Hartosh Singh Bal in Open the Magazine:
A dharna, Wikipedia informs us, ‘is a fast undertaken at the door of an offender, especially a debtor, as a means of obtaining compliance with a demand for justice, such as payment of debt.’ Clearly then, at the very root of our most potent symbol of political protest, lies the fast.
But in its original form, the idea is not a modern or medieval invention, it is part of a much older Indo-European tradition. To turn to Wikipedia again, ‘Fasting was used as a method of protesting injustice in pre-Christian Ireland, where it was known as Troscadh or Cealachan. It was detailed in the contemporary civic codes, and had specific rules by which it could be used. The fast was often carried out on the doorstep of the home of the offender.’
For an idea to be shared between Aryavarta and Ireland, it must have had roots deep in the Indo-European past. Vinay Lal, in a fascinating piece on this shared idea, delves into the Indian evidence for this practice:
There can scarcely be as dramatic a text for insights into traditions of political fasting in India as Kalhana’s 12th century ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir’ known as the Rajatarangini. This book by a Kashmiri Brahmin furnishes incontrovertible evidence of the widespread recourse to fasting. King Chandrapida himself fasted as a form of penance, in atonement for his inability to bring to justice the murderer of a man whose widow sought death by starvation unless punishment were inflicted on the guilty man (IV:82-99). The remedy of fasting, however, appears generally to have been available only to Brahmins, and Kalhana was not averse to passing sharp remarks on the ease with which members of his community would, singly or collectively, stage a hunger strike to safeguard their interests. As an illustration, Kalhana describes the events of the year 1143, in the reign of Jayasimha. Enraged by a plot to overthrow the king, in which they suspected the hand of the ministers Trillaka and Jayaraja, ‘and anxious to safeguard the country’, the Brahmins commenced a hunger strike ‘directed against’, notes Kalhana, ‘the king’—the king because he had, through his weakness and inaction, permitted the kingdom to fall into ruin. Kalhana suggests that the Brahmins may at first have been moved by noble intentions; but, ‘intoxicated with their own knavery’, they ‘obstinately persisted in their perfidious course’ until they had prevailed upon the king to dismiss his honest minister Alamkara and promise them that he would ‘uproot Trillaka after he had disposed of the pretenders to the crown’ (VIII:2737).
Brahmins may have been the source of many of these hunger strikes, at least in Kashmir, but clearly their aims were as political as they were religious.