WSF 2004

Dust. Drums. Slogans. Songs. Posters. Pamphlets. Chants. Colours. People. Masses of people. People of different nations, different clothing, different accents, different languages, different ideas. All covered in the same dust. All cloaked with the same hope. All there with the same vision – of a better world. Some day. Already?

Yes, this is what you witnessed when you entered the NESCO grounds in Goregaon East, Mumbai, India – the venue of the fourth World Social Forum (WSF). The first WSF outside Porto Alegre, Brazil. The first WSF in Asia. The first WSF in India.

Porto Alegre was clean, developed, air-conditioned. Mumbai was chaotic, dusty, hot. Porto Alegre was rich. Mumbai was poor. Porto Alegre was gentler on the senses. Mumbai was more brutal. Porto Alegre was more polished. Mumbai was more raw. Both were outstanding, overwhelming events. Both were memorable, in different ways.

WSF 04 was not easy. It was challenging. Mumbai, a teeming city of almost 20 million, has some of the world’s worst inequality and urban poverty. The inhumanness of Mumbai’s poor hits you, hard. All the time. On the streets. On the sidewalks. Right outside the Forum venue. Participants saw the poorest of the poor, everyday, and winced. For many, poverty was no longer a word in development literature. It was breathing right in front of you. The feeling of horror reverberated amongst many who had never seen suffering of this magnitude before. You couldn’t talk any more in workshops about the abstract poor. No, they had faces, and bony bodies. They were living reminders of the need for this “other world” we were fighting for. In some way, along with so many others, they made the Forum seem more real, more urgent, more critical.

WSF 04 was not an isolated event. It was challenged. By Mumbai Resistance – a separate event held by those who felt the WSF was exclusionary and compromised. Across the highway, several organizations and people often referred to as the “extreme left” rallied to discuss many of the same issues but under a different banner.  Other parallel but not challenging events were the Land First Mela – an event devoted to the creation of a stronger land rights movement, and the conference of Via Campesina – an international network of peasant organizations, agricultural workers, and indigenous communities. Events attended by many who also participated in the WSF. Events that chose separate spaces for logistic and other conveniences. Events that were all spokes in the wheel of the alternative vehicle we’re engaged in building.

WSF 04 was overwhelming. It had it all. Films, plays, street theatre, children’s theatre, songs, music, dance, books, artefacts, workshops, seminars, rallies, resounding slogans… The “Down-Up” chants were popular this year.  “Down, down capitalism; up, up socialism!” “Down, down imperialism!” “Down, down, communalism!” Deeply resonating for me was “Down, down patriarchy!” Finally, in India, women were rallying-and how-to challenge the largely uncontested social force of patriarchy. Yes, women at the WSF were strong, powerful, and loud. They were everywhere. Their agendas clear. Their message forthright. And their determination unwavering.

Like at the last Forum, the anti-war message was loud; in fact, louder. The anti-Bush sentiment, even stronger. A popular poster read “When Bush Comes to Shove – Resist.” Some felt the anti-Bush stance dominated the Forum. It might have dominated a lot of the media attention. But there was much more to the Forum than that. The participation of social movements in WSF 04 was incredible. The role of women, unprecedented. The range of workshop topics, mind-blowing. And the spirit, soul-stirring.

If democracy lives in India, you can feel it in the vibrant culture of resistance. It was the pulse of the WSF. Some march or the other was constantly going on. These were not just protests for the sake of protesting. These were rallies of people with ideas, with histories, with stories, with sufferings, with victories, and with visions. Victims, winners, survivors, fighters. All dreamers. All praxis-builders.

From Bhopal gas victims to Hiroshima survivors, from Narmada dam oustees to North American peaceniks, from Dalits to disabled rights advocates, from South Korean socialists to South African AIDs activists, from Peruvian peasants to Pakistani anti-nuclear activists, from Brazilian landless workers to Bombay slum dwellers, from queer rights activists to child labour abolishers, from theologians to trade unionists, from feminists to free Palestine crusaders, from anti-Coca Cola campaigners to cotton farmers… the Forum offered space for expression, for exchange, for discussion, for disagreement, for debate, for celebration.

And an Indian newspaper called it an “anti-global event.” With more than 120 countries participating, could an event be more global in nature? “Anti-globalisation” is another term often and erroneously used to describe the WSF. This is just another form of globalisation. A counter-globalisation. A globalisation that challenges the prevalent neo-imperial corporate globalisation agenda. A globalisation from below. A globalisation of struggles. A globalisation of resistance. A globalisation of movements, of activism, of defiance. A globalisation of hope.

I like to believe the Forum is an open space. Some would disagree. Like those who formed Mumbai Resistance. Yes, the WSF keeps some people out, officially. Like those involved in armed struggle. Because one of its charters is about non-violence. Yet, it allows everyone to come there. To share a platform. To raise a voice. To launch an idea. To build a movement. To generate solidarity. To challenge hegemony. To defy imperialism. And even to question the WSF.

“There were no concrete outcomes,” complain many critics. Yes, there were no formal declarations passed; who needs more of those? But there were hundreds of outcomes. The forging of people-to-people bonds.  The uniting of struggles. The building of bridges. The strengthening of solidarity. The shaping of new alliances, new coalitions, new relationships. The articulation of alternatives. These are all outcomes. Intangible perhaps, but valuable outcomes nonetheless.

WSF 04. Maybe it was too expensive. Maybe it wasn’t really needed. Maybe it was not perfect. But then none of us are. Not even the “other world” we talk about. Not perfect. But better. More just. More true. More inclusive. More human. Built on more love. More compassion. More peace. More humanity.

I can still hear the reverberating chants. I can still taste the dust. I can feel the passion and power of the 100,000 people who, like me, came to breathe in another space. I can picture new dreams being created. I can visualise the outline of the other world emerging on tomorrow’s sunlit morning sky.

Maybe this sounds idealistic. But this is just What Someone Felt about the WSF.

Shivani Chaudhry, an independent researcher based in New Delhi, India, can be contacted at:

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