The Intercontinental Caravan

A Critical Analysis

 

"In May/June 1999, several hundred activists from India and all over the developing world will come to Europe to participate in actions against many of the planet's most important centres of power...we all share common foes - economic globalisation, free trade and corporate rule - and that the only way we can defeat those foes is by unified action." - from ICC publicity.

 

Work for the Intercontinental Caravan (ICC) started seven months in advance. 'Welcoming Committee' groups were set up in every City the Caravan was to visit, linked by an e-mail list, a co-ordination office in Holland, and regular meetings of delegates from all over Europe coming together for two or three days to hammer out the issues. It was an heroic effort which against all the odds paid off, and several hundred people from the global South did come to Europe, networked and participated in actions.

However this success goes only a small way to masking the pitfalls of the project. Early on, serious logistical, political and inter-personal problems emerged. The sheer magnitude of getting 500 or more activists from the global South into Europe was revealed in January when just three participants failed to get visas to visit the UK. It is stunning that the 38 participants who came to the UK got in at all, and over 80 applicants had their visas refused.

The visa process raised serious questions about the ICC's aspirations to be a 'confrontational grassroots action'. Large-scale brown-nosing of politicians and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) was needed to get the applications through. Apart from being utterly odious, this affected the political nature of the project. In the UK, questions were raised as to whether direct action was an option, as the Home Office wished to see the tour's itinerary, and in Belgium, NGOs placed conditions on what the ICC could do, in exchange for desperately needed funding.

Also, the people who were attracted to a project dealing with 'Third World' issues and working through MPs and NGOs tended to favour an NGO-style approach, which resulted in a lot of inter-group tension. At the evaluation meeting in July 1999 someone commented: "So many people were regularly angry and frustrated with other people. The anger is really demotivating... Leftist movements are often criticised for arguing too much, but in the ICC we should have argued more, and really confronted our differences."

Because of its scale and nature, the project consumed immense resources. In every country a few people were massively over-stretched. Most shared the desperate sensation "If I don't do it, who will?" Many groups lacked the basics, such as adequate provisions for the visitors' food and accommodation.

Yet the resources pumped into the Caravan were massive - £125,000 in airfares and well over £50,000 in preparation costs. In one three-day meeting of 50 co-ordinators in Europe (of which there were several), 150 person/days were spent, discussing logistics and interpersonal conflicts. Similar efforts and energies must have gone into preparations in India. Then there is the ecological cost (and dubious politics) of a project demanding trans-continental flights and extensive travel.

Even if it had gone entirely as hoped, you'd have to ask if this was the best way to engage in effective solidarity. However, the ICC project was never quite what it set out to be. There was no mutual dialogue between European, Indian and other groups. There was no meaningful common platform, and this led to a massive shock when people met, with unrealistic expectations on both 'sides'. Many of the Indian participants were even unaware of the contents of "their manifesto" (Which was written by one European man on their behalf!)

One participant commented that organisers in Europe suffered from the "expectation that visitors would be true peasants with the political sophistication of university graduates." The reality was middle-class small farmers, some of whom were here looking for work, business opportunities or just a cheap package tour of Europe (apparently one couple were on their Honeymoon!)

On the other hand visitors complained that they were "treated like cattle". They had no input into the programme, as there was no dialogue between Europe and the South before they arrived. Instead, an over full, badly organised agenda was forced on them. It is a sad fact that on many actions the Caravan made an exotic picture outside whatever institution they had been taken to protest at, but local activists were conspicuous by their absence.

And there are some considerably less funny accounts of what took place on the tour. One Indian man refused to take part in a demonstration in Cologne, as he was so outraged at the behaviour of the European women - smoking and drinking! The Indian participants were supposed to be briefed on gender relations in Europe, but some apparently forgot or ignored that briefing. Female co-ordinators on the busses reported an overall lack of respect, often degenerating into quite serious verbal and physical sexual harassment.

Participants from Latin America, Nepal and Bangladesh all reported being marginalised and harassed by the majority of Indian delegations on their buses.

We witnessed something of this in the UK where arguments broke out about which Indian States would be speaking at a conference, and whether the Nepalis should be allowed to speak at all. This later escalated into threats (apparently quite real) of physical violence and rape directed at the Nepalis. Non-Indians were chased from their assigned buses on several occasions.

One bus co-ordinator reported: "On the very first day, an Indian guy got up and started talking about how wonderful Hitler was...how the swastika symbolises a maize mill which functions by getting rid of the bad parts of the maize and keeping the good parts...Hitler "defended the German nation state when it was in crisis, by getting rid of the problem elements, and now India has to do the same"!!!!!...How he came into the caravan again raises many questions...I cannot stay in a project that is not strong enough to kick out a nazi...We kept him on the bus over a week through indecision and default...I am sorry we have been providing him with free food and accommodation for 10 days, and am sorry that we had such difficulty in chucking him off, and could not really reach a consensus..."

Depressingly, most of the problems that beset the Caravan while it was in Europe were identified 5 or 6 months beforehand, and were the subject of many lengthy (apparently ineffectual) discussions about "the process". A 'Blind Faith', 'question nothing' attitude permeated those discussions. Critics were referred to as "harbingers of destruction" and "deserters". In the end, some of the most experienced activists in the project (the Dutch cooking collective, Rampenplan, and the transport collective Theatrestraat) pulled out altogether.

Allegations from India that the participants in the ICC were all "seed company reps and bankers", along with the need to apply early for visas led to repeated attempts to find out who was actually coming. These and other questions put to the only contact point in India, a professor and leader of the Karnataka State Farmers Union (the KRRS) remained largely unanswered.

From the beginning the ICC was a centralist organised project offered to people on both continents on a "take it or leave it" basis. This was highlighted by attempts in February to alter the plans for the Caravan. Local groups were concerned that the resources to make such a massive project possible simply weren't there: people were being manipulated and over stretched, and there was a real danger that the Caravan would not happen at all.

Proposals from the Dutch to reduce the scale of the project drew this unflinching response from India: "...A reduction or a postponement would result in the total loss of confidence in not only European activists and also us 'leaders' here in India...When once we take a decision, we execute it at all costs. This particular discipline of ours is what makes us lose confidence in you. And, confidence, if it is damaged once, is difficult to rebuild again...If there is any change in the promised programme, we as "leaders" would not be able to move them even an inch in our future activities and the talk about such a change would go on for years and years...In view of this, there is no other alternative for those who took the earlier decision in Koln, except to stick to it ...I cannot write anymore on this, because I am myself losing confidence in all of the European groups' functioning...Try to be responsible revolutionaries!!!!!!!!!"

Information is power, and from early on that power was centred around a few individuals. People 'on the ground' simply did not get the information they needed but were expected to come up with the goods. Often this was because the time and resources to get information out to people were simply not there, but it was also because control of central aspects of the project - such as trans-continental communication and visa application - was kept in the hands of a few central organisers.

There was a cultural dimension to the increasingly acrimonious debate about hierarchy and centralisation. In Europe, decentralisation and non-hierarchical organisation are an important part of our political consciousness, but in Asia great leaders are expected and revered. However, the debate about the shortcomings of the ICC should not hide behind this cultural difference. Networking our struggles internationally is exciting and potentially very powerful. However, the ICC showed how hard it is to make that networking meaningful, and that is something that cannot be ignored.

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