulted:

  1. Andhra was formed before any other state; and
  2. This set a precedent for other states push their respective case.

Who, by the way, was Sreemulu?

Potti Sreemulu was a clerk with government. He had faced double tragedy in 1928, losing both his wife and son in the same year. He gave up his job and joined Gandhi’s ashram in Sabarmati. He spent all his time serving the Ashram’s needs. He was beside Gandhiji during his famous dandi march. In fact, Sreemulu had also called a fast unto death in 1946, demanding all temples open their gates to untouchables. But Gandhiji persuaded him to give up his fast as India was busy completing formalities to attain independence. He had agreed.

Sreemulu’s fast was repeated last year by K Chandrashekhar Rao (KSR). KSR demanded carving of Telengana from Andhra. He too succeeded, thankfully without having to sacrifice his life. However, success was short-lived as government went back on its word, referring the ‘carving of Telengana’ to a committee. The fighting and protests for formation of Telengana continue. Meanwhile, KSR has threatened to consume poison.

The third fast that has changed India is the Anna Hazare fast that we all witnessed under full media glare.

Annaji and his team may not have got what they wanted, but they have helped country get closer to the goal.

Lakhs show support to Anna









Anna’s fast was able to galvanize entire country










Are fasts a good way to make one’s point and push government into accepting one’s demand?

Seems like.

However three recent fasts prove otherwise.

Baba Ramdev had to call his fast when none paid attention.

Around the same time, 36 year old Nigamanand (picture left) , a member of the Haridwar based Matri Sadan Ashram, protesting against illegal mining and stone crushing along the Ganga near Haridwar, passed away after a four month long fast. Unfortunately, he hit the headlines only after he died. His death resulted in no action.

39 year old Irom Chanu Sharmila (picture right), also known as Iron lady of Manipur or Menghaobi, has been fasting for the past 10 years now.She hasn’t had any solid food and water all these years. She has been force-fed a liquefied carbohydrates and proteins by a nasal tube three times a day.

What is she fasting for? Few people know, and even fewer care.  She wants the government to repeal the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) in Manipur and the other parts of North-eastern states.

All fasts don’t work!

For a fast to work, the following boxes must be cheked:

  1. Credibility of the ‘faster’ – he must have no vested interest in the cause.
  2. Cause must resonate with masses.

Unless both are present, success is unlikely.

Of course, timing and media support too have to work in tandem for fast to succeed.

So when many say (government and media) that Anna’s fast will encourage others to fast and use similar tactics to get government to act, I think they are wrong. Even Anna will not succeed with new fast in future unless the masses identify with the issue he chooses to fight.

So I won’t worry much about fasts, except as a fast way to get attention for a while. Unless, of course, you are fasting for a cause that masses identify with. And not to forget your own credibility – fast will not build credibility, but if you have credibility, you may succeed.


PS: I’d like to acknowledge two books I read extensively to research: Gandhi by Louis Fischer and India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha.  In fact, the text in blue is directly from Gandhi (by Fischer). Thanks!




  1. Thanks Amitabh for your appreciation. Till about a year ago, even I didn’t know about Sreemulu’s fast. I learnt about it when I read Ramachandra Guha’s India Afterr Gandhi.

    Regards, Raj

  2. Very nicely researched article. Gandhi’s fasts are very well known but the others are not so well known. I found the fast leading to the formation of Andhra very impactful although is is not so widely known. ( atleast I was not aware of it despite living in Andhra for several years ). The historic pictures add a lot of color to the articie. I liked the Gandhi picture on the cover of the Time magazine a lot.

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