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.)