Even Mohandas K. Gandhi, the architect of the Indian obsession with the hunger strike, did not always succeed in his fasts — although success was, admittedly, measured by Mr. Gandhi’s own standards.
He considered, for instance, a 1918 fast in Ahmedabad a moral failure. He had stopped eating in solidarity with striking mill workers, and three days into his fast, the factory owners agreed to raise worker wages by 35 percent.
But Mr. Gandhi was unhappy: some of the workers had contemplated a suspension of the strike in favor of violence. During the strike, he had exhorted them to stick to the pacifist path, reminding them that they had “their hands, their courage, and their fear of God.” After the fast, he would regretfully say of the workers: “They have not won their masters’ hearts, as they were not innocent in thought. They were only non-violent in deed.”
Mr. Gandhi could be ruthless about the conduct of his hunger protests. On Sept. 20, 1932, on the grounds of Pune’s Yerawada Prison, he started a fast to protest the notion of creating a separate electorate for Hindu Dalits, because he feared that the move would fracture Hindu society. His health deteriorated rapidly.
B. R. Ambedkar, who had advocated strongly for this electoral structure, had initially called the fast a stunt, but as Mr. Gandhi grew sicker, Mr. Ambedkar came under immense pressure to negotiate. The Poona Pact was born out of compromises that Mr. Ambedkar and Mr. Gandhi reached on Sept. 24.
Mr. Ambedkar would insist on portraying the pact as a failure for Mr. Gandhi. In a book titled “What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables,” Mr. Ambedkar would write: “When the fast failed and Mr. Gandhi was obliged to sign a pact … which conceded the political demands of the Untouchables … he took his revenge by letting the Congress employ foul electioneering tactics to make their political rights of no avail.”
Mr. Gandhi himself identified a 1939 fast in Rajkot as an unsuccessful, “tainted” one. The ruler of the princely state of Rajkot had revoked a set of political reforms, and when Mr. Gandhi’s fast did not produce the change he wanted, he asked the viceroy to intervene. “There can be no room for selfishness, anger, lack of faith, or impatience in a pure fast,” he wrote in Harijan. “It is no exaggeration to admit that all these defects crept into my Rajkot fast … I had in me the selfish desire for the realization of the fruits of my labor. If there had been no anger in me, I would not have looked to the Viceroy for assistance.” He left Rajkot “empty-handed, with body shattered and hope cremated.”
In Harijan in 1940, as per his custom, Mr. Gandhi posed himself questions and answered them. In one such query about the ethics of fasting, he argued that a fast “out of love” might appeal to the senses of a friend going astray. “There is a possible risk [that] he would be tempted to go back to his old ways,” Mr. Gandhi wrote. “But then I can fast again. Ultimately the increasing influence of my love will either convert the friend to the extent of weaning him completely from his evil ways, or repeated fasts may lose their novelty, blunt his mind, and make it impervious to my fasting.”