Lessons from a hunger strike

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The atmosphere at Cathedral Square on Tuesday evening was very heavy; it felt like a funeral wake. Faces were glum and voices hushed as the dozens of people had come to visit, cheer and encourage was absent.

Nishal Joyram was fighting for his life at the hospital where he was forcibly taken when his health could no longer bear the hunger strike he was subjecting himself to. And the atmosphere there was also one of sadness, worry and apprehension as his family surrounded Dr Gujadhur trying to get bits and pieces of information about the health of their loved one.

The bats flying high over Cathedral Square reminded me of crows cawing in wait. Yet, there was something which was very much alive and kicking: a real connection between the people gathered there, in spite of their apparent immense differences. We were miles away from the racism and communalism that some politicians are subtly trying to instill in citizens to increase their chances of coming back to power. A priest led the way and the dozens of people present followed him, candles in hand, humming the hymn “Marchons dans la lumière”.

Yesterday, Nishal Joyram put an end to his hunger strike. It is all to his credit. His death won’t serve any purpose. His life will. He has achieved the status of hero because, unlike previous hunger strikers, he wasn’t fighting for his salary, his position, his house or his family. He was fighting for a common cause that concerns everyone and that hundreds of people have been voicing against. He exposed his health and came very close to death so that the price of fuel goes down and with it other commodities.

We commend the hero. However, we shouldn’t fail to draw lessons from his hunger strike. While he was subjecting himself to extreme suffering – try skipping one meal and you will understand the extent of it – Nishal asked motorists to put their fog lights on to show that they were not satisfied with the price of petrol and at the same time show their support for his action.

Anyone driving around the last couple of weeks will have noticed that the motorists who acceded to that request were few and far between. Maybe one in 10 and even that is optimistic. The rest just went about their business totally unconcerned. You will also have noticed that many people driving small, at times rundown, cars, who you might have thought would be most affected by the high price of petrol, were the ones who showed the least will to participate in this symbolic call. Bear in mind that it is a gesture that necessitated no effort, no inconvenience, no cost and no risk. Yet, people showed their indifference at its best. And if you and I noticed that indifference, don’t you think the authorities would have too? So what means of pressure did Nishal have if motorists were showing, through their lack of action, that they were not affected by the price of petrol and that all was well?

To make an authoritarian, heartless government budge, it takes more than one lonely hero. The fight of a hero alone when the general population is passive, apathetic and only interested in picking up the scraps thrown at by the powerful is an uphill battle. One might add a futile and undeserved one too.

Mohamed Rachid Rida, a Syrian reformer once said, “To revolt on behalf of an ignorant people is like setting oneself on fire to light the way for a blind man!” Nishal has set himself on fire and lit the way. Let the others now shake off their blindness and open their eyes.  

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