The World Social Forum Revisited

The World Social Forum (WSF), held in Bombay, India, January 16-21, 2004, was a landmark gathering of activists from around the world. Held since 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, this year's WSF was the first time that activists gathered outside Brazil for the event. The WSF began as a response to the annual World Economic Forum (WEF), held in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF has traditionally been a space for the world's most powerful corporations and governments, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization to meet and network, and to devise and endorse far-reaching economic policies. The WEF has been characterized, by activists who have called for an end to neo-imperialism, as a space in which the policies and projects of corporate globalization have been consolidated.

The WSF has emerged as an important space not only to counter the WEF, but to attempt to 'globalize' anti-imperialist social movements, to share ideas and strategies, to consolidate progressive networks, and to envision sustainable alternatives to the kind of corporate globalization currently taking place. According to the WSF Charter of Principles, it is "not an organization, not a united front platform, 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..."

Since this year's WSF, a multitude of report backs, summaries, and analytic articles have attempted to both describe the event, as well as offer critiques of its major problems. These included the lack of adequate translation, the inside/outside dynamic of one conference happening inside the tent in plenaries that were translated into English, and one happening outside among non-English-speaking cadres. Its major benefits included heightened visibility for gender and sexuality related issues, an unprecedented level of networking, exchange of ideas, and information, and building solidarity across a diverse range of social movements. Many post-WSF reflections have tended to revolve around comparisons of this year's WSF and that of previous years, with a cataloguing of the differences between holding the event in Brazil versus India. A short list of sites that have some excellent reports on post-WSF reflections and information includes,,, and the documentary "Rumble in Mumbai" by Pinhole Pictures,

Rather than recapitulate these, this article addresses a question which emerged from the beginning of the organizing process for this year's event: Why is it significant that this year's World Social Forum took place in India? And, as the conference took place under the auspices of the history of activism and radical social movements in India, we may also ask, how was the WSF being in Bombay significant for South Asian progressives in South Asia and the diaspora?

The World Social Forum had been held in Brazil every year since its inception. Brazil, and the city of Porto Alegre in particular, have provided the infrastructure, diversity and depth of social movements that could offer the thousands of hours of work required to organize the event. Moving WSF from Brazil was done in an effort to further internationalize both the event and its organizing structure and to showcase another part of the world where the existing history and infrastructure of social movements would provide the energy and resources necessary to bring 150,000 activists from around the world together. WSF was held in India because the infrastructure of the left, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), people's movements, and autonomous/non-funded movements were able to provide both the resources to host the event itself, as well as effectively interface with local governmental and civil administration.

Negotiations around holding the WSF in India, both with members of the International Organizing Committee and with local organizations in India, involved the question of funding. An event of this scale could not be executed without financial support, and international conferences, like much progressive work that used to be supported locally, have increasingly been made possible through grants from large international foundations. For instance, meetings like the World Conference Against Racism Non-Governmental Organizations' Forum were largely supported by the Ford Foundation, in terms of travel costs for participants, and even some venue related costs for organizers. The policy of WSF in India around funding was necessarily influenced by the complex nexus of funded and non-funded organizations in India.

All Indian progressive social movements have, at one time or another, had to take a position on funding, ranging from accepting no funding at all, foreign or domestic, to accepting certain domestic funds, to applying for and receiving permission from the central government to accept grants made by non-Indian foundations located primarily in the West. The necessity for having a clearly articulated position on this issue was spurred on by the post-liberalization 'NGO-ization' of social services. As structural adjustment programs restricted the amount of government funds that could be put toward education and health, and international grants increasingly became available for these kinds of services, work that had been done by civil servants was increasingly taken over by activists and advocates. While this has resulted in much important work being undertaken by progressives in the social service sector, some have argued that this has diverted energy from holding the state accountable to fulfilling its obligations toward all its citizens, especially those members of marginalized communities who have yet to experience full enfranchisement. These debates informed the WSF-India position on funding, which was that no foreign funds would be accepted, and that all funding needs would be addressed by the local organizations that had come together to host the event.

The shift of venue also had important — though unexpected — repercussions that were felt within India in the planning stages leading up to the WSF, as well as by participants during WSF itself. For activists in India, the WSF was an opportunity for different kinds of social movements to collaborate towards a common goal. As such, it brought together the party left, trade unionists, feminists, Dalit rights activists, and many others. Within specific social movements there was a consolidation (e.g. by choosing a name that represented a collective of organizations) of groups and networks that had historically worked together around a certain set of politics and issues, as well as consolidations of new alliances. One vivid example of the latter was the emergence of the 'Rainbow Planet,' a coalition that consisted of groups working on issues of the rights of sex workers and sexual minorities, under the rubrics of sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and minority status. For activists from outside India attending the WSF, particularly those who had attended past WSFs, there was no forgetting that they were in India. According to some veteran participants, such international conferences often cease to be international per se as one meets the same "internationalist" community at every gathering; in this case, a new "local" winds up being formed. The WSF's being in India forced many traditionally international activists to deal with the geographically local context, such that many came away saying "it was like Mumbai was... in your face." The infrastructure of the event itself, living in Mumbai for a week, or seeing organizational cadres in the thousands contributed to the feeling that this year's WSF was very much about the space that it was in, and not simply about the spaces which it created within itself.

The proceedings at the WSF were themselves significantly affected by its new location. While the WSF has always been a space for visioning and strategizing towards a better and more humane society, in earlier years this centered largely on developing and articulating critiques of neo-liberalism, especially the primacy given to the "Washington Consensus," and therefore the United States, as a guiding force in corporate globalization. Over the years, the US's increasing militarism and thirst for global domination has forced progressives all over the world to expand their critiques and analyses to confront US foreign policies and military interventions. The previous WSF in 2002 saw emphatic solidarity against the war in Afghanistan and resulted in the global coordination of anti-war protests held on February 15, 2003.

This year, along with severe criticism of the US's ongoing militarism and recent intervention in Iraq, there was heated debate and dialogue about the impact of various religious fundamentalisms on geopolitics. Scrutiny was turned equally on Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu fundamentalisms, in no small part due to the presence of vocal anti-fundamentalist, anti-Hindutva and anti-fascist activists from all over India. These activists quickly identified common ground with activists from Latin America fighting fundamentalist Catholicism, with Palestinian activists fighting Zionist oppression, and with activists from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan resisting Islamic fundamentalism as well as American activists attempting to challenge the right-wing Christian fundamentalism that has been the driving force behind the policies of the Bush regime. In part, this common ground served to help internationalize the struggle against Hindu fundamentalism in India, which has reached new heights after the carnage in Gujarat, and the ensuing propaganda machine of the BJP in the upcoming elections.

The vitality of the anti-fundamentalist movement within India also created a platform to consider the interaction between fundamentalist politics and the agendas of neo-liberal economic reform throughout the world. Although this relationship needs to and continues to be further theorized, the idea that these forces intersect profoundly, especially in countries like India, was made more visible and tangible than before. Some academics have theorized the rise in fundamentalisms, rather than fundamentalisms themselves, as local responses to the growing economic instability wrought by liberalization. The notion that fundamentalisms, liberalization, and nationalisms are all coming together with greater intensity was clear in the analyses, case studies, and actions that took place on the camp grounds. The confluence of these three factors in each formal and informal sessions demonstrated that they have moved beyond being some of the "phenomena" of modernity, and have become contexts for this historical moment.

The process of organizing for the WSF itself was full of contradictions, especially as it required many different kinds of progressive Indian movements and activists coming together around the same agenda. The process of building solidarity for the event was one in which old and new tensions were constantly being articulated and played out. These tensions often reflected very familiar differences, e.g. regarding "traditional" versus "new" styles of functioning within the left, newer agendas concerning sexuality and its explicit inclusion in the WSF platform, and the role of various women's movements, many of which brought out the issue of funding in planning for this kind of large-scale, international event. These tensions were expressed in part through a second event being organized across the street from the WSF, called Mumbai Resistance (, by activists who characterized the World Social Forum as 'reformist' rather than a space for true, revolutionary social change. Rather than critique these tensions, we aim to suggest that the diversity of views and opinions and mobilizing strategies collectively reflected the diversity of progressive social movements in India, in South Asia, and in the region.

The WSF has become a large, multi-valiant event, offering many different kinds of opportunities for movement building. The issues of fundamentalism, neo-liberalism, and the formation and consolidation of new coalitions notwithstanding, the WSF's presence in Mumbai this year was a particularly significant marker of the relationship of social movements in South Asia to the rest of the world. It is critical, as the geopolitics of the region begin to include such political right wing forces as the Sangh Combine, to offer a different perspective on the work that is possible for South Asian progressives. The WSF, the WSF organizing process, and Mumbai Resistance, together demonstrate that, despite the many challenges, work is being done in the South Asian context to effectively further the aims of critique, dissent, and social justice. Although next year's WSF is back in Brazil, India's participation this year as host may mean that more grassroots South Asian activists will participate in the growing international venues of movements for social change in years to come.


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