The Social Forum Phenomenon

The Idea of Open Space

The recent years have seen the rise and spread of local, national, regional, thematic and global social forums, inspired directly and indirectly by the World Social Forums (WSF) and its Charter of Principles. Any Social Forum, inspired by the WSF, and the WSF itself is conceived as an open space that facilitates the coming together of people to engage with each other on diverse social-political issues, and to oppose neo-liberalism and the domination of the world by Capital and any form of imperialism. They are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth. Indian social and political activism has shown tremendous energy for the Forum in these years: Activities of the WSF process in India were initiated in early 2002, and were designed to set up and build a World Social Forum process in the country, towards hosting the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad in 2003 and subsequently the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. And now, the proposed India Social Forum in Delhi from 9 to 13 November 2006 marks the initiative to further advance the movement against neo-liberal globalisation, sectarian politics, casteism, patriarchy and militarization.

The phenomenon of ‘Social Forums’ is surprisingly absent in a majority of the countries of Asia and South Asia, even though active civil societies and anti-globalisation movements exist in countries like Indonesia, Philippines and South Korea. This seems to suggest that the coming together of the Social Forum is not a necessary corollary of favourable circumstances in a country. Instead, it more or less depends upon a felt need of enough number of people and organisations for such a space and structure that is actually not there in letter or spirit in any given socio-political situation. Thus, it is understandable that the Social Forum processes began in India at a time when the neo-liberal and the Hindu conservative forces were looming large, and the democratic, progressive and secular forces were lying low. The WSF India process not only focussed on neo-liberal globalisation, but also on issues of religious and sectarian violence, casteism and patriarchy.

Other than a felt need of enough number of people and organisations in a country, there are of course several interrelated strands that continue to give a push to the Forum process. Opposition to the neo-liberal economic policies and to the World Economic Forum, networks, alliances and initiatives, has not been new. However, what was novel about the World Social Forum was that it was virtually the first global civil society event that was conceived, designed, and took place in the South. The location of the South, and its political antecedents, has a continuing relevance to Indian activism. In this context, the India Social Forum is also being conceived as a space for deepening the unity of movements in the developing world, and especially in forging an African-Asian solidarity. The event itself is timed to take place a few months before the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2007, where for the first time the global WSF event will travel to Africa.

Indian social and political activism still draws some of its substance from the legacy of the earlier anti-colonial struggles, where ideas of a New International Economic Order, active role of the Third World governments, self-reliance, and national solution to economic problems had been emphasised. More than this, in the post-emergency era, the Indian democracy has seen not only a survival, but also a dynamic growth of socialist and communist party activism of all hues, and the rainbow ‘new social movements’, which are often associated with women’s movements, environment movements, and assertions of dalits and adivasis. In the same period, NGOs dealing with environment, human rights, gender, governance and development issues mushroomed in the country. Parallel NGO Forums also got connected to several United Nations Conferences and governmental programmes. Even though the NGO Forums are not similar to the Social Forum phenomenon, they have been contributing in developing an aura, opportunity and habit to relate with wider civil society activities at the international levels.

Since the unleashing of the neo-liberal economic policies in the 1980s, India has also been witnessing vibrant and diverse anti-globalisation movements at the local, regional and national levels. Though most of them are not much connected with global movements, nonetheless, these anti-globalisation movements in the country have even facilitated changes in the State and national government at regular intervals. These have also been the times of the street uprising at Seattle in America, the Zapatista uprising in 1994 and the subsequent jungle meets, the growth of MST and the Workers Party in Brazil, the Ogoni struggle and its solidarity network, the Foundation of ATTAC, and many more such movements in many places, which have enhanced the imagination and creativity of social movements. In a way, the World Social Forum-India was an idea waiting to happen. Approximately 10,000 participants were expected in Hyderabad, but more than 30,000 showed up. The success of the event as an alternative form inspired many to plan for the next WSF. And the WSF 2004 in Mumbai had 130,000 participants with eight conferences, eight panels, 1400 seminars, as well as numerous marches, rallies, songs and dances, all of which added to the dynamism and the diversity of the event.

Of course, an open space inspires hundreds and thousands of people and groups to connect with each other, with a shared purpose and method, but the Forum’s open space is not a neutral space. The Forum clearly sets out as being against neo-liberal globalisation, and for social justice. The Forum is non-political party and encourages diverse participation for all except for party or military representatives. As states the WSF Charter of Principles, ‘Neither party representatives nor military organisations shall participate in the Forum. Government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this Charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity’. However, you cannot be in the thick and thin of the World Social Forum and avoid politics, and the usual suspects like the neo-liberal institutions, BJP and the Hindu Right, war, Bush and Bushism, Manmohanomics, leftism and socialism and of course, the new political dispensation in the country. Thus today when the ISF is being held under a Congress regime, a party which came to power on a combined platform of pro-poor economic policies and anti communalism, there will be a lot of deliberations on peoples’ issues and struggles, and their relationship to the present state of governance in contemporary India.

In a vibrant democracy, a utopian thinking and working has to interact with grounded social and political activism. The utopian in the Indian scenario can be seen in different forms of voluntarism, Gandhism, socialism, Marxism, Ambedkarism, and others who negotiate with, as well as negate, the current course of development and politics. They all explore new modes of human possibility and will, and use their imagination to confront the apparent inevitability of whatever exists, with something radically better, which is worth fighting for and to which humankind is fully entitled. The uniqueness of Indian democracy is that different utopias have managed to find space for themselves in it, without severe political divergences. There are of course some radical discursive differences in this vast country, translating into different manifestations, be it violence of the armed groups, or collective urge of autonomy from the Indian State, or an abandonment of the parliamentary democracy. Yet there is a strong propensity, even amongst the most radical discursive tendencies, to continue participating in the democratic institutions, covenants and constitution. The open process in India is there to strengthen and deepen the democratic processes in the country, by creating a space and an atmosphere of inclusion of, and respect for, divergences, which makes it possible for different streams of social activism to include themselves in its deliberations, debates and decisions. This makes the politics of open space more attractive, even greater than its capacity to deliver. Thus even those groups and individuals who are critical of the WSF and are not that close to its journeys, have not been away from its processes and events. We may suggest that in the realm of broader alliances, activism and campaigns on peoples’ issues in the country, the desire to highlight what the movements and organisations have in common prevail over the desire to underscore what separates them.

The dominant themes of Indian democracy have been quite predictable from the perspectives of peoples’ organisations and social movements. Issues of democracy, rights, civil society, liberalisation and privatisation, displacement, war, religious fundamentalism, environment, social justice, labour and work, are dominant in our society, and have been appearing prominently in different editions of the WSF in India. Issues and strategies however are not the only important things in the building of another world. Another world is possible when we also work on ways in which people approach organising and decision making. Experimentations with forms, where the practice of politics is more network-based, horizontal, participative and democratic, rather than the conventional ones, is not very successful in Indian polity. Vicious confrontation, fragmentation and individualism are the prevalent rules of the game. Amidst this, in spite of conflicts and contests, the politics of an open space opens up new challenges and possibilities for organising, spacing and sharing of common goods. A process involving more than 200 organisations in India, compared to eight in the Brazilian Organising Committee (the originator of the WSF), or a panel of all women speakers opening the ISF event on 9 November are milestones in processes of democratization and change. However, the jury is still not out on this key issue and it is quite likely that the Social Forum phenomenon in this country will continue to oscillate between different ways of organising. A contest-ridden process of continuous challenges to different hegemonic tendencies, but also one of cementing together, may in fact be the best possible way forward for Social Forums in India.

Against the global onslaught of capital, it is emerging clearly from our experiences that the Social Forum phenomenon will continue to flourish in our country. A large number of events, participants, local-regional social forums, more than one Social Forum, all are possible. Because Social Forum is still such a child phenomenon, concrete or obvious examples of its actual accomplishment are difficult to cite. It also remains problematic to attribute specific results to specific forums. If the Forum is conceived of as a space rather than a movement, then, by its very nature, success can be attributed not to it but only to the various groups and movements within it. They are the ultimate takers and users of this space.

[Mukul is the Facilitator of the Programme Group, India Social Forum 2006]

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