May issue 2017
Murder Most Foul
It took the residents of Zaida village in district Swabi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, three days to come out of their homes and march through the narrow pathways of the village, to protest the heinous murder of Mashal Khan, a journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, on April 13. Mashal’s father, Muhammad Iqbal Shayer, who is known for his Pashto poetry, owns a small business in Zaida. The villagers chanted slogans in Pashto, proclaiming that Mashal was an innocent martyr. They demanded justice for Mashal, and exemplary punishment for the plotters and perpetrators of the crime — those who shot him, and those who were part of the mob that lynched him.
Mashal Khan was brutally killed by a mob comprising fellow students and employees of the University, after being charged with blasphemy, along with two of his friends. On the day of his murder, when his badly bruised body was brought to the village, just a few among the villagers dared to stand with the bereaved family. It took them a whole week to render an apology to the family for not sharing their grief the very first day, and for abstaining from taking part in Mashal’s last rites.
The news of Mashal Khan’s lynching broke through social media, with details of the murder coming out; echoes of blasphemy accusations could be heard. Graphic videos of the mob comprising university students and employees of the university, kicking and hitting Mashal, who was lying on the floor, with wooden pallets and stones and chanting religious slogans were disseminated through the internet. The jubilant lot who had, according to their own claims, rid the campus of a blasphemer, had no evidence to support their charges. Realising this, hours after Mashal’s murder, they started posting objectionable stuff on Facebook accounts with Mashal’s name and photos on display, took screenshots of it, and spread it around to convince others. But the ruse failed, due to the time mark on the Facebook posts, which made it obvious that the fabricated material was posted hours after his death. In the next move, old comments and posts from his original account were reproduced with twists and turns, and this activity continues.
The mob that killed Mashal had also tried to kill his friend Abdullah. Once the disturbance began, Mashal’s hostel room was locked from the outside by his friends to shield him, while he made a phone call to one of his teachers to say he had already left the campus. But some students found out that he was still there, broke the door of his room and barged in.They dragged him out, shot him, and left him upstairs to die of the bullet wounds. His friends and some university administration tried to take Mashal to the hospital, but the killers were back, this time, officials with a mob of hundreds of students. The main door of the hostel was locked as a last resort, but the mob broke down the door, took hold of the injured Mashal, who was pleading that he hadn’t committed blasphemy. He was reciting the kalima, and asking for water, but his entreaties went unheard, and the mob started kicking and hitting him with stones, and whatever else they could find. Even his body was not spared by the mob that continued to desecrate it. Another innocent man had fallen victim to the narrative that justifies cruel and brutal violence.
News of the terrible event poured out on the internet, but mainstream TV channels chose to give scant coverage to it in their headlines. A late night talk show on Dawn News, ‘Zara Hut Kay,’ hosted by Mubashir Zaidi, Wusatullah Khan and Zarrar Khuhro, did highlight the issue, but most other channels either repeated the false charges, or treated it as just another violent incident on campus.
The political parties abstained from issuing any statement, and even the secular Awami National Party (ANP) district level leadership asked its members to lie low till the dust settled.
Fazal Ameen, a local cleric and prayer leader in the mosque adjacent to Mashal’s residence, announced that since Mashal was killed for committing blasphemy, no cleric would offer his funeral prayers, and he could not be buried in the village cemetery. The family was asked to dump Mashal’s body in a ditch flowing through the village. The cleric vowed that any attempt to offer funeral prayers for Mashal would be resisted and also declared that people who did participate in the last rites would have their nikahs dissolved.
In the climate of fear that had been created, the local leadership of political parties abstained from visiting the family. Even villagers and neighbours were reluctant to participate in the burial, as they apprehended resistance from the followers of the cleric. The family decided to bury him in a corner of the agricultural land owned by them. A handful of valiant people among Mashal’s relatives and a few political workers, some old guards of the ANP and activists from the local chapter of National Youth Organisation (NYO) — a subsidiary of the ANP — came forward to stand with the family. Some of them guarded Mashal’s home all night to avoid any untoward incident; others arrived from adjacent villages in the morning to participate in Mashal’s funeral.
Among them was a highly regarded Pashto poet, author of many books and information secretary ANP, Tehsil Topi, Shereenyar Yousafzai, who, on hearing about the incident, rushed to the funeral from his village Zarobi, 19 kilometers from Zaida. Shireenyar had a gun slung across his shoulder, and proclaimed that if no one came forth to lead the funeral prayers, he would do so in the face of any opposition. Shah Wali, aka Amir, a maternal relative of Mashal Khan and a member of the Tableeghi Jamaat, then led the funeral prayers.
Pictures of Mashal’s funeral prayers, and burial emerged on social networking sites, in which only a handful of people could be seen taking the coffin to his grave. In this depressing scenario, video clips of Mashal Khan’s father, Muhammad Iqbal Shayer surfaced. Iqbal sounded like a very clear-headed and compassionate person in his conversations with Zalan Yousufzai, the local correspondent of Mashal Radio (Pashto broadcast of the Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty) and Riaz Hussain of Deewa Radio, the Pashto broadcast of Voice of America (VOA). The interviews were streamed on their websites and the video went viral over the internet. It was the composure of Mashal Khan’s father, his replies to questions about his son, the hardships his family faced in getting their children educated, his hatred for war and the miseries it brought upon the people, his yearning for love and peace in the region, frequent references to Pashto and Urdu poetry, and his firm conviction that rays of light could not be blocked by the forces of darkness, that challenged the whole narrative of fear.
The video was watched and shared several hundred thousand times in a couple of hours. It was then that the mainstream news channels woke up from their torpor, and rushed to Mashal’s residence for coverage.
Muhammad Jibran Nasir, a lawyer and human rights worker from Karachi, who visited Mashal’s village and met his family recalls the video, and wrote on his official Facebook page, “I communicated to Iqbal sahib that his grace and resilience in the face of such a tragic loss and tyranny has inspired hundreds of thousands of us to not lose hope and show courage even in the most difficult times. For him to talk about saving the future of our youth, the millions of Mashals in our homes, and not to talk about justice for his son alone, showed us the level of compassion we are capable of as humans.”
The role played by the social media as a credible alternative to the mainstream media was indeed remarkable on many fronts. Social networking sites have been the subject of intense debate ever since the forced disappearances of social media activists, false charges of blasphemy against them, and the closure of a few pages. In response to an advertisement by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) which asked people to report blasphemous content, some arrests were made over blasphemy charges and the interior minister threatened to shut down Facebook in Pakistan. It was thought that anyone could be held under these charges, as social media content is subject to manipulation, as had happened in the case of the missing bloggers. Recently, an academic from Karachi University was arrested when he tried to hold a press conference to demand the release of former professor of Philosophy, Dr Hasan Zafar Arif, who was arrested for his association with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) London. Dr Riaz Ahmed was accused of possessing illegal weapons, and in the First Information Report (FIR), law enforcement officials also noted that he was actively supporting the bloggers accused of blasphemy.
The debate kindled by the death of Mashal has revived hope that the reprehensible exercise of using blasphemy allegations to silence critics and dissenters would be curtailed. The response to this savagery from across the country, the Pakistani diaspora around the globe, and activists from other countries, is heartening. Many people offered financial help and have reached out to the bereaved family.
Once Mashal was buried, many feared that the story would follow a familiar path. The initial shock and outrage would soon die down and the tragic incident would be shelved by the media as they moved on to other events. But in the case of Mashal, despite the brouhaha over the Panama verdict, attention remains focused on this event, while political and social activists are determined to bring the case to its logical end.
With the emergence of videos of the lynching, identification of the people involved in perpetrating the crime, inciting the mob and committing torture has become possible. The details of the actual motives behind the incident have also started emerging. A video of Mashal Khan’s interview to the Pashto news channel Khyber News was reposted, in which he had criticised the university administration for mismanagement, increase in tuition fees, and embezzlement of funds in the name of different events.
In another video, Arif Khan, a tehsil councillor elected on the PTI ticket, asked the mob not to name the man who fired the bullets that killed Mashal. To show his solidarity with the killers, he volunteered to have his own name put on the First Information Report (FIR). In another video, Malang Jan, an ANP worker could be seen thumping his chest and vowing to kill Mashal even if he hid in a mosque. In the video, Malang Jan is clearly inciting the crowds and states that if someone asks you about the murder, give my name, say that I killed him.
The whole episode also highlighted the fact that secular political forces do not exert much influence over the views of their young cadres, whose response to matters related to the discourse around religious notions is no different from that of the religio-political parties. This was evident in a recent gathering of the religio-political parties, which included Ayaz Safi of the PTI, Ikramullah of the PPP, and Abbas Sani of the ANP, among dozens of religious clerics. All of them have come together in a desperate bid to save those arrested by the police for their involvement in Mashal’s murder, and have constituted a committee to investigate the charges of blasphemy against Mashal.
The ANP leadership has issued a show-cause notice to their elected district Nazim, Himayatullah Mayar, for going against the party policy in the post-Mashal murder scenario. Mayar’s cousin, Ajmal Mayar, is among the accused, and he had staged a protest demanding his release. We have yet to see if they could set a precedent by taking action against their elected representative, or whether the notice is just a ploy to silence dissent within party ranks.
Abdur Rehman Khan, a former president of the Pashtun Students Federation (PkSF) Sindh, who lost his legs in an assassination attempt, lives in Mashal’s village, and was among the few who stood with the family from the very first day. In a television interview,with Mujahid Barelvi he said, “I was depressed by the way people initially reacted to the incident, the way my fellow villagers didn’t come to support the family, one of their own. Zaida, my village, was once a centre of political activity, and many great political personalities including Mahatma Gandhi, Bacha Khan, Ghous Baksh Bizenjo and Attaullah Mengal, have visited and stayed here. When I returned from the burial of Mashal, I thought our politics, our traditions, everything was buried with that boy of my village. But the way people across Pakistan have reacted to the brutality, the way the media has highlighted it, it rekindles hope.”
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order