Having crossed the stream in a dense thicket of pine, acacia and Indian rosewood trees, I weave through narrow lanes that are slowly but surely being encroached upon by sprawling villas and start on the approach to the steep Bani Gala peak where the opulent palace of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s chief, Imran Khan, is perched.
The first thing I see is a signboard advertising the ‘Insaf property dealer’. A few metres higher there is the ‘Insaf Tandoor’.
Groups of young men, all Pakhtun, pass me on their way down the incline. My car sweeps up the winding road; a few more turns, and a tent village is established at a junction. A few yards ahead, there is a barrier with a checkpoint painted red and green. This is the entry point to the residence.
There is no signboard identifying the owner of the sprawling property. “We have removed the sign that said ‘Insaf Avenue’,” says Syed Mehtab Shah, one of the dozens of protesters occupying the area. “We will install a board saying ‘D Chowk’ instead.”
Several men sit on a wall built along the road, taking in the view. When I take a picture of them, they wave a victory sign.
As I move towards the house, several other protesters resting in tents that have been put up along both sides of the road raise their hands in greeting.
Just beside the entry gate and closer to the forest, two more tents have been erected facing the forest. About a dozen women, their faces covered in veils with only their eyes showing, are standing here. Yunas Marwat, the president of the Workers Welfare Fund (WWF) Board Employees’ Association, is chatting with them.
“We have been camped here since April 12 to protest against the provincial government’s orders asking us to appear in eligibility tests afresh to prove that we’re capable of the positions we’ve been working in for many years,” he tells me.
“We passed these tests at the time of our recruitment in the WWF board schools. So why are they putting us through new tests and interviews? Furthermore, we would have no objection to appearing in the new tests, provided that they were mandatory for all the departments. But the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is targeting only our department because the chief minister wants to expel us from service and recruit his own people.”
I ask him whether they conveyed their request to senior officials in the provincial government.
“We met Khan twice and he said he would play the role of a judge,” Marwat says. “But we are still waiting for him to sort it out. We will not go home until our demands are met.”
These demands include the release of 29 protesters arrested by the federal government a few days ago for blocking a highway, the restoration of the employees sacked, and the withdrawal of the condition of fresh tests and interviews. As Marwat tells me all this, Asma Khattak, a teacher from Peshawar, intervenes.
“We aren’t afraid of tests,” she says. “But this amounts to an insult, as though we cheated in the tests earlier. We are protesting against this insult.”
“We are here to get our rights, not to hurl abuses,” interjects Zaib-un-Nisa from Swabi. Raana Syed, another teacher from Swabi, says they have faced severe problems while camping outside the PTI chief’s residence but their resolve remains strong. “We have been here since April 12. There is no water, no bathroom. But we will stay here until they accept our demands,” she tells me.
Khattak roars from behind: “Just convey one message to Khan: those who have a strong will, those who look towards God, they don’t get frustrated by stormy waves.”
As the sun descends behind the Bani Gala hill, Abdul Wahab from Kohat lights a stove fixed to a small LPG cylinder placed beside his tent. He starts cooking a meal in a large pot. “We cook our food here ourselves,” he says. “We are prepared to stay here for a long time.”
“Khan sat at D Chowk for 126 days. We will sit here for 226 days and maybe more if he doesn’t accept our demands,” says Syed Mehtab Ali Shah. “We have so far been lenient towards him because his wife, Reham, came here, met us and after that Khan invited us in for a meeting in his house. We don’t block their way, but I am not sure what may happen in the future if the protesters’ frustration mounts.”
As Shah talks to me, I see some women protesters leaving in a van. “We get a good salary from the WWF board, so many of us can afford to travel to this site daily from our homes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” he explains.
The sun has set behind Khan’s fortress. The protesters wait.
Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2015