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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: À Delhi, le sel de la terre s’est donné rendez-vous

by Dominique Bari, special correspondent, New Delhi

India: the Salt of the Earth Converges on the Indian Social Forum

Translated Saturday 25 November 2006, by Patrick Bolland

India. More than 50,000 people participated in the Indian Social Forum, a national event marked by the tug of war between State power and progressives.

“I heard so much about the 2004 Forum in Mumbai, that I didn’t want to miss this one in Delhi.” With the enthusiasm and curiosity of his 20 years, Sudhir came from Gujarat where he studies Law at the University of Ahmedabad (north-western India) says: “I am not yet involved in the movement, I wanted first to see how things go here”. His travel companions are veteran militants, working at the base. With scarves around their heads, these peasants are activists in a rural NGO in the countryside of the States of Rajasthan, also in north-western India
They reflect the diversity of the 50,000 delegates, representing all that India includes in terms of political, social, humanitarian, ecological activists. From November 9-13, they occupied for five days the exhibition grounds around the Nehru stadium in New Delhi where the Indian Social Forum (ISF) was held.

Close to a hundred tents, each able to shelter between one hundred and one thousand people were erected, hosting some 500 workshops, seminars and cultural events, over and above the numerous informal debates, launched by the multitude of associations attending the Forum. In the dusty alley-ways, groups intermingled, discussing of the calamitous consequences of the imbalances that make up the inequalities in the world.

One has to add here all that is typically Indian, of which the caste system isn’t the least important was represented at the ISF: the peasants who lost their land in the Tamil Nadu joined the Dalits (Untouchables) of Orissa. The Adivasis - a generic name for tribal groups, numbering 68 million - demanding control of the natural resources of their regions mixing with Kashmiris, denouncing the military violence in their torn-up province.

In January 2004, the Mumbai experience profoundly shook up the World Social Forum (WSF). “This really changed the character of the Forum”, according to Ruth Manorama, a Dalit, whose struggles gained her an Alternative Nobel Prize this year. Asia and particularly India stamped their identities on the 2004 Forum, largely through the overwhelming popular participation.

A reality magnified many times in Delhi where the salt of the Indian earth seems to have come together. What was particularly striking was the massive participation by women, youth, and working children. A strong signal to the WSF was the decision that only women, major activists in their own countries – from India, Palestine, and Africa - would participate in the opening ceremony, and by organizing specifically a Youth Social Forum.

“Our goal today is to challenge, mobilize, move ahead in organizing a movement against neoliberal globalization, against militarization, discriminatory policies, the caste system”, said Mukul Sharma, head Amnesty International India, and member of the ISF organizing committee. “This meeting was necessary to re-affirm, a few weeks before the Nairobi World Social Forum, the potential of our movement lies in all its different ways of approaching issues, to propose and build something new, not just remain as critics. We’ll be working on this in India and also strengthening our links with groups in Asia and Africa.”

In India the political scene is very different today, compared to the 2004 Mumbai World Social Forum - which certainly contributed to the electoral defeat of the extreme-right nationalist Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP) two months after the meeting. Links between social movements and left-wing political parties were strengthened to fight against the re-election of the BJP, focusing on rejection of religious communalism and the neoliberal political options of the right. In the elections, the Congress Party won the most votes in the Indian Parliament, forming a coalition government, “United Progressive Alliance” (UPA), which depends on the support of the 82 members of Congress from the Left, consisting mainly of members of India’s two communist parties, who together hold 61 seats.

Half-way through this government’s mandate, the social movements and left-wing parties are facing new challenges. Manmohan Singh’s government made promises to fight poverty, but has simply supported neoliberal policies. Moreover, the spectacular moves to draw India closer to the USA, confirmed during Bush’s visit by the signing of an agreement on nuclear non-proliferation, has profoundly disturbed Indian progressives. At the same time, the guaranteed rural minimum revenue is largely a dead letter and the number of peasants committing suicides is increasing.

“The ISF was organized to take stock of the present situation”, one of the coordinators of the forum, a communist militant, tells us. We felt it was necessary to reaffirm the political options against globalization. Pressure came from the base, because of the effects of the new government aren’t meeting expectations. It will enable the Indian alternative movement de remobilize and identify problems in more depth than was possible at the Mumbai WSF. Through its debates, the social movements are withdrawing extra-governmental support for the Left in the government coalition, but the ISF also raises questions about the political actions of NGOs and the whole co-operative movement in the tug-of-war in our country between those in power and progressives forces, while the Extreme-Right is still threatening to regain control.”

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