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The worst thing Imran Khan could have done to reclaim self respect is use a bunch of sympathetic foreigners to convey his legitimate stand against drone attacks. There were these gentle people going right into the rough terrain. It contrasted rather sharply with Khan’s own costume, complete with a gold turban. He was the tourist guide to a group of adventurers.
He could have been the messiah to a lost people. Instead, he is seen as a drum-beater, demagogue and a terror apologist. He miscalculated badly. The fundamentalists think he is too westernised and his empathy is opportunistic. The liberals want no truck with a man who acts like a tribal chief.
Khan, in fact, belongs somewhere in the middle. That too is a problem, for no one understands that place. He, too, seems to be quite oblivious to its potential.
On Saturday, October 6, he decided to bring global attention to the impenetrable regions of South Waziristan, where the drone attacks are mainly directed. His ‘virtual’ appeal was terminologically confusing: “Hundreds of thousands of people in my country, Pakistan, are under siege from US drones: robot weapons that indiscriminately kill children, and terrorise families every day. This weekend I am leading a peace march against this secret war, and if all of you join me virtually, we could create a public storm to stop this torment.” If these weapons are robots and mechanical, he loses moral ground. It is also not a secret war. The United States has been pusillanimous.
He further stated, “America’s deadly drones campaign is illegal and counterproductive – instead of beating terrorists it is driving more people to anti-American extremism.”
This is the worrying aspect of his campaign. Why does he as a representative of his country even want America to ‘beat terrorists’, unless they are on US soil? Besides, the argument that the drone attacks have led to anti-Americanism is not quite accurate. Western imperialistic attitudes have bothered people in the region for long, partly due to their compulsive need to support Islamic regimes and partly because of the fear that their own land might one day become a theatre for such wars as the one in Palestine or, more recently, other Arab states.
Besides, terrorism preceded the drone attacks. Pakistan’s northern regions have been used as terror camps, although their main targets were Kashmir.
As the convoys moved from Islamabad, travelling several miles to Dera Ismail Khan, it was obvious that Imran Khan’s attempt at reaching out to a global audience had succeeded. These were people who would carry the message: the message of not completing the journey. In a moment of literary becoming literal, they turned back from Tank. No truth can be more potent.
The general euphoria of “we have made a point” was like a sentence cut short. There were security reasons and danger. Is this not what the US claims to protect the people against? Did the government agencies not reveal the vulnerability of Imran Khan when they, supposedly, did not provide adequate security? Was there any truth to the earlier statement made by the tribal chiefs that his rally would be met with bombs?
“The whole world has heard your voice. A majority of people in the world as well as international newspapers have condemned the drone attacks,” he boomed. The world is not made up of those who already know.
Lauren Booth, sister of Tony Blair’s wife Cherie, was there. Her conversion to Islam in the popular imagination is more drastic than her brother-in-law’s to Catholicism. She played and dressed the part. But you can’t take out years of indoctrination. She told Pakistan’s Express Tribune, “[The people] are saying thank you, thank you for remembering Waziristan.”
Which people? Did the jirgas send their emissaries with a return gift?
According to a report, “The head of American NGO Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, said he brought a message from his mother who had suffered at the hands of Hitler – and that she too felt the pain of drone victims and their families.” It probably did not strike him that the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman considers Imran Khan as an agent of the West and the Jews. So the Hitler example would not quite hit home the point.
These nice folks who stood out in the heat and dust as different people spoke about how the US was wrong, how people are also killed in other parts of the world.
Medea Banjamin, co-director of Code Pink said, “People are taking great risks to come here. It shows the depth of conviction that we have to say that ‘I don’t want my government killing innocent people in my name and I’m going to put my body on the line to try to stop it’. ”
If anything, this is counter-productive. It conclusively implies that those tribals are blood-thirsty and no one is safe anywhere close to them. The anti-US voices ended up speaking up unintentionally for the US.
An activist, Chelsea Faria, told NBC, “A lot of anti-Americanism is actually created due to the drone war. It’s making us a lot less safe.” It is about them, not the Pakistanis, who they came to offer solidarity to.
The Daily Telegraph, while quoting Khan on not reaching the destination – “Could not take that risk with foreigners and women. The army told us there was a genuine threat” – opined, “The threats were nothing more than a chance to silence government opposition, or they were a convenient excuse for Khan to back down from a confrontation, depending on whom you believe.”
The cynicism towards the PTI, though, is magnified in Pakistan. Had a similar rally been organised by activist groups or even the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, there would not have been a backlash. Imran Khan is condemned for raising the points that everyone wants solved. His attempt last year to hold a jalsa brought up several issues.
He used the Minar-e-Pakistan site in Lahore to convey to the large crowds his concerns. “These rulers and politicians have deposited ill-gotten $100 billion in Swiss banks, whereas Pakistan’s total debt is $60 billion.” Even then his manner was aggressive when he threatened: “face civil disobedience and wrath”. In a nation where suicide bombing may well be construed as civil disobedience and wrath combined, he lost the plot.
He had to resort to the usual tactics: “We have started a tsunami-like mass movement for a corruption and exploitation-free Pakistan as envisaged by the Father of the Nation Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Mohammad Iqbal.” No Constitution explicitly lays down how to circumvent bribes and these gentlemen had not seen the growth of the country nor its degeneration. This came across as rhetoric, a rhetoric that politicians routinely indulge in. But Imran Khan was meant to be an alternative, untainted by scams and hollow vows.
Because it sounded rehearsed, his genuine discussion about health, education, use of natural resources that are embezzled away or not adequately exploited to make Pakistan self-sufficient, justice, and gender parity where “women get their share in the property under the Sharia” were forgotten in the recording of the crowds that had gathered.
These may well be seen as empty promises of politicians. So, why are they given the benefit of doubt and why not Imran Khan? To some extent, he was fighting the enemies within and making them squirm. “PTI believes in talks with the tribals, as there are a million armed tribal people in Pakistan who cannot be coerced into slavery.” The tribals have been outside of the ambit of the Pakistan government. It has worked to its advantage as well as disadvantage, for with its hands-off attitude it let outside forces in. But soon enough they began entering the mainstream. Today, the Taliban is not relegated to the FATA region. It is in the streets, it is grabbing property and creating fear. That there could be quasi-Taliban groups cannot be ruled out. The polarisation has happened because the government could not take a stand.
Khan has been upfront about this: they should not fight America’s war. “Drones are anti human-rights. They are against international law. We want to convey the message to America – if you send drones, the people will hate more.”
It is a quid pro quo attitude that denotes nothing. From donation drives for the hospital he set up to peace rallies, he appears to be more of an activist and less of a statesman. Good intentions apart, he tends to be an opposing force. This is reminiscent of the rebels of the Arab Revolutions. His party does not have bankable names. While people are most certainly not happy with the current state of the country, President Asif Ali Zardari does manage to get sympathy because he is dealing with the army, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the NATO forces. That the government may be quite cognisant of how all three work and probably be in tandem with them does not register when people are dying every day.
Khan has been speaking out against American policy and interference earlier, but his serious political initiation took place much later. And now when he talks about how he will shoot the drones if he is elected prime minister, it sounds as though he is mimicking the Taliban.
Pakistan is desperate to get a clean image and Imran Khan it appears does not believe in doing the laundry.
Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer and author of ‘A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan’. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/