India Hosts the World

India Hosts the World

To the beat of drums by India’s Dalits (former Untouchables) and Adivasis (forest-dwelling tribes) celebrating indigenous popular movements that refuse to be subdued, the World Social Forum


Mumbai, India

To the beat of drums by India’s Dalits (former Untouchables) and Adivasis (forest-dwelling tribes) celebrating indigenous popular movements that refuse to be subdued, the World Social Forum opened in Mumbai. Nagas and Meiteis from India’s Northeast and Bhils and Nimadis from the Narmada Valley joined hands with Dalits from the south and rubbed shoulders with about 100,000 people from 132 countries. This year’s forum was the largest gathering since the WSF was set up in 2001, and the first outside Brazil. Even India–perhaps the world’s greatest reservoir of ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural plurality–had never before witnessed anything like this magnificent interaction of diverse ideas and constituencies.

There were peace campaigners and labor unionists from the Arab world, feminists and sexual rights activists from Pakistan, refugee rights defenders and ad-busters from Western Europe, anticorporate campaigners and grassroots environmentalists from North America, artists and citizen weapons-inspectors from Central Europe, indigenous rights activists and media-freedom campaigners from Africa, and secularists working against politicized religion from around the world. The forum featured celebrities like Arundhati Roy, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz; people’s activists like France’s McDonald’s-buster José Bové and Ecuador’s indigenous leader Blanca Chancoso; political leaders like Palestine’s Mustafa Barghouthi and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn; and performers like Pakistan’s Junoon band and Brazil’s musician-minister Gilberto Gil. More important were the ordinary citizens who formed the forum’s majority.

The first World Social Forum to be held since the US invasion of Iraq, the Mumbai event focused sharply on militarism, empire and peace, and on the many crises aggravated by the “war on terrorism.” The largest cluster of events was devoted to these themes, as were some of the best attended of the 1,200-plus conferences, seminars and workshops held in an abandoned textile factory. (This was a sad reminder of the closure of the city’s once-huge textile industry and the mills’ conversion into glitzy shopping malls, which have become a craze among India’s upper crust. India’s rapid economic growth has brought wealth to the elite and unemployment and near-collapse of public services to the majority.)

Speakers from countries as diverse as the United States, Israel, South Africa, Indonesia and Italy were unanimous that the occupation of Iraq is grossly unjust, profoundly destabilizing global security, and should be ended forthwith. The issue figured prominently in discussions involving groups like United for Peace and Justice (United States) and the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). It was highlighted at the inaugural and concluding plenaries, where speakers, including India’s former President K.R. Narayanan and former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, Iraq’s Abdul Amir Al-Rekabi and Brazil’s Chico Whitaker, described the “war on terrorism” as an attempt to demonize Islam and establish US hegemony. This war is producing explosive discontent in West and South Asia, with unpredictable consequences.

The forum’s numerous sessions on the Israel-Palestine conflict emphatically demanded Israel’s immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories. Many speakers praised the Geneva Accord as a useful civil society intervention, but criticized it for its compromises, such as jettisoning Palestinian refugees’ right of return and imposing unequal obligations regarding disarmament on Israel and Palestine.

Prominent among the topics at other WSF clusters of events were: corporate intrusion into water, forest and plant biodiversity; discrimination against women (e.g., through embryo sex detection and female feticide in Asia); ethnicity- and religion-based politics; Dalit and Adivasi struggles for dignity; land, water and food sovereignty; and media, culture and knowledge.

The forum provided a unique opportunity for Pakistani activists–an unprecedented 650 of whom attended, despite serious visa problems–to interact with Indians and jointly evaluate the recently begun state-level dialogue process and plan initiatives to push it forward. They held free and frank discussions on Kashmir and put its people, not the Indian and Pakistani states, at the center of the conflict’s resolution.

Of the two categories of people at Mumbai, those concerned with war and peace issues and political activism saw a richer internal dialogue than did the groups focused on development or ethnic issues. There wasn’t enough interaction between the 15,000 Dalits and foreign delegates. Similarly, the program lacked in-depth sessions on the Indian economy and the truth behind the current “feel good” hype. For many delegates, the absence of translation into Spanish and Hindi was a big disappointment.

Despite its flaws, the Mumbai forum continued the interaction, collective reflection, experience-sharing and strategy-building that have been integral to the WSF. Equally vital, it opened a dialogue between the organized left and civil society organizations (CSOs) and movements focused on global justice and peace. Communist and socialist leaders, especially from Western Europe, South and Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America, held discussions with CSOs premised upon a shared rejection of capitalist globalization. These CSOs arose in radical discontinuity from the organized left during a period of disarray following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of socialism. Prominent in this dialogue process were India’s Communist Party (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, which command high moral and political importance despite having suffered a halving of their national vote (now under 3 percent each). Traditionally, the Indian CPs have been suspicious of CSOs working on development, peace and nuclear disarmament. Until the 1998 India-Pakistan nuclear blasts, they looked at the issue of nuclear weapons through a cold war prism. They wrongly assimilated the CSOs’ antiglobalization agendas with conventional nationalist “anti-imperialism.”

Left leaders from elsewhere also joined the process. Fausto Bertinotti, national secretary of the Italian Communist Refoundation Party, passionately argued that the left must not try to hegemonize or “give direction to” social movements: “We must distance ourselves from the culture of politics which led to the defeat of the working-class movement in the twentieth century.” Alejandro Bendaña of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Party heartily agreed, as did CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan. Luis Ayala, the Socialist International’s secretary general, from Chile, echoed a similar sentiment: “We need a new strategy, which will give back to democracy the hopes it once had. For this, social movements and political parties must work together.” (In sharp contrast to this trend stood “Mumbai Resistance,” an event organized across the road by Maoists. It generated negative publicity in India’s conservative media, which equated the two gatherings despite the much smaller numbers and thinner agenda of the “rival” forum.)

As a result of a growing recognition that the global peace movement transcends nationalist “anti-imperialism,” the organized left is getting deeply involved with the post-Iraq war global peace movement. It sees this mobilization as the world’s “Second Superpower.” A closer dialogue between the left and the movements for justice and peace will strengthen both.

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