History of Hunger Strikes

The Indian Independence struggle which started in the 1850s saw a host of freedom fighters engaging in fasts unto death in order to drive away the British from India.

Prominent among them is the Father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who was arrested numerous times for observing a fast unto death. Because of the unique position he held in the hearts of the Indian people, the British authorities could not afford to let him die in their custody. Gandhi was a firm believer of Satyagraha or non violent protest and observed fasts multiple times in order to protest against the British rule in India.

Movements like Simon Go Back, protest of the Jallianwalah Baug massacre etc. are some of the well known instances where Gandhi observed a fast and only broke the fast when the British Government relented and offered some concessional measures to the effect of his demands. Other revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Dutt and Jatin Das have also used hunger strikes during the Indian independence movement. Also Potti Sreeramulu went on a fast in order to fulfill his demand for a separate state for people speaking the language Telugu. This was post India attaining Independence. Morarji Desai and Indulal Yagnik have also been known for their famous hunger strikes.


During the early period of 20th century, hunger strikes were frequently undertaken in the prisons of Britain by the suffragettes. Marion Dunlop was the very first of them but she was freed from prison as the British government did not want her to get a status of a martyr. When hunger strikes used to happen in prisons, the government would retaliate by force feeding the inmates. This was equivalent to torture in many cases and some prisoners lost their lives due to the same.

After a new policy was passed in the year 1913, hunger strikes started getting tolerated by the government. However, they made it a rule to free the prisoner once he/she fell sick. Post recovery the prisoners were brought back so that they could complete their term in prison. The American suffragettes also used this method as a way of political protest.


Hunger strikes are also very common in the Irish history. Going on a fast so that attention could be garnered towards an injustice which was perpetuated by a ruler and embarrassing the ruler was extremely common in the early Irish society. It was also used in the Anglo Irish wars. Every time this happened, the retaliation would be force feeding.

When the Irish Civil war ended in 1923 in October, more than 8000 prisoners resorted to fasting so that they could protest their detention(which they had not been released from) by the Irish Free State. In 1980, 7 prisoners started a hunger strike in the maze Prison.

The reason was to protest the special status for paramilitary prisoners. Initially the Govt seemed to agree to their demands and hence the strike was called off. But later on, the Govt did not listen and back tracked and hence the strike started once again. Bobby Sands was the first one to fall victim to the strike. He starved to death. After that many followed.

Finally, after multiple deaths, the British government relented and gave some partial concessions to the prisoners. Post this, the strike was called off.


In April, Pedro Boitel who was a poet, who had been imprisoned, went on a hunger strike. He died of starvation after almost 2 months. In order to revolt against the censorship of the internet in Cuba, Guillermo F also went on a hunger strike. He was forced to end it soon after he developed severe health problems.

Thus India, America, Britain, Irish and Cuba all have an extensive and in depth history of people going on hunger strikes to achieve their goals.

Leave a Comment