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Justice for Mashal?

February 09, 2018


AND so 10 months after the horrific lynching of a young man whose only crime was his commitment to speaking the truth about this society and its injustices, another young man has been sentenced to death for the crime. And we are supposed to feel gratified.

Of the 57 that were charged with Mashal’s murder, 26 were acquitted for lack of evidence, most of whom were given a welcome reception by the JUI-F and Jamaat-i-Islami in Mardan upon their release from custody!

Presumably these 26 will be emboldened to further the ideology of their parent parties. I am not suggesting that these 26 — or for that matter all 57 of the accused — should have been sentenced to hang. In fact, I suspect that Mashal himself would have opposed the death penalty on principle. What he would have wanted — what all forward-thinking people in this country want — are concrete steps to undo the (institutionalised) bigotry and hatred inculcated in the minds of tens of millions of Pakistanis.

One can only feel hollowness at the verdict.

In short, anyone who felt grief and anger at Mashal’s gruesome death is likely to feel only hollowness at the ‘justice’ that has been delivered by the courts. Tellingly, the Mashal verdict has been issued at a time when a popular mobilisation of Pakhtun progressives is calling attention to the very illegitimacy of the law and order apparatus of the state by demanding justice for encounter-killing victim Naqeebullah Mehsud. One can only hope that ‘justice’ for Naqeebullah when it comes does not feel as hollow as ‘justice’ for Mashal feels at this very moment.

When Mashal’s father Iqbal said in the aftermath of the verdict that he would continue to fight for justice for his son, he was in effect indicting the state for undertaking no meaningful steps to dismantling the retrogressive social order that it has itself fashioned over the decades.

The rhetoric about challenging ‘extremism’ on campuses is an eyewash; the truth is that faculty members and students with a progressive bent of mind continue to be victimised on most college and university campuses across the country. Bigots who are simultaneously incompetent protect one another at all levels of the higher education bureaucracy. They go out of their way to label progressives as ‘anti-state’ and ‘anti-religion’ and thereby isolate them. It is hardly surprising, then, that the critical faculties of students are not given space to breathe, which has a direct bearing on the potentialities for progressive political alternatives.

Meanwhile, as many fellow columnists have written, the private media continues to mislead, sensationalise and incite to violence. It toes the ‘national security’ line and engages in dangerous plays of name-calling against anyone and everyone that — like Mashal — calls for more progressive-minded engagements both within Pakistan as well as with neighbouring countries.

Until and unless fundamental and far-reaching changes take place within both the media and educational institutions, there is simply no chance that the ideals symbolised by Mashal can achieve traction within a broad cross section of society. Do we really believe that only 57 young men — or, as the verdict would suggest, 31 young men — were responsible for Mashal’s death? Is the whole movement demanding justice for Naqeebullah only about finding and apprehending Rao Anwar?

The disease that has spread throughout the body politic does not have a short-term cure, least of all arrests and sentencing of a handful of perpetrators. And incident after incident and baseless rhetorical claim after baseless rhetorical claim confirm that what we call the establishment is simply unwilling to let go of the ideological weapons with which it has for decades guarded its power — and the exclusionary social order that it props up.

Indeed, if there is any silver lining to come out of the verdict from Mashal’s case, it is simply the fact that his parents and the lawyers representing the family saw out the trial despite immense pressure from many powerful people in Mardan and the rest of the country. In similar ways, those leading the protests demanding justice for Naqeebullah are doing so at great potential risks to themselves and those dearest to them.

But it is precisely such bravery to stand up to a tyrannical political system that we need. To demand that the educational curriculum be changed, to recover the histories that Pakistani officialdom has suppressed, to demand disclosure about the so-called ‘war on terror’ in Fata and Balochistan, to call for redistribution of wealth and power within society and peaceful coexistence with our neighbours.

More and more people must come together and build a popular movement around such demands. And if the powers-that-be continue to demonstrate that they are committed only to protecting status quo, then we must push on until we reach a decisive tipping point. Then maybe Mashal will finally gets justice.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2018