Chris Harman

World Social Forum 2004 – Mumbai, India

A new chapter in the resistance

(17 January 2004)

From Socialist Worker, No.1884, 17 January 2004.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

CHRIS HARMAN, the editor of Socialist Worker, is introducing a meeting at the World Social Forum and has been visiting the region and meeting activists.

OVER 100,000 activists and trade unionists will come together to join the debates and discussions at the World Social Forum (WSF), which is taking place in the city of Mumbai (Bombay), India.

There is no better venue for the fourth World Social Forum than Mumbai. Some 1,400 million people, close to a third of humanity, live in the Indian subcontinent. Most live on the breadline or below it. Many live in unrelenting, dire poverty, their emaciated bodies visible on virtually any city or village street.

They exist against a backdrop of hoardings advertising the latest consumer goods and luxury products available from local big businesses or multinationals. No wonder nearly 100,000 people registered for the World Social Forum before it began.

Two years ago the two nuclear powers that dominate this region, India and Pakistan, came close to war with each other. Today, Pakistan’s military dictator Musharraf and India’s Hindu chauvinist prime minister Vajpayee are holding amicable talks with each other.

They are both loving up to George Bush and his drive for world dominance. Both Musharraf and Vajpayee are committed to the full range of neo-liberal policies – dismantling legal protection for workers, unleashing capitalist interests in the countryside, privatising state-owned industries and social provisions.

They both depend for their power on political forces that set workers, peasants and the urban poor of one religion, nationality or ethnic origin against those of another.

Vajpayee leads India’s BJP party and is a member of the Hindu fundamentalist paramilitary organisation the RSS. Eleven years ago they physically tore down the Babri Masjid mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya.

Shiv Sena, the BJP’s political ally in Mumbai, took part in riots that followed. Two years ago the BJP government in the state of Gujarat, just north of Mumbai, sat back while Hindu chauvinists murdered every Muslim in sight.

Musharraf came to power in a military coup four years ago. The Pakistan military intelligence, the ISI, played a central role in the military machine he controlled. Then it still provided massive backing for the Taliban forces it had built up in Afghanistan with US support. And it backed heavily armed “Jihadist” groups who attacked religious minorities in Pakistan.

Since 11 September 2001 Musharraf has been forced to abandon support for the Taliban. But a section of the Pakistan military intelligence continues to use the Jihadists to whip up chauvinism and to attack its opponents.

Musharraf is doing deals with the “mainstream” fundamentalist coalition, the MMA, to stabilise his power. The MMA preaches the same conservative message of intolerance and communal hatred as the Jihadists and the BJP, its mirror image in India. The only difference is that the MMA relies on its contacts within the military and the state rather than shootings and bombings.

This situation has created a mood of deep pessimism among many on the left on both sides of the border.

Everywhere I have been, people have asked me whether socialism has a future. This was the question asked by dockers and rail workers in Karachi, by opponents of national oppression in the western Pakistan province of Baluchistan, by activists in Lahore and Delhi.

In despair, many left-leaning liberals in Pakistan put their faith in Musharraf, claiming only he can stop the fundamentalists.

In India the main left party, the Communist Party (Marxist), is trying to get an electoral coalition against “communalism” with the country’s once-dominant Congress Party. This is despite the fact that the Communist Party (Marxist) admits the Congress Party is as committed as the existing government to neo-liberalism.

Yet there are small sparks of resistance that in the right circumstances can provide hope in both countries.

Members of the very small revolutionary group the International Socialists of Pakistan took me to speak to dock workers, textile workers, rail workers and university teachers in the country’s main industrial city, Karachi.

The dock workers had staged a protest outside the city’s press centre. They told me how the workforce had been cut from 14,000 to 8,000 in the last ten years. Now 2,600 more workers have been told they are “surplus”.

The dockers say this is all being done in preparation for privatisation. But when the dockers demonstrated with slogans against the ruling class, the union leaders stopped them. One docker told me, “Whatever remains of left wing politics in this country, they have not played a role in our struggle.”

The rail workers told me how the government had used the “emergency” created by the clashes with India as an excuse to place them under military control and ban their union, the oldest in the subcontinent. And, like the dockers, the workforce on the railways has been slashed. Some 38,000 out of 135,000 have lost their jobs.

Both the dock workers and the rail workers asked me what they should do. I told them they already knew.

They had to find the spots where the employers could be hurt and hit them hard. They should not make the mistake of believing trade union leaders who say you can win by compromising, a mistake made all too often by British workers over the last 20 years. And the military were so hard on these two sections of workers because they had shown in the past how powerful they could be.

The textile workers are the biggest section of Pakistan’s workforce. Most have no work contracts and are subject to instant dismissal. Yet short stoppages do take place, and they do force some concessions.

Among university teachers attempts to impose short term contracts led to a completely unexpected outbreak of militancy some 15 months ago. There were demonstrations, sit-ins and clashes with the troops who occupied the campus.

An activist group based in Islamabad showed me a heartening example of struggle. Pakistan’s peasants are, by and large, conservative in temperament. But in Okara, south of Lahore, the regime has driven them to an exemplary display of militancy.

Their grandparents were promised some land by the British. Instead, first the British army then the Pakistani army took it.

The peasants kept the land only if they gave a portion of their harvest to the army. Now the military regime has decreed they have to pay cash rent. The peasants are refusing to pay up. At every harvest the military tries to seize the crops and huge demonstrations of peasants turn out to stop them. In the protests last year the army shot eight dead and wounded many others.

At a 400-strong village meeting I attended the men sat at the front while the veiled women sat at the side. But in the protests it was the women who went to the front, hitting the soldiers with their sticks.

Women and men together chanted “zindabad” (long live) when a local Punjabi poet told them, “When the revolution comes, their cars and their wealth will not save the ruling class.”

The struggle, like all struggles, has its problems. The peasants fell for the fake promises of local politicians and voted for Musharraf in a referendum. Attempts are being made to break the unprecedented unity of Muslim and Christian peasants. But it shows that people can and will fight.

People on both side of the border see the World Social Forum as a way of increasing the possibilities of such struggles.

Organisers in Delhi told me that the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad last year showed a genuine left existed across India.

The Indian government is only granting visas to 800 of the 2,000 Pakistani activists who want to be in Mumbai. But even that number should be enough to ensure that the message of hope reaches out again, strengthened many times over.


BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)
Right wing, anti-Muslim party that dominates India’s governing coalition. Priorities include privatisation and attracting foreign investment.

Shiv Sena
Anti-Muslim group that organises murderous assaults on Muslims.

Congress Party
Formed out of Indian independence movement – now committed to neo-liberalism. Until recently, the party that usually governed India.

Communist parties
Two mass parties dominate. They have their own trade union organisations. They have led coalition governments in some Indian states. Committed to reform rather than revolution. They are building the World Social Forum.

Last updated on 13 December 2009