Hunger Strike

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Hunger Strike

A hunger strike is a nonviolent method of resistance in which participants refuse to eat, either as an act of political protest, or to elicit guilt from others in order to achieve goals such as policy reforms. By fasting, a hunger striker draws attention to an injustice, as well as to the legitimacy of the cause. A hunger strike may last for a set time, an indefinite period, or until death in cases where demands are not met. Prisoners may be likely to use the fast when they believe no other effective means of protest is available.

Historically, hunger strikes have been significant aspects of Irish political and legal struggles. In pre-Christian Ireland, fasting, known as troscadh or cealachan, became a method of protesting injustice. Fasting had specific rules that had to be followed that dealt with honor and hospitality. A fast normally occurred at the doorstep of the home of the accuser. If the accuser let the faster die on his doorstep, he would become dishonorable. Often these events happened in order to recover debts or to obtain justice for supposed wrongdoings.

In India, the practice of hunger strikes — "sitting dharna" — is ancient, going back to between 400 and 750 BCE. During a dharna hunger protest, the protester fasts at the door of an offending party (typically a debtor) in a public call for justice. This practice was abolished by law by the colonial British government in 1861. Hunger strikes were also carried out in ancient Rome. Augustus Caesar's son Tiberius fasted in an attempt to persuade his father to let him travel to Rhodes. In AD 25, a Roman named Cremutius Cordus fasted to death while protesting the restrictions on freedom of speech.

Notable recent examples of hunger strikes:

British and American suffragettes

During the early 20th century, suffragettes used hunger strikes as acts of political protest. In 1909, Marion Dunlop became the first suffragette in prison to endure a hunger strike. Dunlop appears to have been influenced by the living conditions in Britain at the time, stating:

In this country every year 120,000 babies die before they are a year old, and most of these die because of the conditions into which they are born. It is not so much the babies who die that one pities but those who survive, poor, maimed, starved, stunted little beings.

She was released after 3 days from prison due to ill health so as not to become a martyr. Other suffragettes followed in her footsteps, and soon the prison authorities adopted a method of force-feeding, which many considered to be a form of torture. Forcible feeding was conducted by placing a feeding tube through the nose or mouth into the esophagus, or in extreme cases, the rectum. If done improperly, the tube would be placed in the windpipe, causing health problems such as pneumonia or even death. A handful of women died from being force-fed, including Mary Clarke, Jean Hewart, and Katherine Fry. In 1913, the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act (also known as the Cat and Mouse Act) was established. It permitted hunger strikes so long as the prisoner was healthy; once a prisoner became sick, he/she was released from prison until healthy, and then rearrested to finish the sentence.

Like the British suffragettes, American suffragettes also used hunger strikes as a means of political protest. Led by Alice Paul, a group of women in 1917 engaged in hunger strikes and were force-fed while imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. A few years later, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, granting women the right to vote.

Mohandas Gandhi with Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter Indira during his 21-day fast in Delhi, 1924


Although Mohandas Gandhi participated in satyagrahic fasts to protest the British rule of India, they differed from hunger strikes. Satyagraha or "insistence on truth" comes from the words "satya" meaning "truth" and "agraha" meaning "insistence." Satyagrahic fasting is a nonviolent means of communicating a message while still keeping with the rules of Satyagraha — the practice of nonviolent or civil resistance. Gandhi's satyagrahic fasts were attempts to achieve social objectives and convert the other person(s), which distinguished them from hunger strikes, which were explicitly coercive. In order to perform a satyagrahic fast, a person must already be a committed practitioner of nonviolence and have an understanding of satyagrahic principles. Some of these include:

  • Harboring no anger
  • Suffering the anger of your opponent
  • Voluntarily submitting to arrest or confiscation of personal property
  • Neither saluting nor insulting the flag of your opponent or opponent's leaders
  • Not insulting your opponent
  • As a prisoner, not asking for special treatment, nor fasting for conveniences
  • Not becoming a cause for communal quarrels, and avoiding occasions that give rise to communal quarrels
  • Defending your opponent (nonviolently) with your life if he/she is insulted or assaulted
  • Never cursing or swearing

The practice of satyagraha has impacted many influential nonviolent activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. since it was first formulated by Gandhi in 1906.

1981 Irish hunger strike

The hunger strike campaign by the Irish Republican Army began in 1976, when IRA members in Belfast, Northern Ireland wanted political or "special category" status as prisoners. They began a hunger strike rooted in the IRA prisoner's strike in 1923, where over 8,000 strikers protested their continued detention by the British Crown. The more recent IRA campaign's climax came on May  5, 1981, when Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner at the Maze/Long Kesh prison, died after a hunger strike that lasted sixty-six days. Nine other hunger strikers also died in the campaign, which revitalized the IRA and provided the catalyst for negotiations between the British and Irish governments and the signing four years later of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Protest march in support of Bobby Sands

2012 Palestinian mass hunger strikes

In February 2012, roughly 1,800 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons began a mass hunger strike to protest administrative detention. The mass hunger strike was modeled after the Irish hunger strikes from the late 1970s mentioned above. The strikers demanded that prisoners from Gaza be given the right to family visits, extended solitary confinement be terminated, and prisoners being held under administrative detention (a policy of detention without trial or charges) be released.

Hunger striking is not a new tactic for Palestinian prisoners. This method was first used in the Nablus prison in 1968, and has been used an additional 15 times since then, with a total of three deaths. The 2012 protest raised fears that an outbreak of Palestinian violence would occur if anyone died while striking. Protests and demonstrations were initiated across Gaza and the West Bank in solidarity with the hunger strikers.

Political cartoon by Carlos LatuffAn agreement was reached on May 14, with mediation help from Egypt and Jordan. Under the agreement, Palestinian demands were met, and in return Palestinian prisoners' leaders "signed a commitment to completely halt terrorist activity inside Israeli prisons", including "recruitment, practical support, funding, and co-ordination of operations," according to a statement released by the Israeli domestic security agency, Shin Bet.

Although hunger striking is very often an effective nonviolent method to reach a goal, there are times when it is unsuccessful. In these instances, the state often takes steps to diminish the power of the hunger striker by forcing his or her survival. For example, a government can obtain custody of the hunger striker, in which case the strike may be terminated by force-feeding, such as with the suffragettes, or even extended indefinitely, as has been the case with Irom Sharmila in northeast India. The state may also release a prisoner by reason of ill health, only to reimprison them once their health is restored to finish out the sentence, as the Cat and Mouse Act illustrates. This way martyrdom is less likely to occur and tarnish the state's reputation regarding prisoner conditions. The World Medical Association states that force-feeding is inhumane and a form of torture, yet doctors may artificially feed a hunger striker when he or she becomes unable to make desicions, or is in a coma. The ethics surrounding the hunger strike, however, are ever evolving, which undoubtedly speaks to the inherent power of this simple, controversial, and time-tested method of nonviolent protest.

Molly Colman, Lokashakti Encyclopedia

Selected material about the Hunger Strike
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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