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Where we stand

April 22, 2017

MASHAL Khan was murdered by a mob. The students were worked up into a frenzy, with the knowledge that they will harm Mashal, and then they were led to him and they killed him. The issue used to work students up was an alleged instance of blasphemy.

Blasphemy charges have been similarly misused before this incident too. But this was a particularly blatant and odious use of an emotive issue to settle scores and to get rid of a young person — all because, it seems, Mashal was asking awkward questions of the university administration.

The blasphemy law, religiously and legally right or not, has been misused many times now. The law needs to be changed. Even the unanimous resolution passed by the National Assembly has said that safeguards against the misuse of the law need to be built into the law itself. But that is another debate.


The dominant narrative of Pakistan is power, and violence is its most naked and destructive form.


Mughees Butt (17) and Muneeb Butt (15) did not commit blasphemy. They were, falsely, accused of being robbers and then they too, in a very heinous, cruel and public way, were killed by a crowd in Sialkot in 2010.

In Mashal’s case, the size of the mob was too large for the police to control, while in the Mughees/Muneeb case, the police were present but chose to do nothing. In fact, in the latter instance, some of the policemen present joined the public in encouraging people to torture the two children.

The videos of both incidents are heartbreaking to watch. The sense of revulsion and sadness that one feels when watching human beings acting worse than depraved animals, is almost overwhelming. How can humans do this? How can our countrymen do this? Do these people not have to wake up the next day and live with their memories? What sort of moral/value structure allows a person to throw a stone with the intention of killing or injuring another? Which values give one the power to use sticks for breaking another person’s bones?

Clearly, it is not just religious issues that have led mobs to cruelty and to taking the law into their own hands. Mughees and Muneeb were not accused of blasphemy. A lot of violent protests, due to load-shedding, etc have nothing to do with religion either — though invoking a religious issue seems to be one of the easiest ways of working people into a frenzy, the recent case of violence at the University of Punjab being a good example.

It is not just the spontaneous reaction of crowds that we are dealing with. The creation and unleashing of mobs has been used in a premeditated manner as well. Those who wanted to target Mashal knew they were going to use a crowd. They ensured that instigators were around at the time. In the past, mosque loudspeakers have also been used to target individuals and communities. These come under premeditated action and are not just the spontaneous behaviour of a mob.

In some cases, the premeditation is not just about creating the frenzy and hoping that the crowd will then turn violent; it is, plain and simple, premeditated murder. Most recently, three women killed a person who was accused of blasphemy in 2004. These women waited 13 years for the person to return to Pakistan before they went to his house and shot him dead.

The ease with which situations escalate to violence in Pakistan should be a cause of deep concern for us. A road accident leads to a scuffle far too easily and we have seen plenty of them. People standing in a line to pay a bill: an altercation breaks out between a few people over who has bypassed another or not. Disagreements that could best be resolved through conversation, or at worst through recourse to law, degenerate into physical fights that, more often than not, turn deadly.

The key here seems to be that we, individually and collectively, do not feel that institutional responses can get us an adequate hearing. Only individual and personal responses can work. The threat of violence and actual violence is the strongest form of individual response. If a person has committed blasphemy, we feel the law may or may not punish the person, so we have to respond individually. When these individual actions get coordinated in a crowd, a mob results. But the response is still individual and individuated.

A road accident happens. We do not believe that the law will be able to help us. The stronger side feels that resorting to violence gives them a better way of dealing with the issue — even though, clearly, violence is not the route to justice and/or restitution! The response is individual.

If our institutional structures were stronger and were capable of delivering justice and fair outcomes, and here we are talking not only of the judiciary but of all institutions, especially those pertaining to law and order, would we have the same level of violence in society? Would disputes as easily or as frequently descend to violence and the need to take individual action?

But our institutions are weak and often ineffective. The dominant narrative of Pakistan is power. Violence is the most naked and destructive form of the exhibition of this narrative. Whether it is the state that makes people ‘disappear’, FIA officials beating passengers or individuals/crowds taking the law into their own hands, it is all about power and not about institutions and rules.

We should definitely change laws that are wrong and build safeguards against the misuse of laws. We should also change our education curriculum to bring in tolerance and do a lot of things that people are talking about right now. But the deeper work needs to be done at the level of institutional reform: building trust in institutions that deliver on fairness and justice might be the only way forward for us.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2017