India’s challenge to Brazil at the World Social Forum

The fourth World Social Forum and the first to occur outside of Brazil wound up recently in Mumbai, India. Over 80,000 people from 132 countries and representing 2,660 organizations participated in what has become an annual gathering of social movements and civil society organizations from around the world united against neoliberal globalization.

This WSF had all the hallmarks of its predecessors: over 1,000 self-organized events, hosting anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand people, constant parades and protests, hundreds of banners, thousands of leaflets, round-the-clock music and dance, hundreds of exhibits. The pulsating energy, political creativity and heady conviction that Œanother world is possible’ had leapt oceans and continents to “come home to India,” as key architect of the WSF, Brazilian Francisco Whittaker put it.

The decision to move the WSF out of Brazil was a controversial one. The WSF is a fruit of a distinctly Brazilian political culture and social movement know-how. The Brazilian home of the WSF is the southern city of Porto Alegre, the site of the world’s first participatory budget process under the leadership of the PT (Workers’ Party). Porto Alegre was chosen as the site of the first WSF precisely because its experiment with participatory democracy represents an actually-existing alternative to neoliberal governance and the local PT administration could provide much-needed infrastructure and financial support to the WSF.

Discussion about the prospect of moving the WSF outside of Latin America began over two years ago. Advocates argued that in order to truly internationalize the WSF, the annual global fest had to move to another region of the global South. These people recognized that the World Social Forum in Brazil was actually a primarily Brazilian, and secondarily, Latin American event. Only a tiny sprinkling of delegates came from outside the region and, due to the expense, few of these came from Africa or Asia.

Others worried about the risks of disrupting a young and fragile process, of entrusting the WSF charter to another organizing group, and of the enormous logistical challenges of mounting the gigantic event in a less congenial environment.

Within hours of the WSF’s opening on January 16, any lingering doubts about the wisdom of the move to India had been laid to rest. The grand convergence of participants in their dazzling diversity, with their costumes, drums, flags and banners transformed a post-industrial wasteland, an abandoned textile factory, into a festival grounds. The 2004 WSF was already an unqualified success. Already its continuity with the spirit of Porto Alegre was apparent. And already, a deep challenge to the Brazilians was laid down.

Most Participants Came From Poor People’s Movements

Unlike the WSF in Brazil, a sizable majority of participants in Mumbai came as part of mass, poor people’s movements, notably movements of adivasi, or indigenous peoples, and dalits, or “untouchables.” The presence of these movements in such numbers transformed the political culture of the WSF. It foregrounded issues central to the survival of tribal peoples: their subsistence rights to lands, rivers, forests, and water against the destruction wrought by mega-development projects, resource extraction, privatization and corporate control of nature. These movements are rural, communitarian, oriented to subsistence livelihoods and embody the links between bio- and cultural diversity. Their survival struggles bring ecological questions to the centre of the WSF’s agenda, which have heretofore been relatively marginal. Their presence also poses deep challenges to the modernization, urbanization, and development discourses that continue to underpin the utopias of much of the ‘anti-globalization’ movement.

The presence of dalit movements testified to gross and long-standing human rights violations on the basis of caste. The WSF’s focus on neoliberal globalization has tended to privilege discourses of economic justice and fair trade over struggles against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and religion. But one cannot be in India and ignore the power of religious identities and practices nor reduce their status to epiphenomena of capitalism. In Mumbai, the dalit movements made a claim on the WSF and the world-wide anti-globalizaiton movement-that another world is not possible without a global struggle against casteism in all its forms, both within and outside of India. Another noteworthy and related feature of the Mumbai event was the participation and visibility of other movements, historically marginalized, including by the Left: people with disabilities, people with HIV/AIDS, sex trade workers, and sexual minorities.

The presence of these mass poor people’s movements testifies to the complex organizing process undertaken by Indian social movements in the lead-up to the WSF in Mumbai. In marked contrast to Brazil, where eight major organizations organize the WSF, in India, over 250 were directly involved in negotiating its character through the Indian General Council. This group eventually mandated a group of 57 to form the India Organizing Committee. The mass people’s movements clearly organized to participate in large numbers in the WSF and ensured that the WSF would be financially accessible and politically and culturally hospitable.

For all their brilliance (and they have been brilliant), the WSF gatherings in Brazil have been primarily white affairs of the middle-class and non-poor. This is not to diminish their significance, nor to question their political legitimacy, but merely to observe that the realities of Afro-Brazil and the indigenous Americas were barely apparent. Even the Brazilian MST (landless movement), although a major player in the WSF process, was not present in its tens of thousands in the space of the WSF.

The mass presence of these movements in Mumbai changed the political culture of the event. Although some of the large panels were well attended by mass movement delegates, it was also apparent that their primary form of political self-expression was in the streets of the WSF. Through noisy processions and protests, dressed in their local costume, dancing, singing and drumming, they asserted their presence, communicated their struggles, sold their literature, and invited other delegates to join their activities at the WSF. The intensity and enormity of the street politics in Mumbai deepened already-present questions about the dominant mode of political discourse at the WSF-panels of a dozen or more talking heads, overwhelmingly male, mostly Western or Western-educated.

A World Movement, Not Just A Western Movement

In a panel reflecting on the achievements and future of the WSF, Sohi Jeon, a woman activist from Korean People’s Action Against Free Trade and the WTO, observed that the WSF has to change to accomodate the cultural and political characteristics of the host country and that India highlighted for her and others how deeply Western the dominant discourses of the WSF remain. For the genuine internationalization of the process, there is now virtual unanimity that the WSF has to move geographically.

Vittorio Agnoletto, chair of the Genoa Social Forum and member of the WSF’s International Council, when asked about the significance for the WSF of the move to Mumbai had this to say: “It is a very important choice in (the WSF) becoming a real world movement, not just a West movement…It was at risk of internal colonialism, a cultural colonialism.” The move to India has incorporated movements from Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Afghanistan, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Korea into the political geography of the World Social Forum. With their participation, a whole host of other issues, discourses, and emancipatory traditions are now at play in the WSF.

The Brazilian keepers of the flame were there too, watching, listening and learning. Next year, the WSF returns to Porto Alegre, but the search is on for WSF Africa in 2006. Place matters in this global effort to build another world with the space for many worlds within it.

Janet Conway teaches social movements and feminism at Ryerson University. She attended the WSF in Mumbai as a delegate of the Toronto Social Forum.