What initially looked like it would fizzle out into an anti-climax, crescendoed in some style at Dera Ismail Khan on Saturday evening. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s ‘peace rally’ from Islamabad to South Waziristan had managed to attract much attention, given that it was to be the first large-scale political protest against the continued use of drones by the US in the tribal badlands of Pakistan.
But the novel initiative was under threat of fizzling out even before it started.
Starting as a small group of vehicles, the convoy gathered steam as it moved from the city centre on to Islamabad Motorway’s Toll Plaza. Imran arrived there at about 10am in a silver bullet-proof SUV. Workers and supporters showered the convoy with rose petals – many vehicles, buses and vans, joined in, giving the smallish convoy some impetus.
Another, bigger, reception awaited him at Balkasar interchange, by which time the mood had begun to change. Loudspeakers made their first appearance.
“Halat ke kadmon mein kabhi girta nahi qalandar.”
More joined in. Peace activists. Journalists. Workers. Supporters.
Then it was on to Talagang by afternoon, a little further up from which there was yet another gathering of PTI supporters. Fireworks sounded, and rose-petals rained. The PTI anthems became louder, the flags more prominent. The convoy grew larger still – evidenced by an increasing frequency of traffic jams.
School children stood by the roadside, waving, trying to catch a glimpse.
The fear and uncertainty had begun to dissipate.
Familiar territory awaited.
The convoy crossed the recently inaugurated NAMAL campus, nestled just off the River Indus on the hills of Musa Khel – an institute that the PTI chairman leads. At Mianwali, Imran’s hometown, he rose out of his vehicle to address what had, by that time, become a sizable convoy filled with charged supporters, who greeted the PTI chairman with rousing applause.
“No one can stop us from going to Waziristan,” he thundered, promising that he would raise a voice against drone attacks across the world.
Onward the convoy went, refueled by their chairman’s determination, snaking over the Chashma Barrage, growing in strength and vigour.
Onward to DI Khan. Onward to South Waziristan.
Head-on with JUI-F
At DI Khan, the PTI convoy hit an unforeseen roadblock. A road that could accommodate only one vehicle at a time had the PTI convoy heading in one direction – and a Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) convoy heading in the other. It took close to an hour to resolve the literal deadlock. But an understanding was reached, and the convoy finally broke free and moved on.
The threat of the anti-climax had started before the convoy even began moving. Reports of threats by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) continued to trickle in on Saturday morning. The foreign media had already dropped out the night before – as had a number of prominent local media persons. Reports of blockades by authorities were also making the rounds. PTI scrambled to keep the hope alive, its media team rubbishing threats.
At the PTI headquarters, journalists began gathering at about 8am. Questions of the rally’s success began. An early turnaround. An abortion.
The size of the initial convoy, which left the PTI headquarters by about 9:30 gave credence to these fears.
But the PTI chairman seemed confident despite the gloom, and the party seemed to feed of him. Interestingly, there was no visible security for the rally – at least not the sort that cocoons leaders in Pakistan these days. Punjab police mobiles were seen intermittently.
The rally rolled through DI Khan, onto its outskirts, Tank Road, where the convoy set up camp. The rest will be needed.
A herculean effort as it may already be, this was the easier part. In the morning, the convoy will try to move towards Tank and then Kotkai in South Waziristan. That’s when the real struggle will begin.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2012.
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