Against the Odds : The WSF in Karachi

An interview with Karamat Ali of WSF Pakistan

CACIM, June 9 2006

On April 25 2005 while he was in New Delhi to sit in at the India Working Committee meeting, Karamat Ali, well-known trade unionist and one of the main organisers of the Karachi Polycentric World Social Forum, took some time off to talk about his experience of organising the Karachi Forum and related issues. He spoke to Sebastian Rodrigues of CACIM, New Delhi, India.

Sebastian Rodrigues: How did the Polycentric Forum come to be organised in Pakistan and that too in Karachi, a city that has gained notoriety for a high level of crime and so on?

Karamat Ali: Actually we were planning to organise a South Asian Forum right after India organised the WSF in 2004 at Mumbai. We wanted to organise the South Asian meet in 2005. While we were preparing for this, I was approached by the WSF International Council as to whether it would be possible to organise a World Polycentric Forum in Pakistan. I was in Holland then. I did not respond but came back to Pakistan and spoke to my colleagues in Pakistan. We then agreed to do, and conveyed our decision to the WSF International Council to organise a Polycentric Forum in Pakistan in 2006.

Regarding the choice of Karachi for the event, we wanted to revive tradition of strong social movements in Karachi in the decade of 1960s and 1970s. Crime took the centre stage only much later; we wanted to revive memories of movements in Karachi after a long gap. It was indeed a tremendous effort on everyone’s part. There was not a single incident of crime during the entire period of the Polycentric Forum in Karachi.

SR: How you, as a liberal, progressive, and radical, come to play such a central role in organising the Forum, particularly in the face of strong fundamentalist forces active in Pakistan?

KA: The credit goes to my 40 years of involvement and experience in the movements in Pakistan, particularly with the labour movement. I was there for the earlier meetings of the World Social Forum in Brazil. After I saw tremendous happenings there and positive possibilities to forge networks, I came back to Pakistan and began organising small meetings of various people with the movements in Pakistan. After that the idea slowly picked up and we began to move throughout the country to inform about the WSF’s ideas.

Today, nearly eighty districts in Pakistan have WSF chapters. Some chapters are strong while others are weak, but they are there. This is the way the WSF is organised in Pakistan. Coming from one of the bigger organisation in Pakistan - as, you know, PILER- the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, based in Karachi - we played a significant role by providing our office support in terms of staff and other resources on a full time basis for three weeks before the event in March this year. Fundamentalist forces cannot undo my involvement for 40 years in the movements in Pakistan. They recognise it and further we also spoke to Jamaat and asked for their co-operation while we were organising the WSF meet. They did not create any hurdles in the process..

SR: I know you faced number of problems in organising the Forum meet in Pakistan, One of them was the earthquake in Pakistan. How did this affect the organising process?

KA: First of all, the earthquake in Pakistan made State authorities inaccessible to us. On the day of the earthquake we had an appointment with the Prime Minister at 11am, and the earthquake took place at 9 am. Our meeting got postponed indefinitely as Prime Minister was busy in co-ordinating relief operations. As a result we could not get political clearance for the event for a long time, and we had problems with participants from abroad not getting visa clearance from the Pakistan state.

Secondly, we ourselves were busy touring the country and helping out in the relief work. The actual destruction was much more than what has been so far described in the media. We saw all that first hand. We had to postpone the Polycentric Forum because of this reason.

SR: What are your comments on the boycott of the Polycentric Forum by feminist groups in Pakistan ? There were e-mails circulating to this effect on the internet. Why did they think of boycotting the Forum?

KA: A small group of feminists, finally three of them, felt that Pakistan was not ready to host such a global level event. They wanted more time to get prepared. We had a series of meetings with them and told them that in case they were not prepared, then they could listen to the participants coming from other parts of the world - but boycotting was not the answer. We finally got them to participate under the condition that they will have their own space in the Forum. We readily agreed tto that.

However I must add that this was not the problem for representatives of the mass of women in Pakistan. Thousands of working class women were participating in the WSF process, and participated with all their sufferings and enthusiasm. So you can perhaps read what the problem was really about.

SR: Tell me something about the role of political parties in organising of the Polycentric Forum. Were they involved?

KA: Right from the beginning of our involvement with movements in Pakistan, we were conscious that we needed support of the political parties. We consider political parties as our allies, and this was true also in the case of the organisation of the Polycentric Forum too. Officially, no political party participated, but they were there supporting us from outside.

SR: What has been the role of big organizations? I mean the NGOs in Pakistan, in terms of determining dynamics of politics at the Polycentric Forum?

KA: No single NGO dominated the dynamics at the Karachi Forum. It was resistance groups demanding self determination that dominated, and they were major gainers in terms of building networks and alliances among themselves. In fact alliance building overall has been the major gain of the Karachi Forum.

SR: What was the relationship of Pakistan Social Forum with the International Council while organising the Karachi Forum?

KA: We did not get any co-operation from the International Council. There were bad delays in communication regarding fund raising. Then at the last minute we had to raise funds on our own. A few international NGOs did put in some money, but we are still in deficit. We have approached WSF India to contribute some of the required amount in this regard.

CACIM – India Institute for Critical Action : Centre in Movement A-3 Defence Colony, New Delhi 110 024, India Ph 91-11-4155 1521, 2433 2451 Eml Web