Post-Karachi: A place where collective happiness & frustrations gave birth to the "larger than life" Print E-mail

April 6, 2006 Thursday Rabi-ul-Awwal 7, 1427

Walk the talk

The ‘rave and rant’ of life

By Adil Ahmad

The voice of the people reached a crescendo at the World Social Forum (WSF) in Karachi with an uninhibited expression of fears and frustrations on a huge diversity of socio-economic issues. Over 500 activities, ranging from seminars, conferences, demonstrations, musical and cultural shows and theatre, spread across five days, engaged the over 30,000 delegates and media. Representing 59 countries including Pakistan, these large numbers descended on Karachi, giving the local tourism industry a much-needed boost.

The World Social Forum is a gathering that is annually held in Porto Alegre, Brazil and other world cities that are nominated by the WSF International Council. Founded in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001, WSF sees itself as an antidote to the annual gathering of political and business elite at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. The WSF strongly believes in opposing globalisation, and wants both the corporations and the governments of the West to change their ways and do more for the people and nations of the developing world.

The themes of the Forum aim at fighting poverty, disease and environmental damage. Its objective is to replace globalisation by a fairer, healthier, and cleaner version of global trade in which poorer countries have better opportunities for advancement.

The motto of WSF is “another world is possible”. Through this slogan, the Forum comprises speakers, workshops, panels, debates, marches and cultural events. It provides an open platform for activists and intellectuals alike to discuss strategies of resistance to globalisation, and to present constructive alternatives. Prominent American intellectual Noam Chomsky has delved into the history of 20th century world economics to explain the need for the World Social Forum. In his view, integration of the international economy, i.e. globalisation, has led to the establishment of economic liberalisation and protectionism. This has created disastrous effects for the world’s poor and the oppressed, while the rich and the powerful are getting further strengthened. He observes that these effects have led to substantial protests and public opposition, which has taken many forms throughout the world.

The World Social Forum, according to Chomsky, offers opportunities of unparalleled importance to bring together popular forces from varied constituencies from the richer and poor countries alike, to develop constructive alternatives that will defend the overwhelming majority of the world’s population from the attack on the fundamental human rights, and to move on to break down illegitimate power concentrations and extend the domains of justice and freedom.

The World Social Forum is opposed to all authoritarian and reductionist views of history and to the use of violence as a means of social control by the state. It upholds respect for human rights, for peaceful relations, in equality and solidarity among races, genders and peoples, and condemns all forms of domination and subjection of one person by another.

“The WSF process in Pakistan must necessarily make space for all struggling sections of society to come together and articulate their struggles and visions, individually and collectively, against the neo-liberal economic agenda of the world and national elite, which is breaking down the very fabric of the lives of ordinary people all over the world and marginalising the majority of the world people, keeping profits as the main criteria of development rather than society, and destroying the freedoms and rights of all women, men, and children to live in peace, security, and dignity,” said one of the impassioned organisers at Karachi.

“The WSF will strive to encourage a process that allows all of those who are combating communal fascism and fundamentalism to come together, to hear and understand each other, to explore areas of common interest, and also our differences, and to learn from the experiences and struggles of people here and in other countries,” he added.

The opening ceremony of the WSF witnessed a fair bit of tragic hilarity when the white doves of peace were released from a sack upon the arrival of Indian MP Ms Pande. Try as they might they just couldn’t fly. They had been cooped up in that sack for far too long, and their wings just wouldn’t respond to the freedom that was suddenly theirs. Can the workers and peasants, used to a life of supervision and suppression, handle freedom?

A point that generally went missing at the very large WSF assembly was the full and unfettered freedom of expression at the venue. Asma Jahangir and Tariq Ali made full use of it, with Jehangir’s fiery and challenging style, more suited to an election rally, underlining that freedom of expression.

It was the same in all the enclosures, with panels of speakers venting the kind of spleen against the Establishment, both national and international, that would have been unimaginable a very short while ago. Was the ‘samraj’, the imperial presence, relenting?

The freedom of the Press has been unprecedented in Pakistan, and acknowledged by all with no exceptions. Here we were at the KMC Sports and Cultural Complex, a government property. Outside, the official traffic police had blocked off an entire section of Kashmir Road to facilitate WSF delegates who thronged the venue in the thousands from 59 countries. The Pakistan Army’s Rangers were manning the crossroads and other positions, ensuring security for the WSF delegates.

When I put this question to Farooq Tariq, the General Secretary of the Labour Party of Pakistan, he countered that the organisers had paid one million rupees to the City Government for the use of the premises.

     Unfortunately, the mood at the WSF was one of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The leaders of the movement had come to condemn and castigate, not brainstorm and strategize with open minds. The anti-World Bank and MNCs seminar ended on the note that a reformed World Bank willing to retire the Third World debt was no longer enough. “We want no World Bank,” said the convener of the seminar.

Asim Sajjad Akhtar, professor of political science at the LUMS University in Lahore, and the Convener of the Peoples Rights Movement in Pakistan, was adamant at the ‘Globalisation and anti-globalisation’ seminar organised by the Labour Education Forum. “It is no longer enough to disapprove of the ‘samraj’ imperialists who are advocating globalisation in an effort to perpetuate their hegemony over the world, often militarily,” he said. “We must either declare ourselves with them, or against them.”

His statement is symptomatic of a complete breakdown of dialogue and loss of faith and hope in achieving a shared understanding, whereby the so-called North uses its considerable material clout in alleviating the poverty and suffering in the ever burgeoning South.

The old leftists have found a second life in the WSF, and sense that victory may actually be at hand. Technology based connectivity has startled the pace of progress in every sphere of human endeavour. What took years to accomplish earlier is now easily done in months. “We must stop pandering to the emotionalism of the un-empowered and the illiterate, and propagate a confrontational path with no space to manoeuvre and negotiate,” said a delegate, clearly alarmed by the belligerence in the general mood.

“The people must be magnanimous in victory, and accept in their folds those amongst the ‘samraj’ who have seen the light and wish to redeem their past sins by now doing things right,” he added.

On a more local organisational note, hygiene and general cleanliness was a substantial issue at the Karachi WSF. The makeshift public toilets were a mess with no water for flushing. The garbage cans were conspicuous by their complete absence, with litter strewn all over the place. Even the toilets in the air-conditioned media centre lacked flushing facilities. At an inter-faith seminar the issue of religion-based discrimination was brought up by a speaker when he quoted a local government advertisement in the newspapers recruiting sanitary workers with the qualification that they had to be non-Muslims.

“Cleanliness,” he said with some sarcasm, “is only half the faith when somebody other than ourselves is doing the cleaning up. We need to practice what we preach. So let us start cleaning up our acts ourselves for a change and incur the pleasure and bounty of the Lord.” n

Revolution in the making

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, said the little voice in my head as the sea of people before us ambled towards the barely visible entrance of the City Sports Complex. While apathy rears its ugly head a bit too often among the citizens of Karachi, it appeared to have taken a backseat temporarily as a group of Sindhi folk singers, entering the City Sports Complex, sang folksongs and danced with complete abandon. Their enthusiasm was infectious; soon several participants of the WSF joined in, humming the tunes and doing a strange mix of rural-meets-urban-meets-Bollywood dance routine.

Once inside, the festivities seemed to increase manifold as did the madness and the chaos. The atmosphere was charged –– love, hostility and uncertainty merged together, pulsating as an entity throughout the crowd at large ––- and not surprisingly, emotions ran high. But then so did confusion as several people roamed aimlessly, trying to figure out what to do and where to go. My colleagues and I felt the same way, for the place was screaming of mismanagement. Soon enough, however, we realised that it was all about feeling your way around this ‘tent city’ of sorts and finding whatever it was that tickled your fancy for the six days that were to follow.

It's true that the WSF left a lot to be desired. But then it is also equally true that amid all the insanity, the unlikely combination of Gucci shoes and bohemian skirts, there was this underlying desire to be heard. It didn't matter what you did or where you came from. The idea was to talk and be talked to; to find kindred spirits and most importantly, to understand.

For a person who has grown up in a high-strung, violent city like Karachi, that is unusual, overwhelming and humbling all at the same time. But most of all, it is pleasantly surprising and a scenario that one could get used to, if given the chance.

At the risk of romanticising the WSF a bit too much (for it was not without its share of faults), it has to be said that human beings speak a universal language that knows no boundaries. The World Social Forum was living proof that people can question, understand and accept one another regardless of what dialect they communicate in. Such is the power of this vernacular. Why else would the seemingly incomprehensible rendition of Lal meri patt to the Brazilian, French, British, Nepalese and Indian men and women, to name a few, make them to frenetically sway with their local counterparts? Why would Palestinian music pull at the heartstrings of those who have never been to the country or spoken the language?

People are the same everywhere. They have the same things to worry about, hopes to nurture and dreams to shape into reality and the WSF seemed to do just that ––- to provide a platform where the collective happiness and frustration of the people could give birth to all things larger than life. –– Samina Wahid Perozani