India, the WTO and capitalist globalization

BHOPAL, INDIA, January 13, 2000 – Mike Moore, the shell-shocked Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), is visiting India this week to meet with “top officials and business leaders”. It’s all part of a concerted attempt at damage control after the victory of diverse peoples’ movements at the Battle of Seattle. According to a WTO envoy in Geneva, “Moore clearly sees India as a key to kick-starting the negotiation process.” [Reuters, January 7, 2000].

[In an interview with India Today Magazine [January 24, 2000], Moore spoke of the “liberating force of globalisation” and declared it “a reality, not a policy.” In Moore’s words, “The era of “isms” is over.” He didn’t mention “capitalISM.”]

The official Indian government delegation to the Seattle WTO Ministerial meetings took a hard-line stance, at least publicly, against linking trade to labour and environmental standards. It was a position supported by all the major parliamentary factions, including the so-called left parties. Indeed, the government’s view not only echoes that of other governments in the “Third World”, but is critically supported by the majority of progressive opponents of globalization in India and the rest of South Asia.

It’s not that activists here are “soft” or relativistic about labour standards, the environment or human rights; nor are they naive about whom the Indian government really represents. Rather, they see Western governments’ apparent discovery of universal human values and standards as a ploy to ensure a competitive advantage for their own multinational companies. This view is widespread in countries like India, with its own historical context of colonialism, and contemporary context of neo-colonialism (with which the “holy trinity” of the WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) are considered synonymous).

According to Sanjay Mangala Gopal, the co-coordinator of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM, representing some 125 grassroots organizations): “We will define our own way of development and we are capable of doing it. Who are you to teach us about child labour or anything else?”

Gopal insists that voices from the South — where the majority of the world’s marginalized peoples live and survive – should provide the leadership to the international resistance to globalization (by definition, this includes those pockets of the Third World in the North, such as many indigenous and minority communities in North America). The analysis emanating from diverse sources in the Third World – not just the communists – revolves around the “Three Aunties.”

They’re not talking about a kindly trio of female relatives who pamper their nephews and nieces, but an analysis of the WTO and related institutions that is “anti-imperialist”, “anti-colonial” and “anti-capitalist,” phrases which are seemingly alien to most mainstream anti-globalization movements in the North. As Gopal puts it, “If you want real change, you have to abolish the capitalistic mode of development.”

In the forceful words of R. Geetha, a union and women’s rights activist based in Madras, “Who are they [the West] to impose conditions on third-world countries? People are starving here! Why the hell should they tell us what kind of economy we should have?”

Meanwhile, Medha Patkar, a leading organizer of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA, a more-than-decade long mass movement against destructive development and displacement in the Narmada River Valley of India) is not shy in saying: “The ultimate goal is to say no to the WTO. We’re against the whole capitalist system.”

As for the clear emphasis by major Western labour, environmental and consumer organizations that the WTO needs to be reformed — the “fair trade” crowd — activists here respond with varying degrees of diplomacy. In the carefully chosen words of Patkar, “The context of developed and developing countries is different. Those who are for reforms [will] realize over a period of time that these institutions [WB, IMF and WTO] are beyond reform.”

In Geetha’s view, “I think the organized American working class is worried about American capital going to the Third World to exploit conditions there.” She adds, “That’s an indirect fight.”

Meanwhile, one small independent Bombay monthly (which describes itself as “a monthly that challenges the ideas of the ruling classes”) writes that “[t]he big labour unions and environmental groups” were those “whose demands almost mirrored that of the US government.” [The Voice of People Awakening, December 1999.]

Geetha insists on having a “direct fight” against globalization, while Gopal feels that many opponents of globalization “are looking at this issue with one eye,” by ignoring, or downplaying, the voices of the South.

While there is a strong basis of analytical unity by India’s numerous activist groups and movements, their tactics in action are diverse, reflective of the complex — cliched but true — diversity of the subcontinent itself. The actions range from Gandhian-style non-violence to more militant forms of direct action (including property destruction) to armed struggle in certain rural pockets of the country. To a large extent the tactics are complementary, but it would be too idealistic to assert they’re not also at times at odds with each other. However, there is often a strong sense of solidarity expressed between movements. It’s what Patkar describes as “different strategies, but same goals” which is to be preferred to “same strategies, but different goals” (after all, right-wing fanatics also employ non-violence, property destruction or armed struggle as tactics).

One group directly connected to the international anti-globalization movement is the KRRS, the Karnataka State Farmer’s Movement, representing thousands of peasant farmers in the southern state of Karnataka. In recent years, the KRRS has physically dismantled — with iron bars — a Cargill seed unit, trashed another office of the same multinational agribusiness, burned Monsanto’s field trials of biotech cotton, and trashed a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Bangalore. [Their actions put in some perspective the recent debate about so-called “violence against property” in Seattle.]

The KRRS has also been a major component of the People’s Global Action against “Free” Trade (PGA) movement, which unites peoples’ movements on five continents (including the Zapatistas of southern Mexico and the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST) of Brazil). The PGA’s “hallmarks” are a clear rejection of the WTO and similar institutions and agreements, a confrontational attitude, a call to non-violent disobedience, and decentralization and autonomy as organizing principles. The PGA also added a fifth hallmark at their recent meeting in Bangalore which “rejects all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds.”

According to the recent PGA bulletin, “The “denunciation of “free” trade without an analysis of patriarchy, racism and processes of homogenization is a basic element of the discourse of the right, and perfectly compatible with simplistic explanations of complex realities, and with the personification of the effects of capitalism (such as conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, etc.) that inevitably lead to fascism, witch-hunting and oppressive chauvinist traditionalism.” In the Indian context, the new hallmark serves to distinguish progressive internationalist opponents of globalization, like the KRRS, NAPM and NBA, from the Hindu Right who also employ much of the same rhetoric of the anti-globalization movement.

And so, on November 30, while a state of emergency was declared in Seattle, and various militarized police forces proceeded to brutalize thousands of anti-WTO demonstrators, the KRRS organized it’s own demonstration in Bangalore. Several thousand farmers, along with their allies, issued a “Quit India” notice to multinational food and biotech conglomerate, Monsanto.

In the spirited words of one speaker at the rally: “We don’t want to grow and feed poisonous food by using the genetically modified seeds of Monsanto. It is our responsibility to protect our natural resources. I would like to tell the police to be prepared! We will attack Monsanto unless it quits India.”

The KRRS action on N30 is just one example of the spate of recent anti-globalization oriented protests on the subcontinent (although mobilizations against the WB and IMF started in earnest in the mid-1980s). For example, also on N30, activists of the NBA organized a 1000-strong non-violent procession in the Narmada Valley “protesting against the anti-human agreements and institutions that are pushing India and the rest of the world into the destructive process of capitalist globalisation.”

One week earlier, 300 adivasis (indigenous peoples) from the state of Madhya Pradesh stormed the World Bank offices in Delhi. They proceeded to block the building and cover it with posters, graffiti, cow shit and mud (yet again, more violence to property!). The protesters left a letter, which reads in part, “We fought against the British and we will fight against the new form of colonialism that you represent with all our might.”

Other adivasi activists are also currently engaged in a six-month long procession (“padyatra”) from one end of Madhya Pradesh to the other in order to highlight the ever-hastening process of land displacement in the name of globalization.

Meanwhile, just two days ago, the non-violent protesters of the NBA converged on the Maheshwar dam (one part of the Narmada dam system) and proceeded to illegally occupy the dam site. About 4000 took over the site, while 1500 were eventually arrested by the police who responded by attacking some demonstrators.

The protests show no sign of ending, with the NAPM promising to disrupt Bill Clinton’s anticipated visit to India in March. Their chosen slogans include, “Go bank foreign exploiter Clinton!” The NAPM will stress “opposition to exploiting US rulers but friendship with all those Americans who support us.”

These examples don’t even account for other ongoing movements of indigenous persons, fisherfolk, farmers, labour activists, low caste and Dalit (former “untouchables”) organizations, youth and individuals in all parts of India. More information on those resistance struggles, and India’s rush towards adopting free-market globalization, will be appearing in these pages in the upcoming months.
Jaggi Singh is a writer, independent journalist and political activist based in Montreal, Canada. This article was written as part of a three-month visit to India between November 1999-February 2000 where he was researching and reporting on the anti-globalization movement, dalit activism, the rise of Hindu fascism, NGO politics and radical social movements. It was originally published in January 2000 in both the Alternatives newspaper (Montreal) and the Alternative Press Review (USA).