War Resisters' International, International Conference Ahmedabad, India, 22 - 25 January, 2010
This was the third International Conference of War Resisters' International held in India, the previous two being in 1960 and 1985. The local hosts were organisations well rooted in the social movement history of India and with whom WRI has had a fruitful tradition of cooperation. They were:
Gujarat Sarvodaya Mandal: Established in the 1950s, Gujarat Sarvodaya Mandal was the central organisation in the Bhoodan (land gift) movement, led by Vinoba Bhave. This collected land for redistribution to landless villagers, spreading Gandhi's message of social/political change through nonviolent means.
Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya ('Institute for Total Revolution'): Gandhian Institute that promotes nonviolent social change. Founded by Narayan Desai in the 1970s during the movement for "total revolution" led by Jayaprakash Narayan at the time of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, this has been a training centre for nonviolent activists.
Gujarat Vidyapith (University): This was founded by Mohandas Gandhi in 1920 to train Indian youth in the nonviolent struggle for India's freedom from British colonial rule. Today, it is one of the few national universities seeking to promote Gandhi's ideals of service-oriented education.
Gujarat Vidyapith served as the venue for the conference, providing an oasis in the middle of busy Ahmedabad. All participants could stay at the university and Gujarat Vidyapith provided all the necessary facilities for the conference. This was essential for an excellent conference climate.
A remarkable feature of this event was the continuity of WRI's contacts in India - while three of the main organisers of the 1985 WRI conference attended (including Narayan Desai, now chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith), the key organisers for 2010 were people who had been young volunters for 1985 and who have since dedicated themselves to grass-roots work with social movements in Gujarat, building networks in Gujarat and further afield.
The conference in Ahmedabad found a WRI that for the last years has worked with a clear direction. The two main developments have been the work of the two staffed programme – on the Right to Refuse to Kill and on Nonviolence – and the work on strengthening regional cooperation, especially in Europe and Latin America. This conference presented a challenge to WRI being outside those two regions, and requiring a broader understanding of our work against militarism and for nonviolent actions. The Right to Refuse to Kill programme has consolidated its position as the primary place for supporting campaigns against military service and other forms of conscriptions. The work has a clear focus - antimilitarism and the refusal to war. The main work of the Nonviolence programme - started in 2005 - has been developing resources for campaigning in nonviolence, supporting grass-roots skill building in nonviolence training, and stimulating campaigns against war profiteers. These two programmes are enhancing the work of groups with a clear antimilitarist and nonviolent ethos. However, they are also relevant to livelihood struggles. Recruitment targets the vulnerable, and as militarisation is at the heart of causes for the loss of communities' livelihood. Starting from the struggles of local communities against “development” policies and the imposition of a economic model based in the over-exploitation of natural resources and the praise of a consumerist society.
While planning the conference, we envisioned the opportunity of making important new connections, between local struggles in the South and the antimilitarist and nonviolent movement of the north. The danger also was that too much could fall under this definition. We agreed we should focus in experiences where either there is a clear connection with militarism or where groups have adopted nonviolence as their method of struggle.
In the buildup to the conference, we produced two special issues of WRI's main newsletter – The Broken Rifle – where the first one focused on the war profiteering aspect of the conference (http://wri-irg.org/pubs/br83-en.htm) and the other on the impact of militarism to local communities and their nonviolent resistance (http://wri-irg.org/pubs/br84-en.htm). A Conference Reader (http://wri-irg.org/system/files/ReaderLayoutFinal-consequtivepages.pdf) was put together in advance and given to all participants of the conference, which included background articles; the full programme, including description of the session and all practical information needed. All these helped building up the content for the conference and getting the writers of the articles involved in the conference already before the actual conference.
The conference had more than 170 participants, from more than 30 countries from all continents. Thanks to a successful fundraising, the conference was able to have the presence of grassroots activists from a number of countries from Latin America, Africa and Asia. This diverse representation was the best at a WRI event for many years, which meant we could both reconnect with some groups and make new contacts. Some examples of this are: Rosa Moiwend of West Papua who contributed energetically from the floor in the session on mining on the connections between what is happening in India and in West Papua and the need for a combined effort to work in these matters. Rosa said that: “The Indian experience we have been hearing is the reflection of West Papua, my homeland, where 'mountain is sacred” and said that people in India were struggling by themselves, now we had to connect the struggles around India with the struggles in West Papua, and the global struggles elsewhere against the extractive industries. Maguiorina Balbuena, who represents CONAMURI a women's organisation in Paraguay (and member of the international network Via Campesina), helped us making the links between the anti-war movement and the land right movement, and has open the possibilities for future cooperation. Maguiorina was deeply impressed with the nonviolent tradition of the land rights movement in India, which she said should be of inspiration for their movement in Paraguay. Justine Masika of the Democratic Republic of Congo working with a women's organisation, shared with the conference the impact of the mining industry and how it has had terrible consequences to the livelihood especially of women, which has also incremented the number of sexual assaults against women in DRC, an issue which her organisation campaigns against. Hitham Kayali, brought the case of the occupation of Palestine as one of the clearest examples of the impact of militarism to the livelihood and the Human Rights of a nation, he shared a session with Sergeiy Sandler of the feminist and antimilitarist organisation New Profile in Israel, to show also the resistance from inside Israel to the occupation. The conference had many more of these examples of people from different regions making thematic and regional links.
The conference was opened by Arundhati Roy - well known Indian author and critic of the policies of capitalist globalisation. She began her speech by asking if the 'nonviolent' in the conference title 'Nonviolent Livelihood Struggle and Global Militarism: Links & Strategies', was referring to the struggle or the livelihood. In WRI we believe we need to struggle for our livelihood, where the two are interconnected, you can't have one without the other. For WRI we need to be compatible between means and end, if we want to live in a nonviolent society, then our struggle must be nonviolent. Arundhati then moved to show what have been the consequences of the capitalist developing policies of the Indian state to local communities. She ended up by saying that more and more she believes in working with a biodiversity of resistance, as she asked herself how to have effective strategies, Arundhati said: “That is where we get stumped. What do we do about it all? Perhaps nonviolence is the right way for us, but I don't know what to say to villagers facing repression”. She called violence a stress signal in society. Then she said : "I stand for biodiversity of resistance, because we have to stop this”. Many participants during the conference replied to Arundhati's exclamation. Suggesting that first of all what it is important is to take a stand against injustice, then what follows is how to be congruent between means and ends and also what in reality is effective.
Each day started first with a plenary session, although in general we tend to privilege workshops as a more active form of participation. The main value of plenaries is as a space where all participants can come together. To make this more dynamic, we began with two spots prepared by a range of participants. First was 'This is the News', where two or three participant would somehow dramatise a topic in the news, for example using tools of the ''Theatre of the Oppressed' of Augusto Boal. It gave the opportunity for participants to share something special to them with the conference. One 'news' we had was the recreation of the Australian Prime Minister, speaking to the UN, while his alter ego said what he really meant in his speech. The second spot was for 'the Reflectors' - a group of five people who were allowed to walk in an out of sessions, trying to get an overall picture of the conference and then reflect to the plenary on their appreciations. This was a good opportunity for people to bring back to the plenary what they had seen in the workshops as well as to comment on what they saw missing.
For the plenary presentations, we had one main speaker and then a commentator from a different region of the world but working on similar issues whose comments would highlight some of the similarities and explore some of the differences.
The programme was divided in three day-topics:
- Displacement, 'Development' and Militarism: The plenary presentation for this day was in charge of Samarendra Das, a long time campaigner against bauxite mining in the state of Orissa in India. He gave a detailed picture of the huge impact that bauxite mining has in Orissa as well as presenting its place in the bigger mining industry chain and the connection between bauxite, aluminium and the arms trade. Samarendra is also a film maker, hence during his presentation he showed a footage of a film on the violent repression to the Dongria people in Orissa for resisting the bauxite mine company Vedanta. His presentation was followed by comments from Elavie Ndura-Ouédraogo, a Burundian scholar living in the USA who reacted on the consequences of the mining industry in Africa and the different forms of resistance taking place.
The workshops that followed gave the opportunity to expand on the plenary topic, analysing other areas afflicted by displacement from neoliberal policies and militarism. The session on military bases, facilitated by Wilbert van der Zeijden representing the International No Bases Network, heard from a range of activists including from the campaign against the Manta base in Ecuador, from Mauritius and the work with Chagossian people against the base in Diego Garcia, from South Korea and the impact of the US military, from Germany and their successful campaign against the Bombodrom base. A workshop on how the 'war on terror' has affected social movements, began by looking at a framework outlining the main implications for social movement from the 'war on terror' followed by a presentation on its particular implications against social movement and communities in India.
- Nonviolent Resistance from Local Communities: Maguiorina Balbuena from CONAMURI/Via Campesina in Paraguay was the main speaker for this session. She illustrated the impact that neoliberal policies and militarism has had in Latin America and the importance of grassroots movements as Via Campesina in creating alternatives to the dominant model imposed to these communities. The commentator on her presentation was Ramesh Sharma of Ekta Parishad who took us more into the strategies behind the mass landless movement of Ekta Parishad to mobilise thousands of people to march for their rights. Ekta Parishad offers crucial insights into how nonviolent popular mobilisation can have greater impact by combining continued local work and building non-party forums with periodic headline events, such as massive marches.
Workshops for this day included a followed up on Ekta Parishad's work, a workshop on militarism and energy development projects in Latin America, which had representatives from Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Chile, illustrating how what is happening in various parts of India is often paralleled by what is happening in Latin America. As a concrete outcome of this workshop, it was decided to work together producing a map on the energy development projects in Latin America and what impact they have have on the livelihood of local communities. This map will then be distributed among the different groups working with WRI in the region and they will organise a common day for posting the map in the streets in their countries. In this slot we also had a number of workshops on constructive programme and looking at alternative ways of living, on how our resistance also has to be followed by a change in our behaviour. A workshop chaired by members of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) on the role of nonviolence in social change, helped participants look more on how to be strategic in our struggles.
- Forming transnational alliances: Medha Patkar, well known Indian activist was supposed to be the key speaker for this session and was very keen to attend. However, the week before the conference she was summoned to the Supreme Court in Delhi on that very day, concerning a case she has brought about her to visit Gujarat. As an alternative we held a more participatory and strategising session. This began with a panel of four participants each sharing a positive and negative experience from working in international alliances. After that we divided the plenary into smaller groups to discuss these and other experiences, leading to suggestions for better practice which were then shared with other groups.
War profiteering was a particular area we wanted the conference to work on. This theme connected with several topics - mining, military bases, economic conversion, etc - and so was discussed across the conference. In the workshop slot dedicated to transnational alliances, we had a representative from the Campaign Against Arms Trade in the Netherlands and member of the European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT), sharing their experience of cooperating at a regional level but also identifying the need for cooperation beyond Europe or particular regions. It was a place for sharing some common practices and understanding the global trend in the war profiteering industry, and making connections for example with the work against the arms trade in Venezuela who purchase most of their weapons from Russia - we had someone from Venezuela and Russia making these links. As an outcome of this workshop came the idea of organising a combined seminar between WRI and ENAAT to try to go beyond local and regional experience as many times arms deals are done transcontinentally. Other workshops were on the role of international nonviolent accompaniment as a clear example of alliance building an transnational cooperation, or the example of open source software as a different example of this cooperation, to only name a couple.
The conference and India
During the whole of the conference pressing situations in India were address. Particularly what is happening in the state of Chhattisgarh where, since 2005, the indigenous population of this tribal dominated region is facing the worst humanitarian crisis of its entire history as a consequence of the armed conflict between the State and Salwa Judum (a state sponsored armed militia) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). During the conference we had people speaking and videos presentation on it and the conference adopted a declaration (http://wri-irg.org/node/9618) condemning the violence in Chhattisgarh.
Being in Gujarat it was necessary to give the 2002 riots and violence in Gujarat the relevance it needs, we had different workshops on what happened in 2002 and what have been the consequences for Gujarat after the 2002 events, understanding what are people doing to counteract the strong violence from nationalism in the region.
Kashmir, being a never ending crisis and part of the 'war on terror' discourse, was represented by a Kashmir activist advocating for a nonviolent way for dealing with the conflict. As part of the conference it was agreed to support people-to-people processes underway between Kashmir and various parts of India and, when appropriate, to be prepared to organise an international delegation supporting the Kashmir civil society who are working for a nonviolent way.
To help the international participants have a better understanding of the India reality the day after the conference we organised an excursion. Participants visited a centre for the empowerment of Dalits ('untouchables'). The other visit was to a school working under Gandhian values especially on the idea of constructive programme of building alternative ways of living. Participants highly valued the opportunity of having these excursions to be able to see first hand some organisational practices.
A press conference (http://wri-irg.org/node/9591) was held after the conference, many people asked: why after the conference? We had some controversial figures in Gujarat attending the conference, and we didn't want to make their presence more difficult. The press conference focused on the theme of the conference but also reacted to the Indian conflicts and in support of nonviolent social movements in India. The press conference was reported in many of the main newspapers of Gujarat. For WRI having the press conference only made sense as a means of supporting the struggles in India itself.
As 30 January is Gandhi Memorial Day, two of the ashrams in Ahmedabad founded by Gandhi availed themselves of the opportunity to invite participants to take part in commemorations, including a march against GM foods, and inviting WRI chair Howard Clark to speak to the Sabarmati Ashram about the perspectives discussed at the conference.
Bringing it back home
At a conference like this, it is impossible to quantify the impact it has in people, which new connections were made, who got a useful contact where, who is planning in visiting whom, who learned of a struggle they didn't know about, who planned to give a talk at home, who wrote an article of their experience, who plans to take action on a new issue, etc and etc. For the conference a list serve was set up, which helped first giving the practical information for the conference, and then became a place to share resources. People have been sharing their pictures from the conference but also documents, statements and just has been a place for following up in contacts and topics discussed during the conference.
We already have mentioned some concrete outcomes – statements, future seminar and international delegations, Latin American map, new working groups, etc. The Nonviolence Programme -programme responsible for the conference – is already working in the follow up from India. The plan for a combined seminar between WRI and ENAAT is well under way. The same for the production of the Latin American map which should be ready by mid May when Latin American groups related to WRI will meet in Paraguay for a series of networking meetings. A new WRI Working Group on Climate Change was a concrete outcome of a workshop on climate change and militarism. The new working group is already working in a proposal for the upcoming 'Peoples’ World Conference On Climate Change And Mother Earth’s Rights’ that is being organised in Cochabamba, Bolivia during April 19-22, 2010, just to mentioned some of them. WRI as main organiser of the conference will do the appropriate follow up of all these proposals to make sure what came out in Ahmedabad doesn't die in Ahmedabad.
The conference is already over and everyone is back to their daily routines, but we hope that the week of coming together in Ahmedabad sparked people to make new connections and to take action locally and connect globally.
For pictures from the conference you can go to: http://wri-irg.org/node/9630