Modern day socio-political reasons, and not culture, drive today’s extreme protests
In 1963 a Buddhist procession led by Trang Nha Quang Duc stopped at a major intersection in Saigon, Vietnam. The elderly monk then assumed the lotus position, as other monks around him doused him in gasoline. Moments later, he set himself on fire.
A simple monk’s extreme protest against the alleged persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam government sent shockwaves around the world.
But it was not an impulsive act. Michael Biggs, a lecturer in sociology at Oxford university, wrote in his 2005 paper Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963-2002 that the Vietnamese monks worked to maximise the impact of the self-immolation.
“They made sure that there were plenty of media watching, and there was one American journalist who could take photographs. Lots of other Buddhist supporters around him blocked the fire engines from reaching him.”
Within weeks of the event, four other monks and a nun followed his example, and burned themselves to death. Months later, the Vietnamese regime was overthrown.
The success of the act is said to have encouraged people in other parts of the world to believe that the method can be used to achieve a similar result in their society too.
Over the next four decades, incidents of self-immolation moved beyond Vietnam and were recorded in countries including India, South Korea, Hungary, Britain, the USSR, Pakistan, Japan, Algeria and Tunisia.
The last act, by Mohamed Bouazizi, led to the ousting of the Tunisian government and the birth of the ‘Arab Spring in 2011.
Inspired, perhaps, first by Quang Duc and lately by the movement in the Arab world, 23 Tibetan monks have been confirmed to have self-immolated since February 27, 2009 — 15 have died.
Self-immolation has existed in some sections that follow Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, and it has been practiced for many centuries, especially in India, in a range of contexts including Sati, which involves a woman joining her husband on his funeral pyre.
But most of those traditions are no longer as prevalent, if at all existing — primarily because of the evolution of the societies, and partly because of stringent laws against them.
The present instances of self-immolations form a modern-day tool of political protest. The widespread coverage in western media of the protest, which is seen as an individual’s supreme sacrifice for the collective cause, has established the method as a newsworthy and effective one.
Biggs says that self-immolation “provides a terrible, gruesome image, but not one that is too gruesome to be shown on television or in a newspaper”.
The tool of protest may be different, but the same realisation about making extreme impact seems to be exploited by people in other parts of the world, too.
Last year in India, social activist and anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare forced the entire political class to accept the demand of an immediate discussion on a new anti-graft law in the parliament, 12 days after he began his indefinite hunger strike at a public ground in the Indian capital New Delhi.
With over 50 news channels in India and thousands of newspapers and magazines reporting a minute-by-minute account of Anna’s failing health, the spectacle of a 70-year-old being examined on a stage in front of thousands of people sent temperatures soaring in the nation of 1.2 billion — with city after city across the nation reporting people coming on to the streets to support the man who was “willing to die for them”. It was pressure that the government, in the end, could not withstand.
But an ‘indefinite hunger strike’ has long been an essential form of resistance in India, since the early days of the nation’s struggle for independence from the British Empire. Numerous hunger strikes by Mahatma Gandhi, who is credited with making the extreme mode of protest ‘popular’ in India, achieved dramatic results during the period.
Some analysts believe that Gandhi was quick to realise that in a country where hunger was endemic and where it is often said that one cannot (even) pray on an empty stomach (“bhookey pet bhajan nahin hote”), hunger, whether natural or forced, would work as a potent tool to make people sympathise with his cause.
Others, however, say that the theatrical value of Gandhi’s protests, which included his friends and news agencies from overseas in good measure, went a long way in helping his cause.
The fact that extreme forms of protest, but without the same amount of mass support from either people or the media, have not produced quite the same results seems to support this argument.
Last year, while Anna’s anti-corruption movement was at a high in India, a Hindu monk in the holy city of Hardwar died a lonely death after 73 days of fasting. He was protesting against the rapidly deteriorating state of river Ganga — not an issue that has exercised Indians in recent months.
Similarly, 39-year-old Irom Sharmila, who in 2005 was nominated for the Nobel peace prize, has been fasting for the last 11 years to demand the repeal of India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been in effect in her home state of Manipur since 1958. AFSPA gives India’s federal armed forces absolute powers of search, seizure, arrest, and provides immunity to military personnel accused of abuses against the civilian population.
The Indian authorities have interpreted Sharmila’s fast as a suicide attempt, for which the maximum sentence is a one-year jail term. At the start of each year, since 2000, she has been arrested, kept in a security ward, and force-fed a mixture of vitamins and nutrients twice a day through a nose tube. She is released at the end of each year — only to be arrested again the next day.
The bureaucratic and physical barriers are so overwhelming for the outside world that only a trickle of images and anecdotal stories have managed to escape from the prison ward in Imphal, capital city of Manipur, where she has been in solitary confinement since November 2000.
Sharmila’s resolve has remained unchanged but the strength in her slender frame has diminished to worrying levels over the past decade. But there are no signs whatsoever that her protest is going to yield the desired fruit — perhaps because Sharmila’s protest has not yet embraced the true philosophy of extreme protests.
“As an act of protest, it [extreme protest] is intended to be public in at least one of two senses: performed in a public place in view of other people, or accompanied by a written letter addressed to political figures or to the general public. In addition, this is not always a solitary act; two or more individuals may coordinate their sacrifice,” says Biggs.
It is not unique to Asia, even though the fact that a majority of cases of extreme protest are reported from the region may seem to suggest so.
The fact is that most cases of extreme protests in the region are accompanied by similar factors such as a lack of representation, the intransigence of authorities, and an absolute desperation to do something about it. Making a public statement seems to be the only avenue left for protesters to shake the status quo.
Waiting eagerly for them in public squares is their newest supporter, the mass media.