Fasting in Satyagraha has to be distinguished from, on the one hand, a hunger strike which is undertaken in protest but not necessarily with the focus on changing the mind of the opponent, and, on the other, a purificatory or penitential fast — or fast for health — which may not be directed toward another at all. In the ‘arsenal’ of Satyargaha, Gandhi considered fasting the ultimate ‘weapon’ that should not be entered upon lightly. He himself carried out about a dozen fasts of this type, not all of which he considered successful, i.e., leading to a change of disposition in the other and not a mere change of behavior — otherwise put, an act of persuasion and not of mere coercion.
In the course of his writings and practice, the outlined the following five principles for a successful fast:
1. One must be a certain type of person in order to undertake it. In the case of a ‘fast unto death,’ for example, one must really be capable of voluntarily laying down one’s life if one’s demands are not met.
2. The person to whom Satyagraha is being offered in that form must be someone who feels in some way part of one’s community: Gandhi actually said, must be a “lover.” The act loses its meaning if the person to whom it is offered feels no such bond. Throughout his career Gandhi never really fasted against the British, but rather to awaken his fellow Indians.
3. It must be the last resort.
4. The demand must be reasonable. During the Cold War two Americans fasted “against Eisenhauer and Kruschev” to make them stop the arms race. That fast failed on all counts, except possibly that:
5. It must be consistent with the rest of one’s campaign, if not one’s life. Irish revolutionists who fasted while in Long Kesh Prison did so only because they had no access to their usual violence. Tragically, some of them were simply allowed to die.
Cf. M.K. Gandhi, Fasting in satyagraha, its use and abuse, Compiled by R. K. Prabhu and Ravindra Kelekar (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Pub. House, 1965).