In The hands of Gandhiji, the hunger strike was often a potent weapon, and one that he used to highlight the injustices created by British officialdom during the Quit India campaign. In addition, he and many other satyagrahi deployed this very personal and potentially fatal tactic during times of community sectarian violence in order to bring parties to a greater sense of personal responsibility. Many have been the debates about this extreme tactic, and not all have endorsed the hunger strike as a legitimate means of protest. It was undoubtedly a powerful tool when deployed by Gandhi, in part because of the reverence with which he was held by much of the Indian population at the time. In the hands of others, including for instance the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in England, or Palestinians protesting the Israeli occupation of their lands, success has been at best limited. The ten nationalist hunger strikers who died in prison in Ireland in 1981 also had little impact on change because they commanded the respect of only part of their community, and as a result of their real or perceived association with violence perpetrated during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.
The difficult history of hunger strikes is one that I still find challenging in terms of understanding its legitimacy as a form of protest. It undoubtedly takes a passion and commitment on the part of the individual that is not to be found amongst the average protester, but at times it can also appear as a selfish act which impacts as much upon loved ones as it does upon those who are the intended focus of demands. Gandhi, who was a great man, and shrewd politician but not a saint, was only too well aware of the importance of his persona as a critical part of his protest.
It was then with some disquiet that I read an account in today’s Indian Express newspaper of a group of children who have commenced a hunger strike in Mamalakkandam, in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. These young people attend the government high school in their small remote town, the next nearest equivalent school being 30 kilometres away. Their school was upgraded to high school status only last year, an important move that should create better education and employment opportunities for young people from the local community. However, having proudly announced the opening of this important new establishment, the government have failed to provide any teaching staff to ensure the promised education. Bricks and mortor alone cannot afford an education, but do provide useful photo opportunities for politicians.
With the support of parents groups and other locals, a group of students protested at the district educational offices at Kothamangalam earlier in the week, but it appears that their not unreasonable demands that their school requires teachers, fell on deaf ears. As a result of this lack of positive response, the student body have intensified their protests, and two students have taken the desperate measure of commencing a hunger strike in the hope that this may spur the authorities into action.
On reading the news report I found myself experiencing a very mixed set of reactions. I certainly feel the need to commend the students and parents of Mamalakkandam for demanding their rights to a quality education, thereby enhancing their future prospects and potentially the prosperity of the community. Kerala has long prided itself on being the most educationally advanced state of India, even boasting almost 100% literacy across the region, but it seems to me that situations such as this says much about the state of a nation that is being heralded for its speed of development and economic power. As in most parts of the world which lay claim to advanced “development” there is evidence that whilst some individuals benefit from increased wealth, others get pushed further towards the margins of society. If education has a role to play, which as a teacher I most certainly believe to be true, it must be supported at all levels and for the benefit of all people.
Whilst empathising with the students and wishing them every success with their protests and legitimate demands, I do however have a number of concerns. Acts of protest should never be undertaken lightly, and where they involved putting the health, and possibly even the lives of children at risk, we must become alarmed. The courage of the students, the desperation of the parents, and the demands of a community must surely be acknowledged and respected by anyone who claims to see education as a universal right. A failure to act on the part of government education officers could not only result in personal tragedy for the young hunger strikers and their families, but would also be an act of injustice perpetrated against a whole community, and would destroy the credibility of the State Government and the image of Kerala as a focus for educational excellence in India.
The outcomes of this situation could have implications well beyond Mamalakkandam. The response of education administrators will say much with regards to the way in which they perceive their responsibilities. Along with many others, I will be following this story with hopes of a happy outcome.