The Weapon of Last Resort


A deteriorating health condition and the risk of serious damage to his vital organs, should he have pursued with his hunger strike, have had the better of citizen Nishal Joyram’s conviction and determination to get the government to bend its taxation policy with regard to petroleum products. Nishal Joyram’s public-spirited initiative has not achieved the objective he had chalked out for lack of wider popular support, which could have tipped the scale in favour of that objective in the “moral jiu-jitsu” (as defined by Richard B. Gregg in his treatise on ‘The Power of Nonviolence’) or as commonly described as the “rapport de forces” he had engaged with the current government. But he can without doubt walk away from the parvis in front of the St Louis Cathedral with the satisfaction that his 22-day hunger strike has refocused public attention to the glaring abuse being made of the taxes being imposed on petroleum products, fuelling higher costs across the board which are causing much pain to consumers, pensioners and to the business community in general.

Hunger strikes have long been used as a weapon of last resort by the powerless in the face of oppressive governments. Mahatma Gandhi, who considered the hunger strike as one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of non-violent resistance, used political fasting to great effect against the British in India. British suffragettes, Irish republican prisoners, South African anti-apartheid activists, Turkish Marxists, Palestinian militants and Tibetan monks have likewise used hunger strikes with varying degrees of success.

There have also been past instances locally when the powerless have had to take to hunger strikes, for example Clency Harmon to bring the government to become alive to the need for some form of redress in the matter of land dispossession. It took similar hunger strikes by lady school cleaners, BAI policy holders/investors and CWA contract labour for things to start moving. If governments are wont to seek refuge in a legalistic approach and contend that the issues canvassed by hunger strikers are complex in much the same way as the current government did earlier as regards the above issues, it also amounts to a government failing to live up to its constitutional and moral obligations to promote the norms of justice, fairness, and equity – the consequence of which is that hunger strikes are now viewed by victims of injustice as the only way to get the government to get off its high horse of self-sufficient legalism. 

When people show courage and the willingness to ultimately sacrifice themselves by means of a hunger strike, it is usually to demand from the authorities, which are perceived to have distanced themselves from the concerns of the common people, that their grievances are looked into with compassion and that the decision makers act sensibly. When the reasons put forward to justify high taxes range from ‘we need the money for subsidies on essentials’… without saying how much, or for drains that had been amply budgeted in the last budget, or for pensions that should have benefitted from the CSG, or for empty State Trading Corporation coffers which have suffered from compensation for the Betamax fiasco and previous transfers to central government, it is obvious that authorities are embarrassed.

Rather than spell out the unvarnished truths, the political narrative has taken precedence and the inability to respond even by a courtesy or sympathy visit or a promise to review fuel price matters as soon as possible, speaks volumes about the parlous state of the country’s public finances, the massive public debt and the dwindling reserves at the Central Bank. Even the end of year announcement of a Rs 1,000 compensation for employees to partially reduce the impact of an inflation hitting double digits, leaves the old-aged pensioners stranded while they may be the ones more vulnerable to the extended spike in costs of living.

Proponents of smug high-handedness or Opposition baiting on all issues may believe theirs is a proven formula, the population may feel growingly disenchanted and tired of continued tirades in an atmosphere that is already vitiated on other fronts. Are we reaching the point where hunger strikes and small protest groups are not sufficient to bring about change or have we crossed that bridge?

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 9 December 2022

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