Self-starvation: From the Suffragettes to Guantanamo, pt. 2

This is a follow up to part 1, exploring in more detail some of the cases of hunger strike and self-harm protests that I discovered looking through newspaper articles and secondary literature in order to create this timeline.

While self-starvation at the very start of the twentieth century was primarily deployed by the Suffragette and Irish liberation struggles, it became more broadly used by anti-colonial and civil rights movement over the next few decades. One of the most famous proponents of hunger strike was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Like those undertaken by Irish republicans, these were strikes aimed at the power and might of the British Empire, symbolising the hunger strike as a David and Goliath struggle. But Gandhi’s public fasting – distinct, he claimed, from the hunger strike – proved to be a successful tool precisely because of his public profile as leader of the Indian National Congress.

Sidney Rowlatt, whose recommendations informed the repressive legislation introduced by the colonial government

According to Nayan Shah, Gandhi’s proposal of a mass public fast – including one of the earliest examples in February 1919 against the repressive Rowlatt Act – served the same purpose as a general strike.1 But Gandhi’s use of fasting was varied – some were indefinite, most were of timed duration, some individual and some public, mass fasts. Gandhi’s first hunger strike from jail in 1932 was fairly controversial. The British authorities wanted to reform India’s voting system to reserve seats for lower caste Dalits in parliament, which Gandhi claimed split Indians based on caste. But critics such as Ambedkar argued that Gandhi was simply defending his power base which was distinctly anti-Dalit.2 The British authorities rescinded the measure to avoid Gandhi dying.

Thích Quảng Đức
Thích Quảng Đức

One of the most famous and iconic images of self-harm is the photo taken of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation in Saigon in 1963 was in protest against the treatment of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s government. In the immediate build up to the American invasion and occupation of South Vietnam, the image of this self-immolation – directed specifically against the anti-Buddhist violence and forced conversions of Ngô Đình Diệm’s regime – became an iconic depiction of the strength of political resistance in Vietnam, and is a searing image for contemplating paradoxical implications of non-violent protest.

The war in Vietnam produced a vast anti-war movement in the United States where a growing civil rights movement was fighting the racial discrimination of African Americans. With the repression of that movement, black activists found themselves arrested and imprisoned at the hands of racist police and judges, and a prisoner rights movement grew in support of the likes of Huey Newton and Angela Davis. Davis went on hunger strike in October 1970 against prison conditions and as a result was moved out of solitary confinement.3 That same year saw the first Palestinian prisoner to die on hunger strike, Abdul Qader Abu al-Fahm, who died as a result of force-feeding by the Israeli authorities.

Mural in West Belfast of Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike in May 1981

During the 1970s, the many anti-colonial and anti-authoritarian protest movements around the world saw a growing number of political prisoners going on hunger strike. This included the 100 students in Nicaragua hunger striking for the release of political prisoners following intense government repression. Basque separatists and trade unionists went on hunger strike in Franco’s prisons. In 1974, Irish republican Michael Gaughan died on hunger strike in prison on the Isle of Wight as a direct result of force feeding – this prompted a review of its use and ultimately the end of force feeding in British prisons.4 Holger Meins of the West German Red Army Faction died after a protracted hunger strike and force feeding later the same year, and hunger strikes by Irish republicans in Northern Ireland led to ten deaths in 1981.5

The greater visibility given to self-starvation protests during the 1960s and 1970s included some more obscure examples. Some were political, such as the Italian Radical Party politician Marco Pannella who went on hunger strike in 1972 in favour of legalising divorce, and again two years later in aid of legalising abortion. Both Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray – killers of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King respectively – went on hunger strike over prison conditions. The disgraced British politician John Stonehouse who had faked his own death went on hunger strike in Australia protesting his extradition. Perhaps the strangest hunger strike case I found was Billy Marks’ June 1977 hunger strike in Skidmore, Maryland protesting a ban on horse traffic across Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

There were increasing cases of self-starvation by political refugees in the 1970s, particularly in Latin America. Cases of Chileans and Uruguayans on hunger strike in Argentina awaiting settlement, as well as Basques in France fleeing Franco’s Spain. Hunger strikes as industrial action were rare but did occur – in May 1978, three men in the Irish town of Tuam won government concessions after a hunger strike to stop the closure of the town’s rail service and potato plant.

More recently, hunger strikes have taken place on a mass scale in American prisons in protest against conditions such as solitary confinement, in detention centres against the indefinite imprisonment of migrants, and in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp where prisoners have pursued legal means to stop the use of force feeding. Like the suffragette hunger strikes over 100 years ago, more recent examples tend to take place in prisons or detention centres as a last resort for people with very little political voice, and often in conjunction with other self-harm protests such as sewing lips together.  

  1. Nayan Shah, Refusal to Eat: a Century of Prison Hunger Strikes, p. 113.
  2. Ambedkar: “There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act… [I]t was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards of which they had become possessed… How can the Untouchables regard such a man as honest and sincere?” – quoted in Arundhati Roy’s essay The Doctor and the Saint, the preface to B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition (London: Verso, 2014).
  3. ‘Angela Davis Is Transferred to a Regular Cell’, 7 November 1970, The New York Times Archive,
  4. Ian Miller, A History of Force Feeding: Hunger Strikes, Prisons and Medical Ethics, 1909-1974 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 213.
  5. See Leith Passmore, ‘The Art of Hunger: Self-Starvation in the Red Army Faction’, German History, Volume 27, Issue 1 (January 2009), pp. 32–59; David Beresford, Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike (London: Grafton Books, 1987); Brian Campbell, Laurence McKeown, Felim O’Hagan, Nor Meekly Serve My Time: The H-Block Struggle 1976–1981 (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2001).

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