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"It is certainly not our task to build up the future in advance and to settle all problems for all time, but it is just as certainly our task to criticise the existing world ruthlessly. I mean ruthlessly in the sense that we must not be afraid of our own conclusions and equally unafraid of coming into conflict with the prevailing powers."
Karl Marx, 1844


Published Date: 5 April 2004

Mondli Hlatshwayo and Oupa Lehulere reflect on the WSF in Mumbai, and argue that Mumbai marks an important step in the international regroupment of left forces.

The World Social Forum (WSF) was held between 16 and 21 of January 2004 in Mumbai, in the Indian state of Maharastra. It is estimated that more than 100 000 people from all over the world participated in various activities of the forum, ranging from discussions and strategy sessions, to marches and demonstrations.

The significance of Mumbai

The first three editions of the World Social Forum were held in the city of Porto Alegre, in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. The choice of Porto Alegre as the host city was not only because of the deep-rooted traditions of mobilisation by popular organisations in Brazil, but also because the Workers Party, itself a product of the mobilisation, was in power in both the state and the city. Like Brazil, India has deep-rooted traditions of mass mobilisation against all kinds of injustices. Unlike Porto Alegre, Mumbai, or the state of Maharashtra, is not controlled by a left party. And so for the first time the World Social Forum moved into the belly of the beast – a neoliberal capitalism combined with heavy doses of fascism. Here in Mumbai, the WSF came face to face with extreme poverty and inequality, religious fundamentalism, a violent system of upper and lower castes, a ruling class that is not only very greedy, but one that has grown immune to the poverty around it.

The venue at which the forum was held also had a special significance. The venue for the WSF was the large abandoned textile factories not far from shanty-towns. Political discussion and debates were held in rooms and halls that had no air- conditioning, full of dust, and made out of sacks. Besides the political discussions and debates in the sack-made seminar rooms, thousands of people outside the rooms were constantly marching and denouncing imperialism, war, occupation, religious fundamentalism, racism, the caste system and the oppression of the Dalits and Adivasis, in the dusty streets of the WSF.

The significance of the forum’s move to Mumbai was expressed by Jyotsan Tirkey, the President of the Indigenous Women’s Forum, which is an organisation of the Adivasi women. According to her, the WSF’s coming to India was an encouragement for the women’s organisations and all the oppressed castes in India. She further noted that the WSF provides a space for the indigenous peoples of India to speak for themselves. The drums, the shouting of slogans and the artistic work, according to Tirkey, are forms of cultural expression and resistance of the Indian lower castes.

Caste at the centre

And so one of the major themes of the WSF in India was the issue of caste, racism and social exclusion. Unlike many of the global forums we have seen, the socially excluded, India’s lower castes, were out in force. The dalits, the adivasis, shit-pickers, rag-pickers and all those trapped in India’s caste based social division of labour made their presence felt, not only in the seminars and conference rooms, but also by huge marches throughout the forum. No space and no moment was spared in the quest to put the issues of the Dalits and Adivasis on the table. In between meetings, during meal breaks, early in the morning and right into the night, the drums beat non-stop, guerrilla theatre on all manner of themes was all around us, and in a way that Porto Alegre could not be, the WSF became a festival of the oppressed. The Dalits and Adivasis were joined by all strata of the oppressed: industrial workers, those in the informal sector, Buddist monks marching by candle light, Catholic nuns engaging in discussions with passers-by in the streets, and many others. Contrary to sentiments of many a ‘northerner ’, the din of the drum gave a sense of realism to the proceedings: you knew that the pogroms of Gujarat were a stone-throw away; you knew that you were in the belly of the beast.

A forum of popular organisations

The WSF has been accused of being a talkshop of academics and professional protesters. The academics were there, and so were the professional protesters who move from one ‘international demonstration’ to the next. But in Mumbai, however, it was the massive mass organisations that set the tone.

One of the key events at the forum was a huge public meeting organised by the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movement (NAPM), a network from India. At the forefront of the NAPM are Dalits, Adivasis, fisherfolk, peasants, agricultural and industrial labourers, women and youth – all sections of Indian society facing the backlash of unsustainable development. The public meeting was prefaced by a sit-in at the offices of the Indian government.

The public meeting was held in one of the main venues, with about 7000 people listening attentively to the speakers. Speaker after speaker launched a scathing attack on the World Bank’s dam project, the imperialist led destruction of Indian farmers, and the general disrespect and disregard of the Dalits and the Adivasis in India.

Medhar Patkar, a campaigner against the construction of the Narmada Valley dam, a human rights activist and a leader of the NAPM, was received with jubilation among the participants. Addressing the meeting in the local languages as well as English, she attacked the World Bank and Indian government’s development path, which leads to the dislocation of people. Gender and caste discrimination also came under the hammer.

A space for planning militant action

The WSF is referred to as a jamboree in many accounts: all talk and no strategy or action. Indeed, the superficial observer can be fooled by the hundreds of plenaries, workshops, dialogues, panels, roundtables and seminars. WSF-Mumbai had one major public meeting (plus 20 000 people), 12 conferences (plus 10 000), and 300 workshops everyday! This does not count the thousands of small meetings, chance encounters in the evenings and discussions into the wee hours of the morning. Many of these meetings, however, are strategy sessions where organisations agree on specific actions to be coordinated over the next years or months.

An example of such strategising could be seen in the Global Anti-war Assembly. The anti-war strategy sessions were highly organised because the anti-war movement had preparatory meetings (in Jakarta, Indonesia) and discussions before the Mumbai forum. The strategy session of the anti-war movement had theoretical discussions ranging from imperialism and war to militarism. The Assembly went on to evaluate the anti-war mobilisations in various countries. Suggestions and strategies for consolidating the anti-war movements were proposed, based on conditions in each country.

Suggestions and strategies for consolidating the anti-war movement were proposed, based on conditions in each country. Wars in Africa, and US military bases in Africa were also part of the agenda. One of the outcomes of the session was an agreement of a meeting in Africa that would develop a plan of action, which would combine struggles against occupation, and wars in Africa, with those in Iraq and Palestine.

As part of continuing with the protest action and the consolidation of the movement, it was agreed that the 20th March 2004 would be an international anti-occupation demonstration. Individual countries were given autonomy to decide the kind of action to take.

The Activist Assembly

Since the second WSF in Porto Alegre a network on social movement has been set up to coordinate international anti-globalisation actions. While the Activist (or Social Movements) Assembly is not a WSF organised event, it sees the WSF as an important event, and as an opportunity to engage other movements. For example, the deliberations of the Global Anti-war Assembly feed into the declarations of the Social Movements Assembly.

Although the Assembly experienced difficulties, including the poor attendance by social movements from India, as well as logistical problems with translations and other organisational issues, the Assembly managed to put together a declaration with took up many of the key issues in the Mumbai forum [the declaration is reproduced in this edition – Editor]. Among the issues the declaration takes up is to denounce the caste system and all forms of oppression in Indian society, calls for the international day of mobilisation around women’s issues on 8 March 2004, a need for struggle and unity with all peasants on their day, 17th April, 2004, an anti-war and anti-occupation demonstration on 20 March 2004, and international support of the Palestinian Land Day on 30 March 2004.

Criticisms of the WSF

About 100 organisations largely from Asia and about 4000 people attended the events organised by the Mumbai Resistance 2004 (MR2004). The venue for the MR2004 was a stone throw away from the WSF site. The MR2004 argued that donors and NGOs dominated the WSF, the WSF discussions are eclectic and have no programme of action and struggle. In a discussion with Darshan Pal, one of the coordinators of the MR2004 and the General Secretary of All India People’s Resistance Forum, he argued that the forces in the WSF are not really against imperialism, and that the WSF doesn’t allow any resolution to be passed to unify the fighting forces and to take up the struggles.

The African Social Forum

The African Social Forum sent a large contingent to Mumbai, and organised activities from 18 to 20 January 2004. A daily newspaper was also produced by the forum, which highlighted the impact of neoliberalism on the African continent. The forum and its activities, however, were caught in a controversy, and this led to heated debate among African delegates.

Notwithstanding these disagreements and struggles, there is positive energy in the Southern African Social Forum (SASF). In the run-up to the Mumbai meeting some comrades from Zambia and Zimbabwe launched the SASF.

A new phase in the anti-imperialist struggle?

It would of course be misleading to judge the WSF on the number of ‘global’ campaigns decided at its meeting. The real meaning of the WSF is to be found in the rising wave of resistance to neoliberal globalisation and imperialism in country after country. WSF-Mumbai confirmed a major development in politics that had been in the making over the last 5 years. Not so long ago, the words capitalism, imperialism, and exploitation were rarely heard. Instead, activists mainly spoke of the ‘north and the south’, ‘the poor and marginalised’, and “the haves and the have-nots”. A significant development in Mumbai is that “imperialism, capitalism, exploitation” and other concepts like these have made their comeback. In this sense, Mumbai was a major step in the regroupment of progressive and left forces internationally.

Originally published here: https://khanyajournal.org.za/kc-journal-no-5-april-2001-the-world-social-forum-in-mumbai-a-festival-of-the-masses/

"Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever." -Leon Trotsky