The World Social Forum that took place in Mumbai, India, in January 2004, and that will take place again next January in Porto Alegre, Brazil, its birthplace, has been consciously designed, built, and sees itself as a ‘significant intervention in world affairs’, and the Mumbai event itself has been widely celebrated as such, in some circles.
Two of the world-important things that are happening in the world today are the war on the Middle East by the US and its allies and the general elections currently taking place in India. And the Mumbai event itself was specifically positioned in relation to these two world happenings. But has the Mumbai WSF and the WSF in general really had any impact at all on either of these two happenings, or on any other current world processes ?
The world significance of the war on Iraq and the Middle East is obvious, whereas we in India at least, tend to laugh off the billing of India as “the world’s largest democracy” and to not think further about this idea or its meaning. But it is especially significant at the present juncture. Because the reality is that this huge country is presently ruled by a ‘national democratic alliance’ led by the right, that is in turn surrounded and often besieged by a fundamentalist, fanatic not-so-fringe ‘fringe’. The communal, economic, and political violence wrought on the country over this past decade – the pogrom in Gujarat and the attacks on Christians, the widespread suicides among artisans because of extreme economic distress, the nuclear tests, and the massive war preparations against Pakistan – should make clear some of what this means. All this is not characteristic only of the current government of the right, but it has become greatly accentuated during this period.
At a time when it seems possible that the elections will only reinforce the hold of the right on the country, we need to focus sharply on the reality that this is not just another election, in just another country; and we need to recognise the implications, not only for Indians but for the world if the hard right ever comes to power in a country of this size.
All this is relevant to this discussion of the WSF because although less openly articulated, but which is clear to any perceptive observer, the WSF is an intervention of the Left, but here using the term ‘left’ very broadly – including, for instance, many voluntary organisations / NGOs and also individuals who are ‘non-political’ in the conventional sense (and may even keep away from the party left) but who are concerned with the present state of the world and in general agree more with the political left than with the centre or right. In principle therefore, this makes the WSF a ‘significant intervention in world affairs’ of the Left; of a new, expanded left.
Given the state today of the elections in India and what is happening in the Middle East – not just in Iraq -, the first thought that comes to mind in terms of the question of relevance of the Forum to current events surely has to be “Little, or not at all; and for all its size and vibrancy, the Mumbai WSF was just a blip on the screen, if that”. But if this is so, then what does this mean for the future of the Forum and of the broad and newly emerging international left ?
Many participants have commented in the months after that the Mumbai Forum was an extremely vibrant event (Chaudhry, Vanaik, Bidwai, and many others). Others have argued more generally that its value lies in the fact that it so accurately reflects the ‘messy’ reality of life and politics (Osterweil, Anand) and that the Forum is ‘real democracy’ in action (Fisher and Ponniah). Yet others have commented how much the Forum is a crucible for a new politics that is emerging (Whitaker, Escobar, Wainwright). Sociologist de Sousa Santos has argued that the motto of the forum ‘Another World Is Possible !’ is a resonant symbol of a new utopianism, of the immanent ‘not yet’ that is about to become; and writer Arundhati Roy so resonantly said, at the WSF last year, in Porto Alegre, that being there, she could feel another world breathing.
But at this juncture of the elections and the war, the troubling question still remains : What does all this say for the here and now? Is it too easy to be simply hoping for something that might emerge in the somewhat hazy middle future, and to be conveniently ignoring the present ?
Since the Forum was created during 2000-2001, it has become a spectacular event. But is the event (and the Forum) becoming an end in itself, and sapping energies away from the real world rather than helping to focus on it ? Creating illusions about what the real world – and working in the real world – is really about ?
These are not new questions; many, especially from the radical left, have asked these and other questions much before this – and in Mumbai, not only asked questions but organised the Mumbai Resistance in an attempt to make manifest their critique. But the reaction of the WSF points precisely to the problem; the organisers have preferred to ignore the questions asked, and to revel in the success of their initiative because of its size, rather than introspect and adjust.
Specifically, it was argued by many WSF participants last year (2003), including its architects, that the relevance of the Forum was manifest in the spectacularly large anti-war demonstrations that took place worldwide on February 15 last year (2003), on the ground that the Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2003 had been the coordinating point for anti-war movements from all over the world. For them the worldwide action proved the value of the Forum as an ‘incubator of movement’.
But if so, and without wanting to become excessively mechanistic, then what happened this year, when the Forum in Mumbai was again the venue for coordination between anti-war movements but where the action on February 15 this year was far less widespread than last year ? And where, with the exception of the attempt of the Social Movements Network to mount a peace mission to Iraq (ultimately perhaps not successful), the anti-war movement seems hardly to be evident in relation to what has unfolded over the past many months in Iraq (and for that matter, Afghanistan) ? Is claiming this kind of credit for the Forum appropriate, and a correct reading of what is happening ?
Equally, one of the arguments on the basis of which Indian organisations originally accepted the responsibility of organising the WSF world meeting in India, in January 2002 (in response to an invitation to do so, from the WSF Brazil Organising Committee and the International Council), was that they saw the Forum as being an important means for bringing together not only people against neoliberal globalisation but also all those who are concerned by the growing communalism and fundamentalism in the country. It was argued that the Forum could perhaps play the role of helping the emergence of a common anti-communal platform, bringing people together from political parties and social movements.
But beyond this, while one of the reasons that Indian organisations did not agree to the Brazilians’ request to host the world meeting in January 2003 was because 2003 was felt to be too close for the necessary organisational preparations, another was that we knew that 2004 was going to be an election year. It was argued that holding the world meeting in India at the beginning of an election year could play a powerful role in bringing together anti-communal, anti-right forces, to an extent that it could possibly even influence the outcome of the elections.
This potential (and also the unmistakable and exciting reality that the Forum was drawing huge numbers of young people, all over the world) is one of the main reasons why the formal, organised left in the country – the communist parties – decided to get involved so heavily with the Forum, to the extent of even agreeing to collaborate with the ‘NGOs’ that they had otherwise by and large condemned and studiously kept their distance from, for decades.
But, although the Mumbai event in January 2004 included some powerful events on communalism and its effects, and there were some strong speeches against the right at the big plenaries, we need to ask ourselves whether the event as a whole, and the opportunity of the two-year period leading up to it (including the Asian Social Forum, held in Hyderabad in January 2003), has gone anywhere beyond rhetoric and has had any impact at all on the situation in the country in relation to communalism, and now on the elections, in terms of building an alliance against the National Democratic Alliance.
Similarly, one of the reasons why the WSF International Council decided to hold the world meeting in India was that Asia was perceived by the proponents of this move as today being the most important emerging theatre for neoliberalism, war, and empire. It was argued that if the Forum was to be held outside Latin America, and if it was to be relevant to world politics, then it had to be in Asia – and within Asia, India was the most obvious location.
Again, we need to ask ourselves : Has holding the WSF world meeting in India in January 2004, nine months after the imperialist occupation of another part of Asia, had any impact at all on the occupation, the war, and the exercise of imperialist power ?
It is surely difficult to say ‘Yes’ to any of these questions.
The purpose of pointing out these realities is not to disparage the WSF, or even to suggest that focussing on something invariably brings results, or even to suggest that the WSF should only be about the here and now. To do so would be dangerously instrumental (and which, indeed, the approach taken by the party left to the Forum has already come very close to being).
The purpose is just the opposite : To urge much more serious thinking about what the Forum is and what it can be. The practice – or the tendency – so far been to conceive and to portray the Forum at two very different levels : At the conceptual and long-term (such as being an incubator of movements) and at the material and short-term (such as being a platform for the anti-war movement or for building a broad-based anti-communal platform in India).
It is not that these two levels are mutually contradictory; to the opposite, they are entirely consistent. But there is deep reason to believe that by conceiving and living the Forum only in the latter form, we are going to be continually falling far short of our ambitions – and indeed, that we will tend to miss the wood for the trees.
As happened, I suggest, in Mumbai; for all its other achievements. It was a huge and colourful event, and both the organisers and many of the participants seem to have been mesmerised by the scale, the vibrancy, the richness, the colour, the class (not to speak of the squalor of the real India just outside the Forum’s grounds). It may also be the biggest event that the WSF as an initiative will ever organise. But what did it all add up to ? Is it not ironic (even tragic) that it was hardly heard of even in other parts of the city in which it took place, other than in terms of the alleged rape incident ? That there has been absolutely no mention in India in the subsequent months of something as supposedly major as this, not just in the mainstream media but also even in movement literature and journals ? No analysis, no discussion ? And that it was not even referred to in the anti-war demonstrations on February 15, at least in Delhi ? And that as far as the election process going on in the country today is concerned, it is like a shadow that passed on the pavement, unnoticed ?
We need also to reflect on the reality that to all intents and purposes, ‘the Forum’ seems to have closed shop in India, after Mumbai. (At the time of writing, April 30, the WSF India website seems to be selling snorkels and associated equipment. Maybe this is in fact a powerful symbol of what it was really all about !)
The WSF has always projected itself as a process, not just an event; and it was perhaps we from India who from 2002 gave this idea its sharpest articulation. The idea is not just to organise events but also to build a ‘process’ that would involve constantly widening circles and, through its concept of being an open space, also contribute to the building of a new culture of more inclusive politics, hopefully influencing all spheres of life.
The reality of the experience of organising first the Asian Social Forum and then the World Social Forum has not been quite as ideal as this picture might suggest, but they were nevertheless significant initiatives. But the tragedy is that ‘the Forum’ in India has disappeared from public visibility after Mumbai, not just in term of the elections or communalism or war, but totally.
We need to stop and think a little about all this and what all this actually means, in the struggle to build other worlds – which is supposedly what the Forum is all about. To celebrate good vibes is all too easy. But to build an instrument of struggle – and in particular, towards other worlds, free of the internal empires that we are also imprisoned by – is something very different. Celebration must be a part of it, but it should not be mistaken as being what it is all about.
At times like these, we need to not allow ourselves to treat the Forum in this way; nor, should the right not win the elections in India, or when the US is thrown out of Iraq, think of claiming credit for the Forum.
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Jai Sen, an independent researcher on the dynamics of popular movement, is co-editor of World Social Forum : Challenging Empires (New Delhi : Viveka), was co-organiser of the ‘Open Space Seminar Series’ at the University of Delhi during August-December 2003, and was a member of the WSF India Working Committee in 2002.
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