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Footprints: who now dares?

Updated Apr 21, 2017 09:18am

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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

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Comments (10) Closed



SYED ANJUM ALI Apr 21, 2017 10:31am

Very articulate essay. It is indeed a sad loss for Pakistani society that such an intelligent person with so much humanist potential , has been thus brutally murdered by some narrow-minded people, motivated by hate-mongers who exploit blasphemy laws for their own ends. I think that now we all need to stand up and shake off the chains of the 'mullahcracy'' imposed on us by the enemies of humanity, who have nothing at all to do with true Islam or the vision of Pakistan as seen by Quaid and Allama Iqbal and other founding fathers. We must start by first of all giving our children a true history of our freedom movement and what the Quaid and his lieutenants achieved and for what aims and goals; and then, we must also develop the ability to reason and be tolerant of all humans, and stop blindly following so-called (ignorant) clergy.

light Apr 21, 2017 11:06am

In a country where to thinking and questioning is a mortal sin, how can we hope for progress :(

zaheer Apr 21, 2017 12:30pm

Mashal did not make any noise-- any statement-- it was imagined so-- interpreted so--

Tahir A Apr 21, 2017 12:36pm

"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."

This is absolutely true. And it is time to question as to the root cause of it and change our twisted ideology before we obliterate each other in an ongoing carnage in a quest for claiming a place in paradise in the next world.

aslam shaikh Apr 21, 2017 01:34pm

Investigate University administration because Mashal was speaking against their financial irregularities

Mudassar Apr 21, 2017 01:47pm

@light Well said.

Mashal khan Apr 21, 2017 02:50pm

What a beautiful piece of writing man!!

Asok Chattopadhyay Apr 21, 2017 04:17pm

A brilliant firebrand appears to have been extinguished. But the dream-happy, aspirant, mobile deeds remain, rest and left for igniting further. Rationalism does have no death. It's alive into the scientific practices on ground. Mashal is no more and Mashal is with us onto go.

Javed Apr 21, 2017 04:34pm

Exactly.... that was & is the whole point. And look at who reneged on the resolution in the National Assembly.

Say it Apr 21, 2017 05:27pm

Sad and indeed tragic! very well written and thought provoking article.......something that is not allowed in today's Pakistan! Mashal challenged the status quo!!! A generation lost to narrow mindedness and a culture of intolerance and hate!