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Footprints: who now dares?

Updated April 21, 2017
Mashal's father with guests offering condolences at Zaida village in Swabi.— Photo by writer
Mashal's father with guests offering condolences at Zaida village in Swabi.— Photo by writer

SWABI: TV cameras rise to a sky bled of colour by the scorching heat. A helicopter hovers above the streets of Zaida in Swabi, over the heads of uniformed girls and boys going home early today because their school has been turned into a helipad. It descends, lush crowns of mulberry trees and Indian lilacs bending under the gale of its blades. SUVs with blackened windows emerge from the school compound to head for the hujra where the chairman of the PTI is to offer condolences to the family.

“Please cooperate,” a voice says over the public-address system. The gathering under the marquee looks more like a party meeting than an occasion for collective condolence. The noise from the crowd builds into a crescendo, and in a room in the hujra, Mashal Khan’s mother covers her ears with her hands. “This is what it sounded like when they killed my son,” she says. She must have seen the videos. “They broke his fingers.”

“As a father, I can feel your pain,” PTI chairman Imran Khan tells the broken man sitting next to him. “We will do all we can to give Mashal’s killers exemplary punishments.”

The state needs a spectacle — so do the cohorts that perpetuate its lies, its power. Beyond his death, Mashal’s funeral provides another spectacle, here in his village, to be beamed across the country.


Imagine, then, Mashal Khan, the student. Or let’s not — for he is gone, and with him a bright mind, a humanist, a free-thinker and a rationalist. Let’s also be literalists here and not read these words as euphemisms for atheism, communism or ideologies we believe are triggers for ‘blasphemy’. Let him go, rest in peace. Let us imagine instead the students who killed him.


It is just another day in the journalism department in our imaginary university. The classroom echoes with shuffling notebooks and the modulated, impassioned speech of a professor, articulating ideas as though they are veritable keys to knowledge and enlightenment. He, the professor, has taught here for many years, or has only just now returned to teach after a PhD in some high seat of learning in another part of the world. He feels free, for he has unlearned his biases that we — students of schools and textbooks that preach hate — have long held close to our unquestioning hearts and minds.

Our professor is unlike those in his profession that endorse narratives of hate in the name of learning. His head is full of noble ideas, his heart aflame with the passion to dispel ignorance. He has the antidote — rational thought — to cleanse the poison running through the corridors and classes of our institutions. He speaks to us of logic and critical thinking; he encourages us to think for ourselves and think clearly, not by questioning someone’s faith or beliefs but by upholding reason and logical argument to arrive at truth. But in his arguments, he is careful not to venture into the minefield that is religiosity and national interest — for who in his right mind would?

The students stir in their seats, their pupils widening, not because dazzling enlightenment has hit their glassy eyes but because doubt has. And it stirs suspicion. The professor’s ruminations about rationality makes perfect sense but logic threatens the foundations of everything, shaky as the edifice is because it is premised on half-truths and concocted accounts and histories that I, a student, have built my whole life and outlook around, based on long years of conditioning in schools and colleges. He is forcing me to reconsider and, worse still, question the logic of everything I have held true — unravel biases woven in my fibre, and cast aside prejudices related to nationality, ethnicity, age, gender, age, class, colour, creed and race.

The professor and his articulations on truth are a threat because they come at a time in my education when attitudes have hardened, because it is his argument against the world — society, culture, education.

Look at the professor from my eyes, then — from the point of view of every idee fixe that resists change because the system has hammered it into me at every stage of my growth. And consider this: every teacher who teaches logic and speaks out against unreason and exploitation and every student who takes on that beacon to light up the world is a Mashal Khan waiting to happen — waiting to be dragged out on the road, body riddled with bullets, to be thrown down the building, head smashed with a plant-pot so that all the grand ideas bleed away on the hard, cold ground of our reality.

“My loss is nothing compared to the loss of society,” said Mashal’s father.


But the state must have its spectacle. And it loves the spectacle of murder to drive home the message, to silence those who might speak up.

Abdul Wali Khan University didn’t kill Mashal, it is only a microcosm of something bigger, more sinister. Blasphemy, or its accusation, didn’t kill Mashal; it was only a weapon to silence him, a dissenting voice questioning the status quo.

The state has had its spectacle. It doesn’t matter that it makes the right noises now, about bringing the murderers to the book. Who could possibly sit in judgement on the state, pass a verdict? More importantly, who would raise a voice like Mashal Khan did? Who will tread in his footprints? Who dares?

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2017