University student Mashal Khan, above, was brutally slain in Pakistan on the morning of April 13, by fellow students who ‘turned into barbarians’.
Rumours had started circulating on the morning of April 13 about Khan’s alleged gustakhi – literally disrespect, but in the context of Pakistan, blasphemy. Concerned by these rumours, some of his teachers drove him away from the Wali Khan University campus in Mardan, but Mashal returned to his hostel, saying:
I have done nothing wrong, why should I hide?
When a mob came for him, he stood no chance. Police who watched the attack said they were helpless. Hopelessly outnumbered and inadequately trained, the best they could do for Khan was to prevent the mob from burning his battered body, which they removed even as dozens of charged young men demanded it back.
Writing for The Wire, Beena Sarwar said:
This violence – for which there is no justification morally, legally or religiously – falls into a familiar pattern. It starts with rumours that the person has committed some kind of blasphemy. A mob is gathered and incited to attack the accused.
While there have been several such instances in the past, this is the first time that students at a university campus have succumbed to the ‘poison in the body politic’ that Pakistan has been witnessing for some time.
In this case, rumours had begun circulating that Mashal and his friend Abdullah were ‘promoting the Ahmadi faith on Facebook’.
The mob dragged Mashal, a journalism student, out of his hostel room. They stripped, beat and clubbed him, then shot him. Videos circulating online show young men, some carrying backpacks, kicking and throwing stones at his near-naked, bloodied, lifeless body.
They first attacked another mass communications student, Abdullah, who had hidden in the chairman’s washroom. The mob smashed the office and beat him even as he recited verses from the Koran to prove his faith. Police who reached the scene managed to rescue him and get him to a nearby hospital.
After the police rescued Abdullah, the mob hunted down Khan.
Over the last decades, simply accusing someone of “blasphemy” has proved enough to trigger a vigilante death sentence.
Obviously, Pakistan has not got to this situation overnight. A critical point in this path was the 1974 constitutional amendment that officially declared the Ahmadi community to be non-Muslim. Ten years later, General Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship made it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to practice or propagate their faith as Muslims. He further added sections to the British colonial-era Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, expanding on the earlier “injury to religious sentiment” offence with its milder sentence.
These amendments, which form what are termed as Pakistan’s “blasphemy laws”, include 295-C, which made any insult to Prophet Mohammad punishable by life imprisonment or death. In 1992, the option of life imprisonment lapsed and death became the only option for 295-C convictions.
Clearly, reasoning and facts are inadequate to counter the prevailing dominant narrative, where just accusing someone of gustakhi is considered evidence of their guilt. This narrative has become a convenient tool to muzzle progressive voices who challenge the dominant hegemonic narrative in Pakistan.
From all accounts, including his posts on social media, Khan was someone who upheld progressive values, including women’s rights. He was a poet and a thinker, and he questioned the mainstream discourse.
He was “one of the most intelligent students of our department,” a university teacher told Mushtaq Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based reporter with The News.
“He was different from other students. He would raise questions and challenge people,” said another teacher, adding that Mashal was “blunt but inquisitive”. He would not take injustices lying down. When something went wrong, like lack of water or electricity at the hostel, Mashal would not stop at filing a complaint, but persistently follow up.
I never heard of him saying anything against religion or the state, but he was critical of the present political system.
Zar Ali Khan Afridi, a human rights defender based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas adjacent to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said:
When students at an institution meant to impart education can turn barbarian and so intolerant in a matter of alleged charges of blasphemy then what can we expect from religious seminary students who are imparted such education 24 hours seven days a week and 365 days a year?
“To their credit,” Sarwar wrote, “civil society activists in Pakistan are speaking up in public against the brutal murder. Besides voicing their views on social media, some are planning to demonstrate in various cities against it.”
Heartbreakingly, nothing will bring back Mashal. “But we can stop other mothers from losing their Mashals,” said Taimur Rahman, a Marxist economist and musician.
Whether this is possible or not, the efforts must continue.