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Politics at the Venue: the WSF in Mumbai


The World Social Forum opened in India at least a year ago. That’s when the debates within the Left about the nature of the WSF started. Marxists, liberals, and others began to argue about the utility of the WSF, its role within India, the problem of funds for something so large as the WSF and the larger question of the relationship between a national struggle and international solidarity. The debate has not been without rancor, but it has certainly been vibrant. Expect nothing less from as politically aware a society as India today.

The story begins with the movement of the WSF from a city of the Left (Porto Alegre) to a city of the Right (Mumbai).

To call Mumbai, once Bombay, a city of the Right is not to say that it does not have a glorious working-class history or that the Left has ceased to operate there. It is simply to indicate that Mumbai is the incubus of the cruel cultural nationalism that now rules from New Delhi, and it is the center of Indian finance capital (from Dalal Street, India’s own Wall Street). Like New York City, Mumbai’s strong organized working-class was assassinated in the past three decades by Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE).

The Communist Party has been a very strong presence in Bombay, especially in the organization of the textile workers and in the successful struggle for the creation of the linguistic state of Maharasthra, of which Mumbai is the capital (the Samyukta Maharashtra movement in the 1950s). No-one in this period would have suspected that the Left would be weakened, but this is just what happened.

The first blow came from the closings of the mills, as the organized working class lost their jobs and homes. Unable to stave off the transfer of the mill industry from the unionized city to non-union regions, the Communist movement lost part of its base. In 1982, the workers of the textile mills followed the union leader Datta Samant into a protracted strike that raised their dignity, but provided an opportunity for the industrialists to pull out of the city entirely.

The journalist Praful Bidwai’s assessment of the strike notes, “Great mass struggles such as these shape history. If they succeed, they produce qualitative change and paradigm shifts. If they fail, the consequences can be epochally painful. The textile strike failed, but it was a Great Failure, an historic event.” The battle over land occupied by workers’ housing and by unused mills is the remnant of that struggle. “Criminalization is no longer invisible,” notes Communist activist Vivek Monteiro. “It has expanded vertically and horizontally. It has diversified and multiplied and spread to all areas of the economy. What was earlier an occupational hazard for unions has become an environmental hazard for citizens.”

The second blow came from the rise of the fascistic Shiv Sena. Founded in 1966, the Shiv Sena transferred the cause of job loss from the industrialists to “foreign” workers from other Indian states.

This issue remains on the agenda, as the Shiv Sena spent part of 2003 on its campaign against “outsiders” and in favor of “sons of the soil.” The party demands that unskilled jobs be reserved for “locals,” a class-based strategy that wins its allies among the disenfranchised sections of society and which allows it to cultivate ties with the well-heeled “knowledge workers” many of whom are themselves “outsiders.”

Even as this campaign is a violation of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution (guarantees freedom of movement of its citizens), it has given the Shiv Sena a devoted cadre among many who are the broken eggs of globalization’s hidden omelet.

The red flag came down from many neighborhoods of the workers, and the Shiv Sena’s saffron flag went up its shaky poles. Organized pogroms against Muslims helped consolidate the hold of the Shiv Sena: one governmental commission of inquiry set up to investigate a recent riot notes, “From January 8, 1993 at least (the riots began on January 6), there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and the Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders of the Shiv Sena from the level of shakha pramukhs (local leaders) to the Shiv Sena pramukh (Thackeray).”

The adoption of the riot-wing moved the ideologically unsteady Congress Party away from its semi-socialistic origins toward neoliberal and cultural cruelty, and therefore gutted social democracy of any legitimacy among the socially oppressed.

The Left remains, in two incarnations, as the Communist movement and as the new social groups. Both have played an active and generative role in the opposition to the current political configuration – to the neoliberal policies and the fundamentalist politics of the Shiv Sena, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Congress Party (which is with the people when in the opposition, but which is anti-people in power).

It is, therefore, no surprise that the Communists and the new social groups are jointly working to host the WSF. Indeed this is perhaps already something to be celebrated. The politics of the venue demand it.

But the politics of the venue have already drawn sharp criticisms from some who have created Mumbai Resistance, a formation in opposition to the WSF because, MR argues, the WSF is not sufficiently clear on its resistance to capitalism and because it has historically received funds from dubious agencies and foundations. The Mumbai-based Research Unit for Political Economy’s “The Economics and Politics of the World Social Forum” offers the clearest elaboration of the type of criticism made by Mumbai Resistance (available on-line at http://www.rupe-india.org/index.html).

There is much to be learnt from the document, but on the whole, I believe, the positions taken by RUPE are purist in action: they disregard the current local and world political situation. The onslaught of the global Right (of which the Indian BJP is one part) demands that we have a catholic approach to movement building, and that is what the WSF allows.

For the past several months, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s newspaper, People’s Democracy, has run a column that “thinks together” about the WSF. Each issue has taken up some of the criticisms and offered diverse viewpoints on the subject (you can read the paper at pd.cpim.org).

The CPIM, for example, has taken issue with aspects of the Charter of the WSF that excludes groups who “take people’s lives as a method of political action.” The Communists ask, what about groups that have had to take up arms to defend the existence of their communities from annihilation by a violent state. The CPIM also questions the Charter on its exclusion of political parties, and wonders if this is an attempt by social democrats and new social groups to exclude the European communists. Readers have sent in questions and there has been a lively debate on many of these issues.

I want to share two points from this debate that bear some reflection for those who will go to India from without. The first is the nature of the WSF. The Indian Communists see the WSF, in the words of the CPIM Politburo member Sitaram Yechury, as “an open space and a contending space. The contending character comes from the diverse ideological moorings of the various forces that participate in the forum. The WSF is an open space – open to all who stand in opposition to neoliberal economic policies.

In India this space has been further defined as opposition to imperialist globalization, patriarchy, war, casteism, racism and communalism (religious sectarian exclusions).” The WSF is an open space, but also a strategic space to push the anti-corporate agenda toward anti-capitalism, to move, as Yechury puts it, from There is No Alternative (TINA) to Socialism is the Alternative (SITA).

The second major debate prior to the WSF has been over funds, and, therefore over the character of the groups that come to the WSF. Within India, the Communists and the Left have spent the last two decades in ideological struggle against “foreign funds,” against NGOization of political life and particularly against the way “international” donors set the agenda and create groups that are accountable to them and not to the people.

Furthermore, the NGO sector is often a partner of globalization in that it has joined the World Bank and others in the critique of the state form: it talks of “people’s power” without offering any specific sense of how to build this in an age of privatization.

In the context of this long conversation, critics of the WSF, such as Mumbai Resistance and the RUPE group, raise questions about “foreign funds.” Certainly, agencies like the Ford Foundation came to India in the 1950s with a specific agenda to undermine communism.

As Merl Curti wrote in his 1963 classic American Philanthropy Abroad, the Ford Foundation chose to work in South and West Asia because of the region’s “proximity to the Soviet Union and Communist China and the opportunity for channeling rising nationalism into constructive humanitarian purposes within a democratic framework.” The Ford mandate in India was to promote ideas of free market capitalism in opposition not only to communism but also to radical nationalism (in the 1950s, Nasserism was a major target).

The WSF does take donor funds, but these are very small compared to the amount of money expended by individuals and groups who use their own funds to get to the event. The WSF India committee has decided not to accept any money from corporate sponsors and to reject money from “sources that are clearly aligned to forces that promote globalization. Funding agencies that will NOT be approached to fund the WSF in Mumbai include DFID [British government funding agency], USAID, and corporate controlled funding agencies such as Ford and Rockefeller Foudations.”

Most important, the Mumbai WSF will cost less than half that spent at Porto Alegre last year; “the event,” says the WSF India Committee, “should be modest and ostentations should be avoided.” The most important point is that individuals and groups may come to Mumbai with funds from agencies that have their own agenda, “But given the highly dispersed nature of resources that go towards the organization of the WSF – the bulk of which is made up a large number of individuals and organizations – it is difficult for a handful of donor agencies to direct the trajectory of the WSF.”

That the debate on funds takes place in India and not in the US is indicative of the way our political life within the US has already been so usurped by NGOs and by the foundations. But for a few political parties much political work now happens in the world of the 501c3, many of whom have a close relationship with a “program officer” whose wisdom defines the work we do. We need to have a public debate on our reliance upon foundations and not on a membership or on other accountable institutions for our funds.

Writer Suketu Mehta, whose Maximum City: Bombay Stories will be published next year by Knopf, says that Mumbai is the planet’s biggest city because “all of the world’s problems are manifest in it.” The politics of the venue are rich, and it is hoped that the participants to the WSF will take time to get to know the city, to get to know “the urban disaster in the making, but,” as Mehta notes, “also how the city, despite this, is in such rude good health.” One of the reasons is the vibrancy of the contentious Left.

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