Famous Fasts in History Mahatma Gandhi

About the famous faster Mahatma Gandhi, history and biography of the Indian civil rights leader.



Renowned Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi, whose frailty and small stature gave little hint of his enormous political power, fasted a total of 17 times throughout his career. Most of his fasts lasted only a few days, though the two longest (in 1924 and 1943) went on for three weeks each. It was said that when he fasted, entire cities left their lamps unlit at night. He was 37 years old when, in 1906, he helped to organize a protest against discriminatory practices of the South African government and initiated the tactic of passive resistance known as satyagraha, or "firmness in truth." His first fast, which began on Mar. 15, 1918, grew out of his role in a labor dispute involving the mill workers of Ahmadabad. Many of the workers, their livelihood cut off and their families starving, came to feel that Gandhi, who was not suffering as much as they, had grown distant from them. Gandhi fasted to close that distance and show his solidarity with the workers and their cause. The result of his fast was a compromise settlement increasing the mill workers' wages. In the next 13 years, he frequently fasted in penance for the excesses of his sometimes violent supporters. The fast was proving to be a potent political weapon, and in 1932 he used it in protest against a proposed change in Indian electoral law, which would have legitimized the caste system and impeded efforts to end persecution of the lower classes. (The measure was quickly amended.) Gandhi, however, recognized the limitations of political fasting. "You cannot fast against a tyrant," he is quoted as saying. Gandhi's most important fasts occurred in September, 1947, and January, 1948. The first was credited with bringing peace to Calcutta following the bloody religious riots which swept the country after the winning of independence from the British, the second with achieving temporary religious tolerance and understanding among the Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims. Unfortunately, the representatives of these groups could not control all their followers, and on Jan. 30, 1948, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

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