A mob lynched Mashal Khan last week at the premises of his university on the allegation of blasphemy. Factually, the statement is accurate, but reducing the incident to newspeak is simplistic and incomplete, for it fails to capture what Mashal's life story was.

Mashal was cousin to a friend of mine. I talked to him the day after Mashal was killed, and what he told me shattered me into pieces.

Mashal's father, Iqbal Shayar, didn't have a stable source of income but he was always ready to do any kind of work in order to put food on the table for his family. He is also a poet. A man of letters, he never let poverty be an affront to his family's dignity and instilled in his children the love for reading and critical thinking.

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It was hard for the father to pay for his son's formal schooling, but it was a struggle he undertook with pride. Mashal went to the Institute of Computer and Management Sciences on a scholarship and got the best marks in F.Sc at his college. He then secured a partial scholarship to study engineering in Moscow but unfortunately had to return to Pakistan after just one year since his family was unable to pay for the rest of his degree.

After coming back, Mashal didn't follow the conventions and look for a job. He had other convictions. He believed that he would be more useful to society if he went into civil services, so he enrolled into Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan to do a Master’s in mass media and journalism and prepare for his civil services exams.

Mashal’s father supported his son’s decision. Given the financial hardships, it would have made more sense for Mashal to work and support his family financially. Yet, his father didn’t stand in the way of his son’s noble desire to continue studying. This is what enlightened people do; they prefer idealism, public service and social betterment over material gains.

But the mob that killed him had a different vision. Mobs don’t appear out of a vacuum and public violence is never apolitical. Rather, mobs are products of a long process of social engineering. They are conditioned into self-righteousness by a constant of stream of villainous ideas and statements, whereby a beautiful soul like Mashal is dehumanised to the point that his lynching became a necessity and a celebration.

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Mobs go on rampage to silence those who dissent. Their goal is to publically reinforce the boundaries of what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. A mob can become active at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t wait for or need proof; if it smells blood, it unleashes itself.

After Mashal’s death, I wondered if it was just a matter of him being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The answer was ‘no.’ Mobs are products of a society that wants conformity; an inquisitive and humanistic person like Mashal was always in danger of facing its wrath no matter where and when.

Mob violence is also a collective loss – last week it was Mashal, before him there have been many others, and next week it can be any of us who is killed on mere suspicion of blasphemy.

As if exploitation of blasphemy laws by mobs wasn’t enough, instrumentalisation of this law by the state to silence dissent and criticism has added to its misuse. As long as the state thinks that it’s justified in regulating people’s opinions by using the blasphemy card, lives of people like Mashal will continue to be the collateral damage of this policy.

Mashal’s father has kept his composure. When I listen to him, I’m amazed by his strength and perseverance. He insists that his son did no wrong and that he educated him, despite all the hardships, to make him a useful member of the society. Being a poet that he is, he reinforces his words by reciting Pashtu and Urdu verses. One phrase that he said about Mashal is still ringing in my ears: “sunrays can’t be chained.”

This article was originally published on April 18, 2017.

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