Food is one of life’s most taken for granted commodities, and most people reading this article right now will have access to it in one form or another. In today’s society, it’s almost inconceivable to think about going a day without it. But, imagine not only going days without a single meal, but weeks on end with no sustenance, and then imagine going through this ordeal by choice! Here are five of the longest hunger strikes in history.
5Cesar Chavez - 36 Days
Cesar Chavez was born into a poor working class Mexican family in 1927.
Chavez learned early in his life that nothing would be handed to him, and he spent much of his early life working in various farming jobs in California and Arizona. However, Chavez was appalled at the treatment he and his fellow migrant workers received in the U.S, being treated more like slave labour than a valued workforce.
In 1962 Chavez decided to try and change things, he founded the national farm workers association and began to hold rallies and protests, soon gathering thousands of supporters. But, change still didn’t come, so he decided to take things to a new level.
Chavez staged several hunger strikes to draw attention to his plight, the longest of which lasted 36 days and resulted in him losing 30 pounds.
Chavez died in 1993, as he has since been commemorated as a hero for his charity work and his highlighting of the issues facing migrant workers.
4Solange Fernex - 40 Day
Born in 1934 France, Solange Fernex became one of the most influential politicians the country has ever seen. Her main policy was to increase awareness of the impact that nuclear power was having on the environment, as well as the potential devastation that reactor disasters could wreak.
To raise awareness of her, campaign Solange took part in a 40-day hunger fast with the hope that the public would vote in favour of nuclear disbarment.
Sadly, this was not to be the case, but to this day Solange has gone down in history for her valiant efforts as an activist.
3Bobby Sands - 66 Days
Born in Ireland in 1954, Bobby Sands would grow up to be one of the most infamous figures in Irish history.
In 1972 Bobby joined the Provisional IRA, and after being released from prison in 1976 after serving time for possessing four handguns, he returned to his family in West Belfast where he planned the Bombing of The Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry.
The ensuing gun battle that followed led to two of the gang being injured. Sands and the rest of the group fled the scene but were soon arrested and sentenced to 14 years for possession of firearms. Sands was a disruptive prisoner, and after a ruckus spent 22 days in a cell with no furniture, he was naked and was on a Starvation diet. This led to further disruptions, including the "dirty protest", when prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement.
In 1981 Sands orchestrated a hunger strike, along with nine other Irish republican prisoners to protest about the removal of Special Category Status, an agreement that gave prisoners convicted of troubles related offences special privileges such as not having to wear uniforms, not having to work, extra visits, etc.. Despite the strike gaining worldwide attention, and Sands being voted as a Member of Parliament during this time, ultimately it cost him and the nine others their lives. After 66 days without accepting food, Sands died of starvation (self-imposed)
Sands death caused rioting in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland, causing the deaths of two people. And at the time of Sands death, British Prime Minister said "Mr Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims." Sands action divided opinions, although it is said the strikes radicalised Irish nationalist politics and rightly or wrongly was the driving force that enabled Sinn Féin to become a mainstream political party.
2Bhagat Singh - 116 Days
Bhagat Singh was an Indian national born in 1931 in a district which was owned by the British colonial empire.
Singh became involved in the Indian independence movement, which was dedicated to ending British rule over India, he was committed to the cause, leading to several stints in prison.
However, when he was imprisoned for the alleged murder of Saunders and Channan Singh, he undertook a hunger strike, and began to demand better clothing and hygiene standards within his prison, as well as for the daily manual labour that prisoners were forced to engage in to be ended.
The strike began to increase Singh’s appeal and popularity so much that the British government attempted to break the fast themselves by placing bowls of food in his cell, but he was determined and never touched any of it.
Singh finally ended his strike on the 5th of October 1929, by which point he had withered to a mere 119 pounds.
1Irom Chanu Samilla - 10 Years
Known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur” and holding the remarkable record as the longest hunger striker in the world, Indian-born Irom Chanu Samilla amazingly did not ingest food or water voluntarily for over 500 weeks, only surviving on a nasal drip the government had installed to keep her alive.
Irom began her astonishing campaign on the 5th of November 2000 after ten unarmed civilians were allegedly killed by Indian soldiers in Manipur, a result of the Indian Armed forces special powers act, which gives the Indian military the power to shoot on sight should they feel it is warranted.
Irom was arrested three days into her strike, as in India it is a penal offence to try to commit suicide, so she was forcibly put on a drip to keep her alive. However, as soon as she regained health and was released from custody Irom began her hunger strike anew, which eventually lead to her being incarcerated indefinitely.
Amazingly, Irom did not eat or drink of her own volition until July 26th, 2016, a full 500 weeks since she began. In that time Irom gathered massive worldwide support and even won a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human rights commission.