The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A broad front for times of hope
Writing on the wall

When I wrote In Times of Siege, I found it difficult to think of the people in my novel as “characters”. To me they were real because they were as preoccupied as we are, in our real lives, with the hopeful, frustrating, occasionally funny search for a “broad front”. The people in the novel see that the only possible ray of hope is a continuous effort to build wide-ranging alliances. In our own lives, this is precisely what we see; that we should strengthen and extend alliances every day, if we are to face up to the challenge of the fundoos taking over one aspect after another of our public and personal lives. The “fascist threat” is not some imaginary bogeyman. From attacking Muslims and Christians, to destroying universities and libraries, to telling us what to write, stage, film, we have concrete manifestations of the fascist mindset. The sort that tells us what to think and how to live. Any broad front to resist this kind of threat speaks, of necessity, in many languages and many voices. It is a noisy dialogue; colourful, chaotic, anything but homogeneous.

This pluralistic sort of broad front is clearly not just the goal of our Indian existence. It doesn’t need an Afghanistan or an Iran (or a Bush) to inform us that we need to extend alliances of the “like-minded” beyond Indian shores. The less dramatic (and so less newsworthy) everyday threats all over the world have provided us with far too many illustrations of global imbalance — whether of political and economic power, or in the use of resources, or in decision-making that affects millions, including those whose needs and wishes routinely go unheard.

It is in such a context that another sort of broad forum was created; a forum on a spectacularly large scale that could, perhaps, lead us out of times of siege into times of hope. Or at least into times of strengthened alliances among social movements from different parts of the world. Peoples’ movements around the world are working to demonstrate that the path to sustainable development, and social and economic justice, lies in alternative models — for people-centred and self-reliant progress rather than neo-liberal globalization.

I refer, of course, to the World Social Forum, which is in India for the first time this year. For five days in Mumbai this month, as many as seventy-five thousand people have got together to discuss, debate, and exchange ideas and experiences. To listen to each other speak, and celebrate their coming together with art, film, music and dance.

The WSF was created to provide a much-needed platform: a place where people (not superpowers or corporations or governments) could discuss strategies of resistance to the process of globalization commanded by large multinational corporations, in collusion with the governments and international institutions who are at the service of those corporations’ interests. The WSF strategies are designed to ensure that another sort of globalization — a globalization in solidarity — will prevail as “a new stage in world history”. Firmly committed to the belief that “Another world is possible,” the WSF is an “open space” for discussing alternatives to the dominant neo-liberal processes, and strengthening alliances among mass organizations, peoples’ movements, and civil society organizations.

Its charter of principles clarifies that the WSF is not an organization, or just another united front platform. It is “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and inter-linking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society centred on the human person”. The WSF does not have a common political manifesto on which all those who participate have to agree. The basis of the forum is anti-imperialism, anti neo-liberalism, and the conviction that another world is possible. The basic idea is the creation of a space for everyone to come together with a respect for that space. The WSF process includes different trends. There are those, for example, who say that a reform of the World Trade Organization and the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) is possible, and there are those who believe that reforming them is impossible and that a more basic and systemic change is necessary. There are those who propose dialogue, and others who believe only in confrontation.

The first WSF was held in 2001 in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. It was timed to coincide with the holding of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Every year since 1971, an exclusive club of chief executives of the world’s largest and most influential transnational corporations meets with academics and political leaders in the Swiss resort town of Davos to chart the global economic agenda. The WSF has thus also became a counterweight to the options proposed by the World Economic Forum.

The annual fora in 2002 and 2003 saw the WSF movement grow rapidly, as it came to symbolize the strength of the anti-globalization movement and became a rallying point for worldwide protest against the American invasion of Iraq. At WSF 2002, it was proposed that the next forum be held outside Brazil. This shift is important: it shows a recognition that the WSF process must reach out to the African-Asian region where we find two-thirds of the world’s population. Following the January 2003 Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad, a demonstration of Indian commitment to the WSF process, it was decided that WSF 2004 would come to India.

In India, many groups expressed the need to innovate on the present structure of the WSF process while retaining its essence. So the Indian WSF has not limited itself to one large event. Instead, the event in Mumbai is the culmination of what has already been going on — events and activities organized across the country. These events have included, for instance, travelling exhibitions on poverty, hunger and food security; communal harmony; women and patriarchy; and the impact of globalization. The various events and activities across the country are as important as the current, final event in Mumbai; all together will contribute to the process initiated by WSF 2004.

WSF 2004, like the fora of previous years, concentrates on the resistance to imperialist globalization. But it also extends the forum of resistance to communalism — religious sectarianism and fundamentalism; casteism and racism; patriarchy and militarism. The themes and sub-themes for discussion range from militarism, war and peace, to media, information, knowledge and culture, to sustainable and democratic development; to the world of labour and work in production and social reproduction.

The Indian participants in WSF 2004 include not only thousands of “regular” people, but also well-known activists, historians, economists, writers, artists, filmmakers and journalists. WSF Mumbai also has several special visitors from elsewhere. Just one example: the lawyer, human rights activist and Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi, one of the first women judges in Iran, should lend powerful and relevant weight to WSF Mumbai, not just with opposition to all fundamentalists, but with her arguments for a new interpretation of Islamic law that is in harmony with human rights.

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