The Hunger of Dr. G N Saibaba

May 22, 2015


By Karen Gabriel and P K Vijayan

Let’s talk about hunger. Hunger is a mother. But this is not just the mother who is among the 60 per cent women who constitute the hungry people on earth; this is not the mother who starves herself so her starving child can feed; nor the mother whose one meal is constituted of leftovers at the end of the day, to keep her alive to be a mother, and survive on leftovers again the next day; nor she who will forsake even those measly morsels that keep her alive as a mother.

No, hunger is the mother whose offspring are malnutrition, disease and death. Hunger is the mother whose hydra-headed offspring endlessly mutate, various forms of malnutrition and disease and death going forth and multiplying in the land, as hunger spreads her roomy wings. Hunger and her offspring feed endlessly, gluttonously, not just on health and strength and the ability to work, but on the human spirit itself, and its dignity and self-respect. Hunger and her multitudes mock the labour of the peasant, the farmer and the worker, the artisan, the homeless and the urban poor, the artist, the small shopkeeper and the sex-worker, saying “No matter how much you want to work, no matter how much you actually work, no matter what you do or sell, you will never satiate us!”

Hunger is the number 1 cause of death in India, a country dogged by the “pervasive presence of persistent hunger” as Amartya Sen put it in his 2003 address at Delhi University. There are 870 million chronically hungry people – meaning people who have no possible means of ever alleviating their hunger – in the world, and one third of them – about 276 million [1] – are in India alone. In his 2013 McDougal lecture, Sen noted that ‘India alone has the largest absolute number of hungry people on earth’. Every day, more than 7000 Indians die of hunger – each day, day after day, 7000 Indians per day. 10 million people die of hunger and hunger-related ailments every year. In the Holocaust, by which the world never ceases to be shocked, 6 million Jews were killed: we are never allowed to forget the sheer scale of that brutality and violence. Almost double that scale – 10 million people – are dying every year, in India, but we remain unmoved, even carefully ignorant. Just because these 10 million people are not dying from bullets and bombs, or in Nazi gas chambers and torture labs, every year, does not mean there is no brutality and violence in their deaths. If anything, it is the even worse – because continuous and silently acquiesced to – brutality and violence of neglect and deprivation. We are blind to this because it is part of the structural violence of our everyday lives. Everyday, hunger and her progeny feast on freedom and defecate enslavement over the land – wave after wave of humanity are consumed by want and excreted into putrid piles of abject surrender, to malnutrition, disease and death. And we want a swachh Bharat…!!

The website, notes that, ‘Despite substantial improvement in health since independence and a growth rate of 8 percent in recent years, under-nutrition remains a silent emergency in India, with almost 50 percent of Indian children underweight and more than 70 percent of the women and children with serious nutritional deficiencies as anemia.’ The World Food Programme notes that the 2013 National Food Security Act (NFSA) targets above 800 million people – 75 percent of the rural and 50 percent of the urban population – living below and just above the national poverty line. Here are some more facts, from another website, 58% of children are stunted by 2 years of age; 1 in 4 children are malnourished; 3,000 children in India die every day from poor-diet related illness; and 24% of under-five deaths in India are hunger-related.

Endemic hunger and her multitudes also have human form. They stare glintingly out of the eyes of land-owners who want more land; traders who want to trade their nothing for your everything; corporate big-wigs who want to ram their drills into the bowels of your earth, extract its innards for their factories and mills, and spit ‘compensation’ at you for daring to be there in the first place; factory managers who want to cut more pay, and whip out more work from the workers; pimps and traffickers who steal and kidnap women and children, as grist for the insatiable sex-mills of the cities and the international market. Hunger hisses with a forked tongue out of the mouths of bureaucrats and politicians, as they strike deals ‘for the people’, with the landlords and traders and corporate giants; and then sucks out their sight so they cannot ever see the exploitation rampant on factory floors and brothel beds. The children of hunger have enslaved the land, but hunger has imprisoned its mind. Hunger is not an accident of fate (although it is made to appear that way); it is an instrument of history. Hunger is one of the most powerful means that the powerful have to maintain subservience.

So what does it mean to go on hunger strike in a country like India, where nearly one-fourth of the population is in a perpetually unmitigated state of hunger? Does it mean that the striker is willingly joining the masses of the hungry, as a sign of solidarity with them? Or that she is – like the sacrificing mother – giving up her food, so that somebody else gets it? Or is she striking against hunger itself, paradoxically, by invoking it within herself? Is she saying, “I am already hungry, and you are depriving me of my means of satiation; therefore I will deprive myself of the want itself. I will refuse your measly morsels of empty promises of fullness. I will starve hunger itself!”?

In a country like India, where hunger reigns like a grotesque queen with a cavernous mouth, to go on hunger-strike may mean each and all of the above; but it is most meaningful, not when the striker has plenty, and deprives himself of his plenty as his means of protest, but when the striker has little, and deprives herself of even that little, in protest. The hunger-striker seeks to wrest control of the instrument of the powerful to make her own history – to highlight the hypocrisies that hide the multifarious and deliberate deprivations that are made to masquerade as – ‘Hunger’. The hunger-striker seeks to stage that hypocrisy as a public spectacle (which is why the state tries to prevent them, or to black them out from public and media attention). The hunger-striker in India is thus the embodiment of irony as a political weapon.

Which is why it is even more profoundly ironical that prisoners should have to go on hunger-strike. Already deprived of the priceless asset of freedom, fed the measliest of morsels, and ‘staged’ in hiding, in the prison for perpetual observation, the prisoner is the embodiment of the state’s justification of its practices of deprivation. Here the state does not need to mask its deprivations as a ‘natural’, contingent condition of ‘hunger’; here the state justifies its deprivations and depradations as – ‘Correction’. (Thus it is that ‘Hunger’ and ‘Correction’ are made siblings, even in religious discourses of penitence. And thus it is that the prison inside is merely a reflection of the larger system of subjection, subjugation, incarceration and correction that constitutes the prison-house of history, on the outside.) The prisoner on hunger-strike is then, not only like the striker who says “I will starve hunger itself!”: the prisoner on hunger-strike is saying that most dangerous of things, “I will take your ‘Correction’, and stage it on my body even more than you can; I will take it and own it, and display it as I want to, under the sign of my rejection of your system, and not as you have forced me to. I will deprive myself even more than you can, so that the world can see that your deprivations mean nothing to me, and that you cannot ‘Correct’ me through your deprivations because I have done no ‘Wrong’ to be corrected.”

Dr. G N Saibaba is one such prisoner, incarcerated in Nagpur Central Jail. Victim in his childhood of the malnutrition and other deprivations that cause polio, he has fought those deprivations with a different hunger of his own – a hunger for knowledge, freedom, equality, justice, and freedom from deprivation. The 9th of May 2015 marked one year from the date that Saibaba was abducted from Delhi and removed to Nagpur, by security forces. He is charged with aiding and abetting unlawful activities, because in today’s India, to protest against the depradations of the state, and to demand freedom from hunger and want, and to refuse to accept Hunger and its enslavement of the mind – these are now unlawful activities, performed by banned organizations.

Till the end of April, Saibaba was on hunger-strike in jail, because the jail authorities had deprived him even of the medication he needs to cope, not only with his 90% disability caused by childhood polio, but with a series of debilitating ailments – of the heart, lungs, muscles, spine and now of the stomach as well. This happened despite specific orders from the court that Saibaba should be given full medical aid, as required by his medical condition. The fact is, that the court should have taken due legal cognizance of his infirmity and released Saibaba on bail immediately, under Section 437 of the CrPC, and not just ordered appropriate medical treatment. It is almost as if the state wants to say, “Here, if you want to protest so much against deprivation and subjugation, then here – taste these in all their force, in prison – and we will make a pretense of giving you enough medication to survive this treatment!”

Saibaba called off his hunger-strike and has, from all accounts, because of judicial intervention, been receiving some minimal medical treatment since then, to help him cope with his condition. However, he may not survive the prison, even before his trial begins – and that is perhaps what the Indian state also wants. Saibaba, among many others, embodies the struggle against deprivation, want, and that mystification of history called Hunger. In his passionate pursuit of knowledge, and in his commitment to his vocation as a teacher, he embodies the struggle especially against the enslavement of the mind through the technologies of want, that are being honed to sophistication by the Indian state, and by the social elites who occupy it.

Saibaba was arrested long ago by the state, when he fell victim to the polio that wandered freely through the land and confined him to a wheelchair. But when he showed that this would not stop him, he needed to be arrested again, on charges of being unlawful because he would not be stopped by his condition. It is time to demand his release with a hunger that matches that of the conjoined insatiable stomachs of the ‘Company’ and the Indian state.


[1] Hunger continues to take its largest toll in Southern Asia, which includes the countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The estimate of 276 million chronically undernourished people in 2012–14 is only marginally lower than the number in 1990–92.

No Comments »

Leave a comment