While we were opening the World Social Forum in Karachi last weekend with virtuoso performances of sufi music and speeches, the country’s rulers were marking the centenary of the Muslim League [the party that created Pakistan and has ever since been passed on from one bunch of rogues to another till now it is in the hands of political pimps who treat it like a bordello] by gifting the organisation to General Pervaiz Musharaf, the country’s uniformed ruler.
The secular opposition leaders, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who used to compete with each other to see who could amass more funds while in power, are both in exile. To return home would mean to face arrest for corruption. Neither is in the mood for martyrdom or relinquishing control of their organizations. Meanwhile, the religious parties are happily implementing neo-liberal policies in the North-West Frontier province that is under their control. Incapable of catering to the real needs of the poor they concentrate their fire on women and the godless liberals who defend them.
The military is so secure in its rule and the official politicians so useless that ‘civil society’ is booming. Private TV channels, like NGOs, have mushroomed and most views are permissible (I was interviewed for an hour by one of these on the “fate of the world communist movement”) except a frontal assault on religion or the military and its networks that govern the country. If civil society posed any real threat to the elite, the plaudits it receives would rapidly turn to menace.
It was, thus, no surprise that the WSF, too, had been permitted and facilitated by the local administration in Karachi. It is now part of the globalized landscape and helps backward rulers feel modern. The event itself was no different from the others. Present are several thousand people, mainly from Pakistan, but with a sprinkling of delegates from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, South Korea and a few other countries.
Absent was any representation from China’s burgeoning peasant and workers movements or its critical intelligentsia. Iran, too, was unrepresented as was Malaysia. The Israeli enforcers who run the Jordanian administration harassed a Palestinian delegation. Only a handful of delegates managed to get through the checkpoints and reach Karachi. The huge earthquake in Pakistan last year had disrupted many plans and the organizers were not able to travel and persuade people elsewhere in the continent to come. Otherwise, insisted the organisers, the voices of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Fallujah would have been heard.
The fact that it happened at all in Pakistan was positive. People here are not used to hearing different voices and views. The Forum enabled many from repressed social layers and minority religions to assemble make their voices heard: persecuted Christians from the Punjab, Hindus from Sind, women from everywhere told heart-rending stories of discrimination and oppression.
Present too was a sizeable class-struggle element: peasants fighting against the privatization of military farms in Okara, the fisher-folk from Sind whose livelihoods are under threat and who complained about the great Indus river being diverted to deprive the common people of water they had enjoyed since the beginning of human civilization thousands of years ago, workers from Baluchistan complaining about military brutalities in the region.
Teachers who explained how the educational system in the country had virtually ceased to exist. The common people who spoke were articulate, analytical and angry, in polar contrast to the stale rhetoric of Pakistan’s political class. Much of what was said was broadcast on radio and television with the main private networks—Geo, Hum and Indus— vying with each other to ensure blanket coverage.
And so the WSF like a big feel-good travelling road show came to Pakistan and went. What will it leave behind? Very little, apart from goodwill and the feeling that it has happened here. For the fact remains the elite dominates that politics in the country. Little else matters. Small radical groups are doing their best, but there is no state-wide organisation or movement that speaks for the dispossessed. The social situation is grim, despite the massaged statistics circulated by the World Bank’s Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
The NGOs are no substitute for genuine social and political movements. They may be NGOs in Pakistan but in the global scale they are WGOs (Western Governmental Organizations), their cash-flow conditioned by restricted agendas. It is not that some of them are not doing good work, but the overall effect of this has been to atomize the tiny layer of left and liberal intellectuals. Most of these men and women (those who are not in NGOs are embedded in the private media networks) struggle for their individual NGOs to keep the money coming; petty rivalries assumed exaggerated proportions; politics in the sense of grass-roots organisation is virtually non-existent. The Latin American model as emerging in the victories of Chavez and Morales is a far cry from Mumbai or Karachi.