The World Social Forum in Mumbai
January 23, 2004 | Page 5
DAVID WHITEHOUSE and GANESH LAL report from the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India--and describe the political backdrop for this enormous gathering.
THE INDIAN city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the setting for the fourth World Social Forum (WSF). Organized as a counter-summit to the World Economic Forum--the annual meeting of corporate and political big shots at the posh Swiss resort of Davos--the first three WSFs were held in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Many wondered what the conference would be like transplanted from its original home. But Mumbai is a perfect place for the world's biggest gathering of the left and social movements. For one thing, India and its Asian neighbors are brimming with diverse--but often isolated--social struggles that need to make contact and build mutual solidarity.
For another, the population of India has lived under some of the worst conditions that global capitalism has produced--corporate looting alongside miserable poverty, not to mention the threat of nuclear war between India and neighboring Pakistan.
Mumbai itself is a mosaic of scattered, gleaming high-rises looming over sprawling shantytowns. Above the tin shacks along the sidewalk stands a billboard for Tata, the huge family-owned Indian steel and auto conglomerate. It shows a girl praying by her bed, an image of a fancy Tata car--and the slogan "It's only human to want more."
Despite these infuriating reminders of the injustices of capitalism, the WSF has an atmosphere of celebration. At the demonstrations that open the forum, we hear drumbeats from Punjab and Burma mixing with rhythms from Africa.
There are contingents of activists in wheelchairs, others from Tibet, others from India's oppressed caste known as Dalits--all filling the air with colorful banners, and chanting and singing. And everywhere, there are insulting images of George W. Bush--and signs that call for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Some 100,000 people, representing 120 countries, are attending the WSF. Every day, they pack themselves into the 1,200 scheduled meetings and events. In one tent, 200 people listen to panelists discussing resistance to the spread of U.S. military bases.
Next door, 500 Asian transport workers, from Pakistan to Japan, talk about building solidarity across borders. Down the lane, 120 listen to lesbian and gay activists from South Africa, Sri Lanka and Argentina. Across the way, 400 participate in a discussion about the fight against religious intolerance.
The main issue running through the WSF is the U.S. "war on terror" and the occupation of Iraq. Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy sounds the antiwar theme at the Friday night rally that kicks off the WSF. "We have to become the global resistance to the occupation," Roy says.
"Our resistance has to begin with a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It means acting to make it materially impossible for empire to achieve its aims." Washington's war makers, Roy concludes, "seek to perpetuate inequity and establish American hegemony at any price, even if it's apocalyptic. The World Social Forum demands justice and survival. For these reasons, we must consider ourselves at war."
As at previous WSFs, the focus is also on the crimes of multinational corporations--and the international agencies that serve them, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Many of India's "Big Dam" projects, for instance, are financed by the World Bank. They threaten to displace hundreds of thousands of Indian peasants.
Veteran Big Dam opponent Medha Patkar tells the WSF, "There is a conspiracy to sell the water, land and forests of this country." Meanwhile, Coke and Pepsi, which dominate India's bottled-water market, have dug deep wells that suck the water table down in rural areas--so that peasant wells run dry.
And people here have bitter memories of the deadly gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in December 1984 that killed 10,000 people.This is not to mention the schemes of Enron, Bechtel and General Electric to privatize electric power in Mumbai's home state of Maharashtra. With the help of state officials, these global giants tried to sell electricity at seven times the cheapest rate.
A major new theme for the WSF is the rise of religious conflicts, known in India as "communalism." The Indian government is led by the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Just north of Maharashtra, the BJP-led state government of Gujarat assisted rioters in the 2002 murder of 1,000 Muslims and the ethnic cleansing of more than 100,000.
Gujarati anti-communal activist Trupti Shah says that the WSF's lively sessions on religious fundamentalism--Hindu, Muslim and others--have broadened the discussion. "When you start to look at fundamentalism around the world, you can see that religion isn't really the issue," Shah tells Socialist Worker. "It's capitalism that sets people against each other, and it's the rich who benefit. Religion is just a pretext for dividing people."
Throughout the meetings, opposition to U.S. militarism remains a constant theme. The WSF's final rally renews the call for worldwide demonstrations to mark the March 20 anniversary of the U.S. invasion on Iraq. Despite the emphasis on opposing imperialist war--and the universal calls for solidarity among social movements--remarkably few speakers have raised the need to support the Iraqi resistance.
Only a few make the point of saying that the oppressed have the right to resist--and that self-determination means outsiders shouldn't determine the political forms of resistance. The issue of supporting the Iraqi resistance is one important factor that gave rise to a counter-conference--called Mumbai Resistance 2004--that is being held across the street from the exhibition grounds where the WSF is taking place.
The counter-conference, which was organized by India's far-left organizations, is raising important questions. But attendance is much smaller than the WSF. This is a sign that the debate, like the Iraqi resistance itself, is still in its formative stages.
But some people--like Rev. Calvin Morris of Jobs with Justice, who spoke on a WSF panel sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change--remember the lessons of earlier struggles. "As a Black man, I am an American Dalit," Morris says. "When I marched with Martin Luther King, he stressed that liberation struggles are 'inextricably tied together.'
"Our fight for racial justice in the U.S. was closely tied to the struggles of the Vietnamese for their own liberation, especially since Black and Brown young men were doing so much of the dying on the American side." In drawing together activists and social movements from around the world, the WSF is a crucial forum for learning lessons like these--about the real meaning of solidarity.
Where are India and Pakistan headed?
THE WORLD Social Forum is taking place in Mumbai during a thaw in relations between regional nuclear rivals India and Pakistan. The recently concluded summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) saw frantic diplomacy on both sides to calm simmering tensions between the two countries.
Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee exchanged phone calls on the sidelines of the SAARC summit. After that, the two countries pushed to ratify the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), aimed at creating a free trade zone in the region. The passage of SAFTA is seen as advantageous to India, as the dominant economy.
Along with these "confidence-building measures," a ceasefire along the India-Pakistan border has been in effect since November 26. This has followed years of troop buildups and threats of confrontation--with the epicenter of the crisis in the disputed state of Kashmir, which is partitioned between Indian- and Pakistani-occupied areas.
Indian anti-nuclear activist and journalist Achin Vanaik told Socialist Worker, "There was a significant dimension of U.S. pressure" leading up to the SAARC summit. The U.S. has been trying to cultivate both countries as allies--to create more favorable conditions for trade in the region, and also to counter the growing influence of China.
For their parts, Indian and Pakistani rulers are trying hard to win favor with Washington. Musharraf has taken a gamble by falling in line with the U.S. As the last elections in Pakistan showed, a pro-U.S, stance is not very popular. At the same time, Musharraf has to appease the military brass, which would like closer ties with the U.S. military.
Indian rulers likewise see an opportunity to build stronger ties with the U.S. while "normalizing" relations with Pakistan. And sure enough, a few days after the SAARC summit, the U.S. announced that it would sell "civilian-use" nuclear technology to India.
Indian rulers also hope to resolve the dispute over Kashmir along the existing Line of Control, forcing Pakistan to accept the current status quo. Pakistan, on the other hand, would like to see concessions from the Indian government--including a partial troop withdrawal of India's half a million troops in Kashmir.
It isn't clear how far these conciliatory measures will go. They are bound to become an issue in the general elections to India's parliament, due to take place this spring. The ruling Hindu nationalist BJP is hoping to ride the "feel-good factor"--with a booming economy and the appearance of a thaw in international relations--to another term in power.
Secular and progressive activists need a shot in the arm to rise to the challenge of taking on a resurgent BJP. The WSF could well provide that.