Looking Back: WSF and MR-04

Kavita Krishnan

At the inaugural session of the WSF at Goregaon, Arundhati Roy voiced a concern that many of the participants felt; it was a concern that held true for the MR as well. The question was – would the events be mere “feel-good political theatre” or would it evolve into some “real political action”? Undoubtedly, the opportunity to meet a variety of activists, the atmosphere of cultural festivity and intellectual debate, felt really good. But the frustration at the lack of real political action is something that many people have begun to voice – not just those whom the organisers could dismiss as spoilsports, but even the likes of Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, who inaugurated the WSF, but at the end expressed her disappointment at the fact that there had been no attempt to evolve an action plan from the WSF.

The international movement against globalisation and war has had its historic moments. It has, on several occasions, challenged specific targets. Given that legacy, it is perhaps inevitable that many at the WSF would find the absence of collective statements, let alone collective action, conspicuous. Was it possible, standing in Mumbai, to avoid wondering why the WSF had to abstain from any collective statement against the Shiv Sena, the RSS, the BJP? Why was it that not a single one of the central WSF-sponsored plenaries was held on the theme of resistance to communal fascism? The WSF is probably one of the largest political events to be held in Western India in recent years. What meaning would such a huge, international gathering of anti-globalisation forces have for the people of Mumbai, Maharashtra and India, if it did not speak out against the forces who hustled Enron into our power sector? Would it be too much for people of Gujarat, Surat, Mumbai, to expect a global gathering to say something loud and clear against the fascist genocide they witnessed?

Myriad voices were raised at the WSF, and many hopes were raised. At the plenaries, there was even some debate about whether globalisation could be salvaged and set right, or whether it should be characterised as imperialism and rejected. But at the concluding event, there were no debates, no discordant voices: just KR Narayanan declaring that globalisation was irreversible, but we need to put a human face on it. Is it possible to ignore the significance of the promises of ‘Another World’ ending thus, on the concluding note of a globalised world with a human face?

Why did the WSF event steadfastly ignore the suggestions of so many of its well-wishers to attempt some political action? Why couldn’t it say a word against Bal Thackrey? If the concluding event could feature a political figure like KR Narayanan, why couldn’t it give a platform to leaders of other political streams as well? Why couldn’t one find, for instance, living anti-imperialist legends like Fidel Castro at the WSF? It seems an unavoidable conclusion that the domination of NGOs at the event enforced this distancing from the even the mildest forms of political meaningfulness.

Across the street, the MR proved to be equally disappointing; perhaps more so because one had been led to expect an event with a difference. The MR had right from the start asserted that it wouldn’t just offer seminars, talks and cultural sharing; rather than restricting itself to speeches alone, it would take to the streets, and it would also plan towards some anti-imperialist action. Quite a few took the MR’s invitation to “cross the street” at Goregaon. Only to find that the difference between WSF and MR was largely cosmetic (even the venues of both events were designed by the same person!). While the WSF concluded with an anti-war march from one maidan, the MR ended equally tamely with a mass meeting at the same maidan. Their promised march to the US Consulate could not be held because police permission had been denied. There was no attempt to defy that ban; so much for all the talk of reliving Seattle and Genoa, where people from all over the world had defied bans and braved brutal repression in order to hold their protest. Even if the march had been held, in what way would it have been different from the WSF march held the next day? In terms of political action, the MR offered no fresh direction. Just like the WSF, it endorsed the March 20 Global Day of Action against the US occupation of Iraq.

The ‘funding divide’ too was overrated. Several funded NGOs, as well as individuals and groups receiving NGO funding featured in MR’s list of organisers and reception committee as well as in the event itself.

Many called the WSF, and even the MR, a ‘mela’, a carnival of a progressive kind. That in itself is no reason to ridicule or dismiss them. Such global get-togethers have much that may be positive – most of all the unparalleled opportunity to interact and share experiences with such a variety of activists from across the world. But to project them as platforms that will spearhead the movement against imperialism is naive at best and, at worst, dishonest.

Comrade Sitaram Yechury’s article on the WSF in People’s Democracy quotes Mao’s description of the glorious, irresistible wave of the peasant upsurge on the eve of the Chinese Revolution, where Mao says revolutionaries must lead this upsurge rather than trail behind criticising or stand in opposition. Comrade Yechury implies that, likewise, communists should march at the head of the WSF rather than criticise it. Such magnified and overrated comparisons and claims make a poor contrast with the extremely limited aims and goals of the WSF itself. Far from being a determined, unstoppable surge of revolutionary peasantry, the WSF does not even aim to be a protest platform. To have illusions of ‘leading’ or shaping such a gathering, which firmly proscribes any moves towards united initiatives or action, is to live in a fool’s paradise.

The WSF, as well as the MR which defined itself in opposition to it, could not go beyond the limits of a cultural/political festival. To participate in these events as such may be stimulating and even memorable. But to imagine it to have a leading role in the anti-imperialist movement, or even to put all one’s energies into it claiming it to be a major political initiative, would actually be, in Arundhati Roy’s words, to ‘run the risk’ of turning the event into an ‘asset for our enemies’. q