From Back Office to Center Stage: India Hosts the World Social Forum at a Crucial Stage in Its Postcolonial History

Article excerpt

Lately, some Indians--ministers, technocrats, business leaders, and freshly minted college graduates--have been declaring that "our nation is proud to be the back-office of the world."

Attracted to an English-speaking and educated workforce, companies based in the United States and United Kingdom are outsourcing key operations, including call centers and back-office support to Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and other Indian cities. For a few days in January 2004, however, the back-office will take center stage, as India's most cosmopolitan and vibrant city, Mumbai, hosts the fourth edition of World Social Forum (WSF).

Historic Role in Forging Global Solidarities

In many ways, it is rather appropriate that WSF should convene in India. For one, it implies a symbolic reclaiming of historical solidarities, and the facilitating role played by India in the anti-colonial and postcolonial contexts. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of independent India, hosted the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, where he articulated his hopes for Asia's place in the world and his vision of non-alignment with respect to the East-West divide. Again, in 1955, Nehru's leadership ensured the success of the Bandung Conference of independent Asian and African nations, held in Indonesia. In both historic events, India helped define and advance a political ethos for countries in the global south that championed self-determination and independence, and one that valued principled cooperation between developing nations. Richard Wright, American writer and civil rights activist, attended the Bandung Conference, and was awed by the monumental significance of the converging of the world's dispossessed; he was convinced that the struggles of blacks in the United States were inextricably linked to those of colonized peoples of color throughout the world.

Over the past decade, due, in part, to reconfigured global geopolitics and its own internal ideological shifts, India appeared to reverse or relinquish the solidarity-oriented aspects of its role in global politics. Obviously, conditions today are vastly different from those during the Bandung era. The Non-Aligned Movement, which India cofounded, is struggling to remain relevant in a post-Cold War world order. There is no common enemy such as "the colonizer" and no common anti-colonial platform. The logic of global capitalist and neoliberal economics pits people of color against each other, in the mad scramble for crumbs that corporate-driven globalization trickles down. Meanwhile, the current rightwing, majoritarian, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian government has switched from a Swadeshi (sovereign self-reliance) platform to one that defers to dictates of Washington and global markets.

India's Moment of Choice

The World Social Forum in 2004 occurs at a crucial moment--a moment of choice--in the history of postcolonial India. In the 56 years since independence, India has cultivated a democratic space under a constitution guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. Most Indians will note with pride that they enjoy greater civil rights and liberties than their neighbors, and more meaningful press freedom than the United States. The sheer size of civil society and the effectiveness of grassroots social movements attest to the health of Indian democracy. Yet, the very same indicators convey a deep democratic deficit and disenfranchisement within the polity. For the Adivasis, or indigenous peoples, denied access to their forests and displaced from sites of large dams; for the Dalits, or historically oppressed castes, who are still held in bonded labor in parts of the country; or for rural Maoist guerrillas who evoke loyalty and terror among the landless disaffected, independence is still pending. They are organizing themselves in creative ways to redeem the promise of independence, as well as to call bluff on false promises of free market riches. …