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Kodak moments at the World Social Forum

Meenakshi Shedde
29 January 2004

For me, the ‘Kodak moment’ of the recent World Social Forum (WSF) in Bombay (Mumbai) came when I saw an Indian tribal (Adivasi) confidently ask a six-foot, blond Nordic hunk for his email address. To me, that visual telegram was pregnant with promise. It undermined popular stereotypes of what tribals must be like, whether they are literate, have access to the internet, understand globalisation, whether they would have the poise – and language – to ask a complete stranger for a contact address.

The tribal’s body language was eloquent too: it wasn’t a cringing, grateful, maybe-I-can-tap-him-for-funds-someday stance; he was matter-of-factly asking for information. The Nordic blond didn’t turn a hair either as he wrote down his address. No one knows what will come of that little exchange, but already, it was chipping away at the enigma of arrival.

So what was the WSF really about? More like The Sound of Music’s Maria – a cloud you couldn’t catch and pin down, a flibbertigibbet, a will o’ the wisp, a clown – or did the participation of 100,000 people from over 130 nations add up to something?

It was this anxiety to pin down that wayward WSF cloud that drove Arundhati Roy to demand that the American companies benefiting from the Iraq invasion be shut down. Good try, but she need not have been overly paranoid. There were talks on wide-ranging issues, including the ill-effects of globalisation, the women’s movement, the strategies of Dalits (the untouchables in the Indian caste system), environmental dilemmas, and more. And just meeting like-minded activists from other parts of the world ineffably built a solidarity and enriched your perspectives on the same issues.

So, for instance, it was a slap in our faces when Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi of Iran visited slums in Bombay, and exclaimed: “They make me cry, they make me cry!” How degraded must our slum-dwellers’ lives be that it breaks the heart not of some rich westerner unaccustomed to deprivation, but a woman from Iran, a country we assume is far less developed than ourselves?

And it was astonishing to be thought of as an advanced nation by leading feminist Virginia Vargas of Peru, who was envious that Indians were legally allowed abortions, for which Peruvians were still fighting so hard – the church and state are unduly cosy in Peru. But then she wondered if we were really advanced, since a lot of the Indian abortions were to squish out female foetuses. More than the big guns’ speeches, it was in these observations, sharing of impressions, gupshup (gossip) over snacks – that we saw mirrors of ourselves we had not seen before, and they gave us pause. In such seemingly underwhelming ways do people “build coalitions” – one of the formal aims of the WSF.

It takes time for movements to take root so that its labours are visible to others. For instance, Bombay is a city built on a textile industry that has now been largely abandoned. But it is also an island of 14 million inhabitants, of whom 60% live in the slums. Over the years, disparate movements fighting for the rights of mill workers, slum-dwellers, fisherfolk and farmers came together to form the Mumbai Nagrik Vikas Manch (Mumbai Citizens’ Progress Committee), and forced the government to withdraw a proposal to build a second international airport at Alibag, a fish-and-rice hamlet across the harbour from Bombay.

You might ask, why does the city slum-dweller, struggling for a roof over his head, give a damn about an international airport miles outside the city? But the point is that he did. When ragtag groups find common cause, the multiplier effect can often build pressure lobbies to force the issue – and that’s what the WSF precipitated.

There was common cause and more at the WSF film festival, where a colleague, Gargi Sen, had curated a superb package of short films and documentaries on the themes of the WSF, and I had curated feature films – classics of world cinema – on the same. These included films like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa, to Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers and Majid Majidi’s Baran. Most of these ran to full houses. One dire night, common cause meant staying till the end of Griffith’s 1916 silent masterpiece, 3 hours and 20 minutes long, even when you realised you would be missing the last train home in an unknown city.

The WSF was also hijacked midway by a messy, unsavoury incident somewhere between a one-night stand and an accusation of rape, when a senior South African judge attending the event was accused by a compatriot and human rights activist. It is a sign of the times that this almost completely eclipsed media coverage of the WSF's main concerns: globalisation, environment, fair trade, tribal rights and other issues.

If a used condom proffered as evidence by the judge doesn’t acquire the status of Monica Lewinsky’s stained dress (the rape charge was quietly dropped a few days later), the WSF should consider itself twice blessed.

Oh dear, was that an indigenous expression of anti-globalisation?

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