Race, Action, Culture: From back office to center stage: India hosts the World Social Forum at a crucial stage in its postcolonial history

From back office to center stage: India hosts the World Social Forum at a crucial stage in its postcolonial history

Indira Ravindran

Lately, some Indians–ministers, technocrats, business leaders, and freshly minted college graduates–have been declaring that “our nation is proud to be the back-office of the world.”

Attracted to an English-speaking and educated workforce, companies based in the United States and United Kingdom are outsourcing key operations, including call centers and back-office support to Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and other Indian cities. For a few days in January 2004, however, the back-office will take center stage, as India’s most cosmopolitan and vibrant city, Mumbai, hosts the fourth edition of World Social Forum (WSF).

Historic Role in Forging Global Solidarities

In many ways, it is rather appropriate that WSF should convene in India. For one, it implies a symbolic reclaiming of historical solidarities, and the facilitating role played by India in the anti-colonial and postcolonial contexts. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of independent India, hosted the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, where he articulated his hopes for Asia’s place in the world and his vision of non-alignment with respect to the East-West divide. Again, in 1955, Nehru’s leadership ensured the success of the Bandung Conference of independent Asian and African nations, held in Indonesia. In both historic events, India helped define and advance a political ethos for countries in the global south that championed self-determination and independence, and one that valued principled cooperation between developing nations. Richard Wright, American writer and civil rights activist, attended the Bandung Conference, and was awed by the monumental significance of the converging of the world’s dispossessed; he was convinced that the struggles of blacks in the United States were inextricably linked to those of colonized peoples of color throughout the world.

Over the past decade, due, in part, to reconfigured global geopolitics and its own internal ideological shifts, India appeared to reverse or relinquish the solidarity-oriented aspects of its role in global politics. Obviously, conditions today are vastly different from those during the Bandung era. The Non-Aligned Movement, which India cofounded, is struggling to remain relevant in a post-Cold War world order. There is no common enemy such as “the colonizer” and no common anti-colonial platform. The logic of global capitalist and neoliberal economics pits people of color against each other, in the mad scramble for crumbs that corporate-driven globalization trickles down. Meanwhile, the current rightwing, majoritarian, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian government has switched from a Swadeshi (sovereign self-reliance) platform to one that defers to dictates of Washington and global markets.

India’s Moment of Choice

The World Social Forum in 2004 occurs at a crucial moment–a moment of choice–in the history of postcolonial India. In the 56 years since independence, India has cultivated a democratic space under a constitution guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. Most Indians will note with pride that they enjoy greater civil rights and liberties than their neighbors, and more meaningful press freedom than the United States. The sheer size of civil society and the effectiveness of grassroots social movements attest to the health of Indian democracy. Yet, the very same indicators convey a deep democratic deficit and disenfranchisement within the polity. For the Adivasis, or indigenous peoples, denied access to their forests and displaced from sites of large dams; for the Dalits, or historically oppressed castes, who are still held in bonded labor in parts of the country; or for rural Maoist guerrillas who evoke loyalty and terror among the landless disaffected, independence is still pending. They are organizing themselves in creative ways to redeem the promise of independence, as well as to call bluff on false promises of free market riches.

However, neoliberal globalization has not been a bad thing for all Indians. It has vastly expanded and empowered the middle classes; provided Indian consumers with unprecedented access to quality goods; and boosted the purchasing power and self-confidence of many young Indians. It has also increased employment opportunities for women in urban and semi-urban areas. Two sectors that have benefited most from these trends are information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing, which includes the call centers and other services.

The numbers are impressive. Last year, India exported almost $10 billion worth of software to the United States alone, and figures are expected to increase in 2003. By 2004, 10 percent of all IT jobs in American companies and 5 percent in non-IT companies will move to India. All in all, the grand global entry serves both as a boon and a bane for Indian workers and their families.

So, here we have a newly empowered middle class and hundreds of millions of disenfranchised fighting for basic survival. These nuances are not lost on the self-organized grassroots movements, which have embraced the positive aspects of globalization and technological advancement. They are not Luddites or anti-developmentalist, and their sophisticated critiques rarely talk about monolithic neoliberal evils. Instead, they emphasize the specific dimensions that affect their communities–the struggle against corporate crime and pollution; the vulnerability of small-scale farmers and artisans from protectionist policies of northern countries; and the danger posed by multilateral agreements, such as the Convention on Bio-Diversity, to the preservation of traditional knowledge systems and habitats.

Mumbai, City of Contrasts

The WSF’s choice of venue is as significant as the decision to relocate to India. Mumbai, with a population of 14 million, is a study in contrasts. It comprises the most cosmopolitan demographics in India and has witnessed some of its worst sectarian conflict. It boasts the largest financial market outside OECD, the world’s second largest film industry, India’s costliest real estate, and a long unionist heritage. Well over 40 percent of the city’s population lives in slums. Dharavi, said to be Asia’s largest slum, is a shining example of resilience, self-help, and self-governance not only to the rest of India, but also to slum dwellers globally. Under the leadership of Jockin Arputham, the National Slum Dwellers Federation (and its partner organizations) represents the changing face of politics in communities across India.

While enjoying broad-based support with Indian political players, the WSF is by no means uncontested. The criticism, surprisingly, comes from “within” the ranks of fellow anti-imperialists. Mumbai Resistance (MR), a counter-forum to be held from January 17 20, specifies that it is not anti-WSF. However, it rejects WSF-esque activities such as reflection/analysis/debate in favor of “genuine” anti-imperialist tactics including militant resistance.

Not everyone shares MR’s perspective on the WSF. Medha Patkar, a leader of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), and national convenor of the National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM), explains that the WSF “brings together the widest range of people challenging globalization, communalism, and sectarianism. And the wider the range, the greater the heterogeneity. What is most needed is tolerance for this diversity.” Patkar respects the right of MR to organize, although she herself hails from a different, more commonly followed political tradition in India, namely a nonviolent, plural method associated with Mahatma Gandhi and others. Patkar’s critique of the WSF is more pragmatic. For a self-funded, low-cost operation such as NBA or its allies within NAPM, participation in each mega-forum means several days or weeks taken out of their own campaigns for survival.

Global Experiment in Organizing

The World Social Forum in Mumbai symbolizes the new, post-Bandung solidarities. People, not governments, are convening this forum. The initiative came in 2001 from Latin America, which was not present at Bandung. Latin America’s postcolonial moment(s) occurred as much as a century ahead of Africa and Asia, and its countries have been independent long enough to experience neo-imperialism. Not surprisingly, this region has pioneered struggles in areas such as indigenous peoples’ rights and privatization of services. Over time, it is hoped that WSF will move to Africa, site of some of the world’s most important struggles. It is also hoped that Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc–which experience the effects of transitioning from socialist to free market economies–will play a more conspicuous role. As with India, questions of identity dominate political discourse within many countries in this region, while they address issues such as EU accession and the status of Roma minorities.

The WSF is a celebration, a strategy, as well as an experiment in organizing. Its nonhierarchical and participatory ethic consciously avoids iconization of personalities, focusing instead on the mission. WSF, a forum of liberation and possibilities, should mind its success and not become an orthodoxy in its own right. If, in the future, WSF outlives its utility and ceases to move us forward, then we must be just as willing to let it go and to create space for new alternatives. No matter what its future, WSF-Mumbai will mark a triumph, a threshold, like Porto Allegre or Seattle or Bandung.

RELATED ARTICLE: A rich history of building global solidarity.

By Indira Ravindran

February 1927: Congress of Oppressed Nationalities, held in Brussels

This historic congress was attended by representatives of colonized peoples in Asia and Africa, and by their European and Latin American supporters. It included “radical nationalists, leftwing socialists, and orthodox communists.” Jawaharlal Nehru represented Indian National Congress, a party at the forefront of the Indian anti-colonial struggle.

March 1947: First Asian Relations Conference, held in New Delhi

Months before Indian independence, Nehru hosted this impressive conference as a way of asserting the prominence of Asian nations in the political future of the world. Nehru emphasized Asian solidarity with African nations, along with an overall vision of global peace.

August 15, 1947: Indian Independence and Partition

India wins political independence from imperial Britain. Territorial partition creates the Indian and Pakistani states, as well as 14 million refugees.

April 1955: Bandung Conference

A gathering of 28 independent Asian and African states was held in Bandung, Indonesia, with the aim of advancing shared social, economic, and political interests; finding solutions to problems of “national sovereignty and of racialism and colonialism”; and making joint contributions to “the promotion of world peace and co-operation.” Indian Prime Minister Nehru was a leading spirit behind Bandung, where he articulated his views on non-alignment and neutrality.

1961-Present: India in Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)

Conceived as a counterweight to the East-West divide and the accelerating arms race between the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A., the first NAM summit was convened in Yugoslavia in 1961. India was one of NAM’s founding members. In 1983, India hosted the NAM Summit where it decided to broaden its scope to include issues of economic development. At the end of the Cold War, NAM struggles to redefine its purpose, identity, and strategy.

September 2003-Present: India in Group of 21

At the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization held in Cancun, Mexico, a group of 21 developing countries led by India, Brazil, and South Africa issued a counter-proposal to a joint EU-U.S. framework for agricultural negotiations. Citing the devastating effects of first world subsidies on third world agricultural production, G-21 demanded immediate reductions of such subsidies, along with fewer market barriers to developing nations. While hastening the stalemate of the Cancun talks, this move leveraged the interests and bargaining power of the developing bloc. In the face of attractive bilateral rewards promised by the U.S. and EU, the ability of G-21 countries to stay the course will determine the future of WTO negotiations.

Indira Ravindran is an organizer with the D.C. Collective for South Asians. She is pursuing her doctoral studies in political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

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