[Reader-list] WSF - another report is possible!

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Fri Jan 30 21:28:32 IST 2004

Thank you Ravikant for your most vivid report on the WSF in Mumbai. As 
someone who was present (briefly) at WSF, I cannot but echo my own delight in 
the the diversity, enthusiasm and verve that  I saw at WSF, and which 
Ravikant's report evokes.  Of course, it was like a 'Kumbh Mela' a gigantic 
conglomeration where everyone and their uncle had pitched their tent. But 
that perhaps, was precisely what was valuable. The sense of equivalence, 
which made an obscure anarchist group from a marginal constituency present in 
the same space as the most established and well funded ngo, or mass 
organization of a political party. To the bystander, or the interested and 
curious forager from stall to stall, both would have to ultimately be judged 
by the quality of their arguments, and the conviviality and enthusiasm that 
they brought to bear on any interaction with the public at large. This 
arrangement made it possible to 'surf' the WSF in a way that made for many 
discoveries, unexpected and often pleasant surprises, and a tolerance that 
enabled the smallest voice or the group with no folk dancers but a long and 
colourful banner, to be registered on to the consciousness of those (like me) 
who were present.

As Ravikant has painted a bright and clear picture of the atmosphere, I will 
stick to some encounters that I found interesting and also describe some of 
the panels that I attended and participated in. 

I also want to place on record here my utter disgust with the cavalier and 
motivated reporting of the event that took place almost throughout the 
English language press and electronic media. Barring the Hindu, and the city 
pages of the Mumbai Times of India not a single English language newspaper 
has made any attempt at any serious reportage. Generally, the event was 
covered in a facetious and smug fashion, with much ill informed jeering and 
jibes (in editorials, op eds, reports, box items etc) at the 'character' of 
the event. Having participated in the event, I now get a real sense of how 
shallow media coverage can be. This means that i cannot but take everything 
that the media here reports (as an event) with a generous handful of salts. 
These hired hacks, and tv divas (Barkha Dutt's extremely partisan 'We The 
People' on NDTV was pathetic) have had their day, and anyone who takes them, 
or their whining seriously anymore, does so only at peril to their own self 
respect. At least this the WSF could prove - the mainstream media in India is 
a sad sham shadow of a tacky spectacle machine, obsessed with the agendas of 
the same boring idiots who grace it. Another media may or may not be 
immediately possible, but I think that for our collective sanity, it is 
certainly desirable.

Anyway, to come back to the WSF, for me the most important thing was the fact 
that the global umbrella like character of the deliberations also ensured 
that a lot of things that get left unsaid or silenced in fora in India 
actually got said. This meant for instance, that there were more than one 
panel on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where matters were discussed in 
a serious, and not always rhetorical manner. It also meant that sex workers, 
sexual minorities, unorganized workers, migrants, peasants, activists working 
with prisoners, small publishers, free software enthusiasts could all find 
their place under the sun at Goregaon. This is not to enthuse over some 
'Rainbow Coalition' of the alternative political spectrum, or to exult on the 
bigness of the big tent, but to suggest an alternative, caravan mode of 
politics. There is clearly a journey underway all over the world, and 
different kinds of people are pitching their tents in the clearing that marks 
the zone of interesections between their respective journeys as people 
navigate their own tracks, and plan the trajectories of the immediate future. 
This zone of intersections becomes a space for new conversations, alliances, 
and the circulation and sharing of knowledge and experience. The caravan 
makes its way, haphazardly, with arguments, with no clear map or compass - 
but the gatheing together of the tents, the directions that people have come 
from and the directions that they are going to, together, suggest the 
contours of the journey. That is what I found most interesting of all about 
the WSF. The possibility that a human rights activist from Kashmir might 
marvel at the laughter of a Malaysian sex worker, and that a professor of 
economics might begin to learn something about the political economy of free 

In one panel, the title of the panel - Zones of Occupation - Iraq, Palestine, 
Kashmir - said all that needed to be said. In another, (one that I attended), 
on Kashmir - The Way Ahead, organised by a Kerala based Human Rights 
organization, the speakers included Mohammed Yasin Malik from the Jammu and 
Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and Parvez Hoodhboy and Karamat Ali from 
Pakistan. I found the attentive and respectful atmosphere at this panel quite 
remarkable. Yasin Malik spoke freely and at length, he talked about the sense 
of betrayal he felt because Indian intellectuals, liberals and especially 
Gandhians (for some reason he singled out Gandhians although he spoke with 
great regard for Gandhi) had refused to take a categorical stand against 
state terror in Kashmir. He also offered a public apology to the Kashmiri 
Pandits who had left the valley, and expressed the hope that they can return 
to a peaceful valley soon. A heckler did rise to interrupt him on a few 
occasions, but the crowd, which must have been about 300-400 strong, insisted 
that Yasin Malik be heard. 

Yasin Malik is not a remarkable speaker, nor did he say anything particularly 
significant or electrifying. But I think the very fact that a Kashmiri 
activist with the kind of views that Yasin Malik has was heard and applauded 
enthusiastically in an open public gathering in a city where Bal Thackeray 
still calls the shots is in itself salutary. This may have been impossible 
without the aegis of the WSF. What it meant was that many people, in many 
gatherings of the kind that I have just described throught the week that the 
WSF was in Mumbai, were exposed to, and discussed, and argued about things 
that are increasingly difficult to talk about, and sometimes even to imagine. 
If nothing else, it sets a precedent, it means, that the next time someone 
wants to hold a public discussion on something highly contentious, or very 
marginal, they may take that one step away from self censorship that has 
infected so many of us living in India today. 

To come back to this meeting, for me, the highlight was the brief 
intervention made by Karamat Ali from Pakistan. With great gentleness and 
good humour he took apart the armour of nationalism that every south asian 
state uses to cover up its rotten vitals. He spoke of the way in which India 
and Pakistan have trodden over the aspirations of peace and freedom of all 
the peoples of South Asia, and hoped that instead of always falling back on a 
half remembered history of mystic harmony and togetherness, we can actually 
begin to take steps to make our present, and our immediate futures in South 
Asia more livable. In the context of Kashmir, this clearly meant the need to 
evolve imaginative and pragmatic solutions for the total demilitarization of 
all of Jammu and Kashmir (including both Indian occupied and Pakistani 
occupied parts of the Kashmir valley) within the ambit of a loose South Asian 
structure that can bypass the paralytic binary of the India-Pakistan gambit 
and measures to restore contact between people on both sides of the line of 

I came away from the Kashmir panel and after Karamat Ali spoke feeling that 
after a long time, I had heard someone talking sense about Kashmir. 

Another panel that I went to (where I was invited at the last moment to 
speak) was titled 'LIfe After Capitalism'. Now, I wont bore you with what I 
said, but what struck me was how much of a time warp many leftists of the 
stalinist-maoist variety still live in. Although the majority of the speakers 
(myself included) actually tried to focus on what Capitalism is like today, 
as a global system, and how a society (necessarily expressed globally and not 
in/through nation states) that overcomes it might have to make arrangements 
to continue with everyday life on a global scale (the old question of how 
things are going to be made, distributed, decided, etc.) , our 
stalinist-maoist (Sta & Ma) comrades only found it necessary to denounce our 
silence about, or our refusal to pay homage to the USSR of Stalin and the 
China of Mao Ze Dong. Almost in the same way as in Hindu ritual practice, one 
cannot undertake any endeavour, or worship, without first taking the name of 
Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, so too, the Sta & Ma comrades cried 
blasphemy, when the panel discussed collaborative arrangements, the nature of 
health care, the generalization of democratic forms of decision making, the 
flexible morphology of communities - etc in a possible world beyond and after 
capitalism, without first singing elegies to dead mass murderers like Stalin 
and Mao.

I did not see this as at all necessary, as the panel was supposed to be about 
life after capitalism, and not about life under 'actually existing' 
state-capitalism. The loud denunciations of the Sta & Ma brigade were 
amusing, and at the most somewhat distracting, but again, what I found 
interesting was the fact that in the context of the WSF, where there were no 
captive audiences that one can fool with the romance of 'revolution' or of 
socialism in one country, family or generation, the lung power and eloquence 
of the Sta & Ma brigade found its true perspective, as just another somewhat 
more hoarse voice than others. 

An audience of workers, students, intellectuals and activists from different 
parts of India, in one room with with their counterparts from South Korea, 
Brazil, South Africa and Europe (which is what the audience for the panel I 
went to looked like)  has a whole world to talk about, experiences to relate, 
futures to imagine.  For me, this was the most important thing about the WSF, 
in any of the panels that I went to, chanced upon, or eavespropped upon, the 
presence of the world was manifest in a way that I have never witnessed 
before in India. A small begining, but it may lead to the restoration of 
visions of  larger, more ample and open horizons.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta (Raqs Media Collective)
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110054
Phone : 91 11 23942199 Ext 305

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