On the Picket Line in Islamabad

It is Islamabad’s best-known secret. The picket lines at KFC and Pizza Hut are well into their second month and there has not been a word about it in the local press. Stories filed by reporters, on the city’s longest non-violent resistance, have a habit of mysteriously disappearing – the godfathers protecting American franchises must have some clout.

The only related news that has been permitted (or planted) is a crime report, naming individuals against whom cases have been registered for demonstrating at the Super Market. Of course, not a word on what the demonstration was all about. Clout and crude scare tactics, I guess, are the hallmarks of godfathers everywhere. There is some evidence, however, who these protectors may well be. The evidence is statistical, based on arrow number plates that flock to KFC Rawalpindi, and green number plates that swarm Pizza Hut Islamabad. But as it is circumstantial evidence, we will refrain from presenting it. It goes against our campaign principle of adhering strictly to the law.

Adhering to the law in Islamabad is by no means simple these days as the local law-enforcers keep changing it all the time. It was our third night at KFC and the city administration – DC, AC, City Magistrate, DSP, SHO and bus loads of police – was out in force to protect the goateed images of Colonel Saunders. We had barely started distributing our boycott leaflets when we were told that it was a violation of Section 144. We stopped leafleting and unfurled our banners. The city magistracy then proclaimed that as of now this too was a violation of the same law. Somebody produced a megaphone; Section 144 was extended there and then to ban the use of megaphones. Desperately trying to stay on the right side of the rapidly changing laws, we put away the megaphone and started blowing whistles instead.

The game of wits between Islamabad’s lawmakers and its law-abiding citizens continued till late that night. Finally forced to remain silent and stand five meters apart, we lit candles – dim beacons pointing the path of freedom from American brand name slavery. The city authorities could have snuffed this challenge too, but it was late and other more lucrative pursuits beckoned them elsewhere.

Baffling arrogant lawmakers maybe a piece of cake. Convincing the public that boycotting American corporate brand names is an effective strategy to contain American unilateralism is a different matter. A typical conversation that ensues as a picketer tries to convince a would be customer to boycott American products, can run as follows:

Picketer: Don’t send royalty to America, boycott American brand names. Boycott KFC, boycott Pizza Hut …
Customer: But this restaurant is owned by Pakistanis and it provides livelihoods to many Pakistanis.
Picketer: We are not for closing of these restaurants. All we are requesting is that instead of promoting American brand names and sending royalty to the USA, they should do business under a local name, establish a brand name of their own. They have the skills and the money.
Customer: But then they will have no customers.
Picketer: Not if people like you boycott American brand names and support local outlets.
Customer: But what difference can one customer make.
Picketer: Drop by drop a river is formed. You can become the first drop.
Customer: But you cannot change American policy by boycotting one American restaurant.
Picketer:  This is our best bet though. If Corporate America feels the pinch, it will make the American administration change its policy.
Customer: Actually it is my kids who want to eat in here.
Picketer: Maybe you need to explain all this to your kids. If you do not want them growing up as mental slaves to American brand names.
Customer: But America produces many useful things.
Picketer: Yes and there are many good Americans too. This campaign is not against all things American. This is just an effective way to tell Corporate American that attempts at world domination through force can be counter productive to their interests. 

This conversation can be longer or shorter and not all agree to boycott. But the campaign has been effective.  Effective enough to have the city administration descend on us once again, this time at Pizza Hut. On May 6th the city AC and Magistrate using provocation, abuse and harassment took the Identity cards of those on the picket line by force and threatened immediate arrests if the picket continued. Not willing to risk arrests of girl students and senior female citizens, we retreated to fight the battle on an another day and on other fronts.

Already our demand side campaign is gaining momentum. The raising awareness movement in educational institutions is producing results. Starting with the Quaid-i-Azam University, many institutions have declared themselves cola free. The booklet answering questions raised by the public against the boycott is available both in English and Urdu. The list of ordinary citizens volunteering to assist us is growing. It is a cause of our times and the finest of the city are coming forward to take it up. Islamabad is beginning to demonstrate that with patience, commitment and creativity ordinary folk can effectively resist aggression and contribute to world peace.
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