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What If They Force-fed Gandhi?

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It makes me wonder.

This is particularly true in light of a recent court order by a federal district judge to force feed inmates on hunger strike in California, the latest drama to unfold from American-run prisons. In August, Judge Thelton Henderson ordered that inmates, even those who have signed "do not resuscitate" (DNR) requests, are to be force-fed.

The strike is in protest of the use of prolonged solitary confinement in California prisons, which itself comes on the heels of gruesome accounts by Muslim inmates at Guantanamo Bay, who have been subject to forced feedings. These developments, aside from illustrating the lived reality of inmates, also show astonishing apathy in the American public.

Of course, this hypothetical, although only speculation, may nonetheless be instructive. In his time, Gandhi went on several hunger strikes during different periods of incarceration for acts of civil disobedience. In this sense he was different from American prisoners since his acts were in political protest, not every day felonies. Still, he was a prisoner and in prison his hunger strikes were in protest of the treatment of the untouchable caste in India, much in the way California prisoners are protesting the treatment of fellow inmates. Gandhi's hunger strikes were successful, however, largely in part because the last thing British officials wanted was for him to die in their custody.

His strikes were also successful in part because it likely never dawned on the British government to take such extreme actions. Perhaps the consequences of seizing Gandhi, physically strapping his frail body down, and forcing a tube up his nose to funnel nourishment into his belly would have been fatal.

Had his captors subjected Gandhi to such violence, the British government might have had an even worse problem on its hands. Indeed, India's nonviolence movement may have reached its limit, and the subcontinent might have seen a different kind of bloodbath: rather than Hindus and Muslims killing each other over partition, they might have slaughtered the British.

Again, this is just speculation. But still, it makes me wonder how these events surrounding prisoners have hardly raised an eyebrow in the American context. It is as if they are not worth the sympathy, evidenced by little public debate or protest surrounding the government's actions.

This is not to say there has been complete silence. Indeed the rapper Yaslin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, was the center of controversy after he volunteered to undergo a force-feeding that simulated the methods used at Guantanamo. The taping is admittedly hard to watch, yet even this sacrifice by Mos Def has fallen on mostly deaf ears.

As these events suggest, American prisoners are in the most unenviable position; on one hand, they cannot carry out political protests because of the force feedings, and on the other, the American public doesn't care one way or the other.

Notwithstanding the public's compliance through silence, it is a mistake to force feed inmates who have expressed the desire to fast, even unto death. For some prisoners, death may be better than having to endure the traumas of imprisonment or be forced to watch others decompose under conditions of solitary confinement. Without consent from the prisoner, the government's behavior is tantamount to torture. Period.

More critically, the will to die from fasting is an ancient and revered tradition, and should not be tampered with by the government. For example in Hindu narratives, there are heroic characters who give up their bodies through fasting to achieve perfection. The same holds true of the Jain tradition, whose earliest teachers were immortalized with their feats of fasting to death. More contemporarily, hunger strikes in Ireland claimed the lives of Bobby Sands and nine other fellow inmates to the shock and horror of the western world.

Unfortunately, the dramatics of force-feeding in American-run prisons eclipse the very conditions that give rise to the hunger strike itself. It puts the spotlight on the inmates as if they are the ones breaking the rules and casts a blind eye on the treatment of inmates and the government's role in perpetuating the problem.

In the end, the goals of these inmates are not far from those of Gandhi. The difference, however, is that Gandhi was only one man with a whole continent of supporters while American prisoners, who number more than some small countries, have few Mos Defs in their corner. Pondering what might have happened at the force-feeding of Gandhi points to a government that is sacrificing humanity in the name of saving humans.