The India Social Forum 2006, held in Delhi in early November was a veritable carnival – of discussions, debates and meetings on subjects ranging from migratory labour, displacement and trafficking to children’s rights, special economic zones and issues of sexuality and gender – held in an atmosphere of heady optimism and attended by thousands. But it was not merely a talking shop, infused as it was with organised and spontaneous cultural performances that celebrated peoples’ struggles, rights and identities. MUKUL SHARMA, CHARU GUPTA
Dates: November 9 to 13, 2006. Place: Delhi Exhibition Grounds, covering 17-18 acres.
Happening: An extraordinary mix of people, heady vitality, chaotic atmosphere – innumerable rallies, protests and cultural expressions by tribals, dalits, women, refugees from Myanmar, migrants from Nepal; hundreds of workshops, conferences and public meetings against globalisation, World Trade Organisation (WTO), Special Economic Zones, displacement, floods and droughts, and debates over social security, child labour and education and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA); dozens of street plays, films, music and dances being performed at the Paul Robeson, Govind Vidyarthi, Bulleh Shah, Safdar Rangmanch, Panul Pal and Ghulam Farid stages and at the Public ka Multiplex; Youth Social Forum articulating the visions of youth and discussing issues like gender and sexuality, migration, trafficking and displacement, environment and ecology, the world of work and labour, and student politics, in various corners; Children’s Social Forum representing a world of children, with children, and demanding a charter of child rights; various social groups like sex workers, transsexuals, migrant labourers, rickshaw-pullers, Muslim women, coastal fisherfolk and agricultural labourers raising their sectoral issues – the India Social Forum (ISF) 2006 had arrived.
The ISF had diversity: in ideas, views, topics and organisations, suggesting the multiplicity of activism in the country; and differences: in ways of working and expressing. It was a reflection of the huge democratic canvas of this country, where democratic aspirations, In such an atmosphere, the open space of the ISF was not a neutral, free-for-all space. The space between November 9 and 13, in which more than 400 programmes were held, most of them organised by various organisations themselves, with only 25 programmes of WSF-India, was a political space. A political space that was being determined to an extent by contemporary political issues, demands and struggles.
On issues like Special Economic Zones, the NREGA, the Tribal Bill, the Trade Agreement and WTO, minority rights, the Gujarat carnage, and farmers’ suicides, clear-cut, people’s stated positions and perspectives were repeatedly being affirmed and reaffirmed in this political space.
At the same time, there was a “spacelessness” in this political space, which was not in consonance with the main slogan of ISF – ‘Building Another World: Visions for the Future’. There was political fuzziness, lack of clarity about the future, blurred vision about going beyond the immediate, beyond the present. Overwhelming open space, overtly or covertly, overlooks the wider political vision and strategy. Sheer numbers and energy are not enough for a coming together of a broader common good or a wider vision – this too was demonstrated at the ISF.
Process and Event The ISF is an ongoing initiative. It does not exist only during events, at Hyderabad, Mumbai or Delhi. Rather, it may be seen as a continuous process of working towards alternatives, and a counter culture. However, the process of ISF was at best some pre-forum activities, only geared towards building up the main event, with no perspective of continuing without and beyond the main event itself. With the initiative of a few organisations at the regional levels, the Jharkhand Social Forum, Bihar Social Forum, Western Consultation (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa), Tamil Nadu Social Forum, Orissa Social Forum, Uttar Pradesh Social Forum, Himachal Social Forum and North-Eastern Social Forum did take place, but as mild, meagrely organised affairs. Some sectors like tribals, dalits, trade unions and women too had their sectoral meetings.
The state forums, regional consultations and sectoral meetings were at times rich in content and focused in nature. For example, the western consultation had farmers issues, SEZ, displacement and unorganised labour as dominant themes. Identities and struggles are stated in various ways. At times there was disorganisation, irregularity, chaos, at others clarity and organisation; sometimes the local got connected to the global, at others it remained disparate; occasionally it was short-lived, at others it had a longterm impact. Whatever there was at the ISF, it was not the status quo. There was a deep desire for change. Whatever there was, it was not dull, nor boring. There was dust, energy, enthusiasm. Whatever there was, it was not loneliness, not emptiness.
There were thousands of people, ready to think, live and fight. Whatever there was, it was not statecraft, not a showpiece. There was a counter public, a counter culture, and questioning.
Place and Politics ISF emerged from the idea of an open space in Delhi, at a time when the democratic politics of the country is passing through serious tensions. There is a central government, which came to power riding on people’s feelings, an anti-communal plank and a pro-poor policy. It has the support of the left. It has to pass through the aspirations of people’s organisations, movements and groups. However, the left, and people’s groups, like the waves of an ocean, constantly collide with the rocks of the neoliberal policies of the government, recede, and again strike, and the process continues. Wars have increased, the power of the markets has not reduced, and the alienation of the poor, minorities, and victims of pogroms continues.
There is some heat over certain issues, but overall there is no escalation of people’s politics.
The Bihar Forum had flood, drought, agriculture and migration as the focus. The main event at Delhi, in itself a logistical nightmare with 50,000 people needing accommodation and hundreds of self-organised events, becomes like a huge five-day marathon show. Not only is a huge fund requirement to make this possible a big preoccupation, but to see that the show is successfully completed, seems to be the vision, the mission, the only goal and objective. The reduction of the process to merely pre-forum activities, the absence of local-regional issues finding a focused resonance as key thematic axis at the national social forum, and post-forum activities not at all in sight during the forum, create serious disconnects and gaps in the present practice of the Social Forum in India.
India and International Indian social and political activism has the humility, eagerness and preparedness to connect and learn from the socialpolitical movements and organisations, against the onslaught of global capital. This was reflected in the ISF and had many interesting dimensions.
First, even though it was the national chapter of the process, the ISF kept its thematic axis also rooted in building solidarity exchanges with democratic and peoples’ movements in neighbourhoods and in the international arena.
Second, it strove to build an Asian-African solidarity, signified not only in the strengthening of the World Social Forum (WSF) journey with WSF 2007 for the first time travelling to Africa, but also in its intention to build a south-south solidarity in a world where even internationalism is often routed, and has to travel through, the European and developed world.
Third, the nearness to immediate/distant neighbourhoods like Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Palestine from the perspective of peoples’ organisations, gave the ISF some more vibrancy and credibility.
The large number of participants from Africa, Asia and South Asia in the ISF, and the themes of “New Nepal: Showing the Way”, “Democracy in South Asia”, and “Towards African-Asian Solidarity” had the possibilities of opening new windows for international solidarity, for experimentation with democratic and emancipatory politics, people-to-people exchanges, and common themes and programmes. It was also reflected in some of the programmes exploring how this solidarity could be expressed in concrete, real terms like climate change negotiations, carbon trading, India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) and people’s perspective, and problems of coastal fisherfolk in south Asia.
Usually internationalism and its practice is governed through NGOs/INGOs, as they have the resources, practice, and networks to work on this. ISF, in a small way, seemed to open the grounds for international solidarity and sharing, beyond the confines of NGOs, even when the international participation came primarily from the NGOs.
Old and New, Bad and Good The key themes of the different editions of the WSF in India seem to be quite predictable, given its opposition to global capitalism, neoliberalism, war, religious fundamentalism and casteism. Opposition to globalisation has often been typecast and labelled in fixed ways in the official, WSF-India organised calendar of events.
War and peace, democracy, environment, labour, women’s and dalit issues have been the other dominant official themes from the very beginning of the WSF-India chapter, and all of this was reflected in the ISF 2006. Like in WSF 2004 at Mumbai, culture, or rather counter-cultural spaces, remained one of the main draws at this ISF, showcasing peoples’ cultures, popular culture and works of artists, filmmakers and performers. There were dances, theatres, films, songs, bands.
If we include the impromptu or unofficial cultural events, spontaneous public performances, and the importance and space given to cultural performances in the opening and closing ceremonies of the ISF, and the weaving of culture into various seminars, conferences and workshops, these events, including the ISF itself, can also be defined as predominantly cultural forums. These cultural expressions are not just a fight for rights but a celebration of rights, of counter spaces, where sit-and-talk is not the only model of activists’ engagement, and other ways of engaging with politics emerge as equally powerful.
Besides the old issues, ISF 2006 did throw up some new concerns and identities, or at least made them more visible, in comparison to its earlier editions. For the first time, there was an all-women panel at the opening. Even with all the limitations, it did have a symbolic significance. The tribals from different parts of the country were not only visible with their songs, dances and questions of identities, but the issues predominant in the tribal regions today – terror and violence, displacement, governance of natural resources, tribal movements – were widely debated. Issues of sexuality, sex workers and transsexuals came out openly and visibly to assert their voices and visions. Another significant addition was the presentation and participation of children under the Children’s Social Forum, who were articulating the diverse dimensions of child rights. ISF 2006, more than any other edition of the forum in India, saw questions of the northeastern region being raised by the northeastern people, through their discussions, rallies and exhibitions. Thus, some new sectoral identities emerged and asserted themselves.
There were limitations however. They remained confined into their own organisational worlds. Once again Muslims could be counted on one’s fingertips at the ISF, though the themes of minority rights and issues of survivors of communal carnage were discussed.
With all its charisma and pulse, there are of course disturbing aspects too. One saw ragpickers and sweepers, most of them dalits. There was use of plastic. The funding impasse continues to haunt ISF. There were hiccups and chaos. One also wondered if cultural spaces and seminars could take place in ways which strengthen each other and not try to overpower one another.
It also made one realise that if WSF-India had to go forward and had to have a continuing relevance, then many more mass organisations had to come forward. Individuals have to be involved, but they are on the margins of the event, and have limitations. While separate organisations came up with powerful agendas, is it possible to draw many more in the process of organisation of the event itself, without succumbing to manipulative power politics? ISF also has to continue to deal with larger questions. Can one singular event, a mela, which has a carnivalesque character, raise and sustain larger issues? Is there not a need to have more local, regional forums, which can raise questions in an ongoing fashion? Without losing its character of an open space, or the autonomy of various struggles and movements, how can it have a larger, common vision for the future?
At the same time, how can it continue to be a coordinating effort, and retain its non-representative character? How can processes of dialogue, of building bridges while retaining differences, be strengthened? ISF has not given as many answers as raised more questions.
The principal beauty of the ISF 2006, like its predecessors, was that no single organisation, political body or movement could lay a singular claim to it, or dominate it. The dynamism that its open space throws up cannot be tied or controlled in any neat segments, bodies, organisations or movements. It celebrates the messiness, the diversity, the disorder, the vibrancy of social movements, which cannot be brought under a singular order. Its very character and nature prevents any one stream of radical politics or social movement from hegemonising it, and that remains its biggest promise. It teaches us to live with our differences, together yet separate, questioning neoliberal globalisation, politics of violence, war and militarism, patriarchies, casteisms, racism, communalism and fundamentalisms, in different and diverse ways.
The Indian chapter of the forum is critically significant, as it is linked to wider experiments within the WSF.
Simultaneously, its national character also signifies the most thorny terrain, and the most contested political domain. Email: