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Volume XLIV, No.49

India Social Forum: Another World or Yet Another Event?

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Charu Gupta, Mukul Sharma


The India Social Forum (ISF), held on November 9-13, 2006 in Delhi, was a crucial intersection in the past five years’ journey of the World Social Forum (WSF) in India. After the Asia Social Forum at Hyderabad in 2003 and the World Social Forum at Mumbai in 2004, the ISF at Delhi denoted a national chapter, where there was extensive participation—of about 50,000 people, more than 1000 organisations and networks, with around 400 programmes, and many rallies and marches—signifying a qualitative and quantitative marker. The Social Forum can be best understood as an open space that facilitates the coming together of people, either in person or virtually, to engage with each other on diverse socio-political issues. The WSF itself has recognised the need for an expansion of this open space and event. Thus Article 2 of the WSF Charter of Principles states:

The World Social Forum at Porto Alegre was an event localised in time and place. From now on, in the certainty proclaimed at Porto Alegre that “another world is possible”, it becomes a permanent process of seeking and building alternatives, which cannot be reduced to the events supporting it.

The WSF-India in its journey has provided a more-or-less continuity of events at regular intervals, enabling it to continue with the ‘process’ in some or the other form. Open space is both for experimentation and emancipation, to become a part of the substantive message that ‘Another World is Possible’, in place of neo-liberal and corporate globalisation. The WSF-India process has added crucial issues to be opposed, like religious and sectarian violence, casteism and patriarchy.

The beginning of a national or local forum is a noteworthy initiation in its own right, which arose from the soil of the WSF itself. It is also significant that leaving India and Pakistan aside, no national or local forum has developed in any other country of Asia. This, in spite the fact that many people from other countries of Asia have involved themselves in the World Social Forum, and countries like South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka have seen powerful anti-globalisation, democratic and social justice movements. This also means that for the Social Forum, or its various editions, to take place, it is not enough to have relevant organisations, civil society groups, or favourable political conditions alone. It is also important to have a large number of people and organisations who feel the need for such an initiative in the context of their local and national socio-political atmosphere. In these circumstances, the ISF may also be seen as a reaffirmation and a spin effect of an open space, in which there is a desire for dialogue and collective assertion of rights by diverse mass organisations, social movement groups and NGOs. The process of the ISF also makes it clear that whoever is ready to slog, to work, to take out time from other regular commitments, be it academics, teaching, trade union politics, or wider social movements, can become active in it, be a part of organising it, as there is a great lack of people ready to devote considerable time and energy to actually organising it.

National or local Social Forums have taken many forms and format the world over. For example, the Brisbane (Australia) Social Forum operates its forums on an ‘open space’ principle. This means that the agenda is determined by the participants on the day of the meeting, to promote participation and to provide a space for all voices on all issues. Social Forums in Argentina and North Germany have become almost permanent organisations, whose main activity is to disseminate information about, and mobilise for, demonstrations and other social forums. The national forums in Argentina, Belgium and Chile play more of a supportive role for local forums. In Germany, there was first the formation of local forums, which eventually led to the organisation of a national forum. The ISF simply adopted the format of the WSF, organising four-to-five day events, with workshops, panels, conferences and plenary discussions on a wide number of topics, along with the opening and closing ceremonies.

This format provided a wealth of activities, information and discussion on a wide variety of issues that can be gleaned in contemporary India from a people’s perspective. Some of them are communal riots and pogroms, relief and rehabilitation, dams and displacement, HIV and AIDS, education for all, child trafficking, right to information, war and peace, land struggles, rights and livelihoods. The ISF also provided a detailed helicopter view on different sectoral and topical issues confronted by different segments of the Indian society, be it tribals, landless villagers, HIV positive people, or unorganised labour, to name a few. However, it did not provide the space for inter-sector dialogue, alliance building and networking. The ISF was an open space where the majority of the activities were self-organised by different organisations and groups themselves. The WSF-India organised very few of the Programmes. However, all were so involved in their own programmes that dialogues and interactions within the same sector or organisations working on similar social issues was not very visible or profound. There were a few exceptions like the Children’s Social Forum, Youth Social Forum and Conference on Tribal Rights, where organisations of different backgrounds and perspectives not only came together, but could also evolve some anchoring points for future work.¨The WSF has also been a play and a show of numbers. Thus the WSF proudly claims how many people were expected in its various editions and events and how many more actually turned up. The WSF-India too, in its diverse versions, has been echoing this claim, and rightly so. This time as well in the ISF, people and groups came in large numbers. It appeared a ‘must go’ for many civil society activists of different ideological persuasions, as a space where one could find many contacts and people at the same place and time. Tribals, children, women, villagers and NGO activists—all were very much visible. Contemporary burning socio-political issues like SEZs, the rehabilitation policy, WTO, IPR, IFI, the Tribal Bill, and NREGA were also not to be missed. This revealed the deep grip and impact of the present political climate and issues on the ISF. At the same time, the sheer numbers and their innumerable shows and events; the formats of most programmes, where the majority was the audience and minority the speakers; the marginalisation of spaces for serious discussion and debate, even if unintentionally; the sheer mess at times, make the question of the forum and its format even more relevant now for the WSF-India, after the ISF. The domination of the event over the process also needs to be thought over as regional forums, precursors to the ISF, were often not well planned, did not evoke wider participation and there was no perspective on how to continue without and beyond the main event itself.

The ISF 2006 had a sharp focus on anti-colonialism, people’s rights and social movements and articulated an overwhelmingly Left language. Placed under a broad vision of ‘Building Another World: Visions for the Future’, the WSF-India organised conferences, panels and public meetings, attempting to touch upon many critical aspects of the Indian society, and anchoring the official programmes of the ISF into a more structured, neat and ‘politically correct’ understanding of society. They covered themes like ‘politics of environment and development’, ‘war, occupation and conflict’, ‘democracy in South Asia’, ‘minority rights’, ‘identity, religiosity and politics’, ‘impact of neo-liberal globalisation on livelihood and survival’, ‘cultural resistance to globalisation’, ‘globalisation and social sector’, ‘media and democracy’, ‘displacement and migration’, ‘WTO—end of the road’, and ‘caste and discrimination’. However, the vibrant presence of people was clearly creating pictures that were not possible to be confined in any one singular frame, colour or organisation. Political party-affiliated mass organisations were marginal in numbers. New identities and groups, like sex workers, children, displaced, pogrom survivors, North-Eastern people, tribals, landless and forest workers, and their organisations, were all around, much more visible, their voices loud and clear.

At the same time, through its own organised programmes, the WSF-India gave at least three positive signals. First, the all-women panel at the opening ceremony of the ISF not only signified the readiness to experiment with new ways of organising, but also the critical role that women will play in ‘another world’. Its symbolic, but visible and public, demonstration was heartening. Second, the WSF-India programmes like ‘new Nepal showing the way’, ‘towards African-Asian solidarity’, and ‘democracy in South Asia’, and the presence of a large number of South Asian, Asian and African participants showed the potential of Indian activism becoming international, connected to the larger social movements, mass organisations and political actions across borders. Thus even while rooted within a nation, the ISF went beyond the tyranny of the national. Third, the voices and visions of children, tribals and Dalits got a further articulation in this era of neo-liberal globalisation. However, amidst the huge diversity of issues and people at the ISF, the minorities, especially the Muslims, were not present in large numbers. Various aspects of the agricultural crisis, and the issue of farmers’ suicide in particular, were marginalised in this alternative space.

As an event, the ISF can be termed a success, an event to be celebrated by the WSF-India. As a process to deepen and strengthen the politics of open spaces, the ISF was a step forward in the journey. As a marker for finding new ways in which people approach organisations and decisions-making, the ISF was awkward, lacking creative visions. As an experiment transforming the organisational and political process of its earlier editions in the country itself or for providing dreams for new collective actions, it may be termed a letdown. Going beyond the event, the WSF-India has to grapple with a basic question: how can the utopias of a better world be turned into concrete reality?

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