Divisions and Missed Opportunities

By Olivier de Marcellus, 13 July 2004

With the most important counter-globalisation movements in India opting out of the official WSF, Mumbai was a missed opportunity for a truly anti-capitalist convergence of Asian movements, says Olivier de Marcellus

Whatever its positive aspects (which other reports have amply developed), the WSF in India was not the great step forward, the grand rendezvous with the Asian movements, that it should have been. And like a bicycle (or the WTO), a movement that doesn’t advance is in danger of falling on its face.

Whereas the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil and the assembly of popular movements apparently managed to win (after some struggle) a significant political space in the previous forums, the most important Indian movements fighting globalisation refused to participate in a WSF that they considered hopelessly controlled by Indian NGOs with no real perspective of struggle. The national federation of farmers’ organisations, no doubt the world’s most powerful single force against the WTO (as the Indian government’s position in Doha and Cancun showed), other important peasant movements of Asia (Philippines and Nepal), a large part of the National Association of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM), such as the National (and World) Fishworkers Forum and the National Association of Landless and Agricultural workers, not to mention all the Maoist organisations (very significant in India and Asia) were all excluded or excluded themselves from WSF, and held various parallel events that went relatively unnoticed by western participants.

Whatever the quality of the foreign participants, the participants of the host country have a decisive influence in such forums. There is no doubt that if all these organisations had been involved, the WSF would have shifted very clearly further left, since all of them (whatever their important differences) are radically anti-capitalist. How was such an opportunity lost?

Responsibility seems quite shared to me. Certainly, the principal culprits (and those who had everything to gain from the division) were the Indian NGOs organising the WSF. NGOs and popular movements have difficult relations everywhere, but in India the conflict is particularly strong. One must realise that the huge Indian peasant movements, counting their membership by the millions and mobilising regularly by the tens or hundreds of thousands, do all this with exclusively voluntary activism and no subsidies from anyone. They are understandably suspicious of NGOs, funded from abroad, which – while offering comfortable salaries to their management – have an often rather paternalistic, ‘missionary’ attitude, when they are not more or less active agents of capitalist ‘development’. WWF India, for example, was the instigator of a scandalous law prohibiting all human presence in national parks, parks which happen to have been the lands and livelihoods of the indigenous Adivasi peoples since before history. A law of ‘enclosure’ which of course leaves the way open for the lumber companies, bio-pirates, etc. Exactly, the same scenario being played out against the Zapatistas in Chiapas and in other parts.

According to a very credible source in NAPM, some of the NGOs in the WSF are actively involved in that sort of ‘development’. More generally, the Indian movements point out that 13 percent of all World Bank ‘aid’ for India is channelled through local NGOs, including ones in the WSF organising committee, and for them ‘who pays the piper, calls the tune’. Certainly, the introductory text to the WSF definitely gave the impression that its authors were astonishingly ignorant concerning the anti-globalisation struggle. For them it was ‘a process that started in Seattle, continuing in Prague, Genoa and Porto Alegre’, coming finally to Asia! How could any Indian organisation have accepted such a totally eurocentric piece of revisionism? Without even making the links with the whole anti-colonial struggle, the anti-IMF struggles of the ‘80s or the mobilisation of farmers‚ movements (particularly in India) against the foundation of the WTO in 1995, or mentioning the current anti-globalisation movement’s indebtedess to the Zapatistas and the Indian farmers, who came to Europe to propose it. Where were these people when 280,000 peasants demonstrated in Hyderabad in 1998, during the first Global Day of Action against WTO, when Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets were dismantled or during the Cremate Monsanto campaigns against GMOs that so inspired the western activists before Seattle? Playing cricket? Or is this ignorance intentional?

However, some blame also goes to the Indian popular movements. If they had presented a united front they could have dictated their terms to the NGOs, who could not have staged a credible WSF without some of them – or done something much better outside. But they were divided, and divided were diddled. Apparently, the NGOs managed to win over one or two authentic figures, well known abroad, such as Medha Patkar of the Narmada Dam struggle by making some concessions (notably refusing the funding from the Ford Foundation that had subsidised the previous forums). After this the NGOs could afford to ignore the rest.

Vijay Jawandhia, leader of the farmers’ movement in the state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital) had a key interest in the WSF, since he hoped to use the event to mobilise and strengthen his movement. He is also a tolerant man, much more prone to linking than to sectarianism. He was the only leader of the National Farmers’ Coordination who accepted the invitation to the WSF. But he told me, disgusted, that all his proposals were rejected by the organising committee. And indeed the WSF avoided any links with popular mobilisations of the region during the forum. On the 19th January there was a demonstration of fishworkers, Dalits, agricultural workers and other organisations of NAPM, which tried to block the central railroad station in protest against the invasion of industrial trawlers, in particular. On the 20th, the farmers organisations (several thousand peasants of KRRS having squatted trains for 24 hours to come up from Karnataka) and the Maoist organisations wanted to march to the US consulate against the war and neo-colonialism. At both demos, there were only a handful of foreigners, people from the Peoples’ Global Action network who had been attending the parallel forums of Mumbai Resistance 2004 and Peoples’ Movements Encounters II outside the WSF. As a result, the police managed to stifle both actions. Realising a bit late what was going on (and I have to admit some responsibility for this bungle!), I went to the Media Centre the day before the actions to make sure that at least the media were properly informed, although the organisers had already sent communiqués. I handed out 40 communiqués without finding one ‘media activist’ who knew about it!

Of course it was very difficult for foreigners to understand what was going on even within the WSF. While the big demos in town went unnoticed, there was an unceasing ballet of colourful marchers, musicians and dancers roaming around the Forum grounds. Most of them were indigenous Adivasi and for them (and other minority groups and smaller movements) the Forum was a great platform. My Indian informants (including people from NAPM who participated in the WSF) were perhaps overly suspicious and dismissive of these ‘demonstrators’ whom they said were bussed in by NGOs to make a show, without really having a chance (if only for reasons of language) to participate in the discussions. And if they had come to demonstrate, why did they do it there, instead of leading the foreigners out into the streets for a real one?

Participating in the much smaller forum of Peoples Movements Encounters II, I saw groups of Nepalese, Sri-Lankan, and Indian fishermen, Philippinos, indigenous and Dalit agricultural labourers from various states really involved in discussion. After each speech, someone in each group translated: a harmonius babble of murmurs in Maharathi, Tamil, Hindi, Nepali, etc. It reminded me of the multi-national affinity groups preparing for the battle of Prague; at once frustrating and empowering to see very simple ideas searching their way through the incredible diversity of signals that humanity has invented. Will we finally manage to destroy the tower of Babel all the same?

Unfortunately, not only did the major Indian movements fail to unite to win an adequate space within the WSF, they also ended up organising several parallel spaces outside, rather like (though on a much larger scale) the parallel spaces outside the ESF events. All these divisions led to others, since networks that spanned them, like Via Campesina or Peoples’ Global Action were obliged to find neutral meeting spaces outside all the others!

Finally, some blame must also go to the foreign participants. Those like myself, who could have better anticipated the problems and at least made the situation a bit more transparent. And of course those involved in organising the WSF, who seem to have – like Agnoletto – sided uncritically with the NGOs against the real Indian movements.

Unfortunately the WSF in Mumbai doesn’t seem to have made much progress in its basic contradictions: How to be open to diversity without being infiltrated by ‘globalisation with a human face’ (when the press announces former World Bank senior vice-president and chief economist Joseph Stiglitz as the ‘star’ of the show, it is a bit disquieting!). How to keep a minimum of unity between moderate and radical trends. How to organise fewer long-winded speeches about the horrors of globalisation and more real debate about what we are going to do about it.

It is also high time to recognise that controlling the organisation of a Social Forum in any country is a tempting political prize for organisations and political parties. If we cannot invent a transparent, democratic, international process which really ensures the participation of all parts of the movement, the process – more divisive than unifying – will end up as a vulgar front organisation of some party.

Comparing the WSF to the ground-breaking inspiration of the Zapatista encounters or to the more focused, action oriented PGA conferences, I wonder too how people who think that small is beautiful and want horizontal discussion can organise such huge affairs. The rather consumerist situation of having to choose one’s individual menu in a huge global market of discourses, most often not visibly leading towards any real action or organisation, is not very inspiring. Fortunately, like many participants no doubt, I didn’t really have to choose much, as nearly all my time was taken up by the meetings of my particular network (mostly outside the WSF). In this respect, the WSF is a convenient arrangement. By juxtaposing all kinds of meetings and networks, it provides a chance to participate in several. But can it be no more than that?

And then, as in most conferences, there are always the corridors, the friends and the ‘chance’ meetings with strangers... And the setting itself must have reinforced awareness of some vital facts. One human out of six is Indian, two thirds of them still live from an agriculture which their government [still the BJP at the time of writing] is pushing into bankrupcy. Meanwhile, in the cities ‘job-loss growth’ and privatisation is also destroying thousands of livelihoods. All this under a government that maintains itself by systematically fomenting fundamentalist hatred and pogroms. The future is explosive: one way or the other.

The WSF was rather disastrously organised, but as the first great Indian revolutionary (a certain Gautama Buddha) said three thousand years ago: bad can come out of good things, and good from bad!

Olivier de Marcellus is active in Peoples' Global Action (PGA), a worldwide network of anti-capitalist grassroots movements. The diverse experiences of these movements have left them with a common and healthy distrust for global governance, but also for states, parties, NGOs and other organisations that seek to speak in their name