That there be light

Mashal Khan remembered as a symbol of student resistance

That there be light
On April 13, a year after Mashal Khan was lynched at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, a large group of young people gathered in front of Lahore Press Club and chanted slogans in memory of Mashal and in support of campus freedoms across the country.

Following several speeches, a group of students calling themselves the Azad Fankars stepped forward to stage a play on Mashal’s life as a student. A woman portrayed Mashal as he spoke out against the university administration and told his peers about its corruption. The final act showed a charged mob attack Mashal, accusing him of blasphemy and of being a Russian agent. It was a powerful moment in the play - a somber silence fell over the crowd as they watched the body of the young girl portraying Mashal crumple and collapse on the ground under the weight of the sticks raining down on her. It was a dark reminder of the brutal ending to the young student’s life.

Mashal Khan’s family, friends, teachers and his legal team have argued that the mob attack was politically-motivated murder as a result of his activism against corruption in the university. Two days before he was killed, Mashal had appeared in an interview on Khyber TV, talking about the vice chancellor and how he was never present to sign degrees so students could get them on time.

A student beats a drumb while his friends chant slogans for campus freedoms and an end to extremism in universities

The joint investigation team (JIT) which investigated the case rejected the accusations against him. An anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Haripur announced death penalty for one person and life sentences for five others. The court acquitted 26 others.

Although justice seems to have been served, its quality is questionable.

“There is footage, in the videos where all these people can be seen clearly,” says Mohammad Iqbal, Mashal Khan’s father.

“This is why we were not happy with the decision of the court.”

“The JIT and the court found no evidence of blasphemy against Mashal and declared him innocent of the charge that the mob had accused him of. There were hundreds of people in this mob,” says Fazal Khan, one of the lawyers for Mashal Khan’s family.

He says most people who participated in the attack could be identified in the video footage and police had registered case against 61 people because of their active role in the lynching.

The actor portraying Mashal Khan at a demonstration held to mark his one-year death anniversary

Recounting the trial and the evidence against the accused, Khan said, “There were mobile recordings, circumstantial and direct evidence. Friends and their accomplices in the mob identified individuals after which they were arrested.”

Khan does not believe that the murder was an accident and spoke Section 149 of the Pakistan Penal Code, citing common intention and common object.

“The mob, procession, hajoom, whatever you want to call it, wanted to kill Mashal and his friend. He was not killed in accidental fire but was shot deliberately.

These people were educated adults studying at a university,” he says.

When Iqbal talks, he does not have a defensive posture. He speaks rather calmly of his son and his love for his country and religion. He also remembers Mashal as a sharp boy who was surprisingly talented in learning new languages. “In primary school, he translated the call to prayer into English. Later, he wrote a translation of Surah Rehman.”

Iqbal says he does not wish to present a dark picture of Pakistan to the world, but would continue to express his reservations on the court’s judgment. “The world is watching Pakistan and its courts in how they treat Mashal Khan’s case,” he says.
In Mashal's case, justice seems to have been served, its quality is questionable

Iqbal recounts the events of the day to underscore his point about the quality of justice. “They murdered my son between 10am to 3pm, not in someone’s house, not in a cave but in broad daylight, at a university campus. The police, security personnel and the university administration were all present there, yet they pelted stones at my son and beat him with sticks. They then tore his clothes and shot him.”

Iqbal says his son was a humanist and never wanted to harm anyone. He remembers the diary Mashal wrote his thoughts in. He wrote about the birds, about how all of God’s creations had the same right to the earth as humans and on equal rights for women. Some of Mashal’s thoughts are on his Facebook page or in other notebooks he left at home but the main diary he carried is missing.

“It was stolen when they killed him,” says Iqbal. He counts all the items that were stolen off his dead son’s desecrated body, “The stole his ID card, his camera and his mobile phone. But the most valuable was that diary.”

Mashal was more than a face which is now plastered on placards and posters.

He was a student, a brother and a son. He was quiet, mostly kept to himself and enjoyed cricket and working out so he could be strong.

A year has passed since he died and this time has not been easy for his family. Iqbal says they have been under immense pressure.

Mashal’s younger sisters who were exceptional students - toppers, Iqbal mentions, with billboards in the city showing their high scores - have not been to school or university since their brother died.

When the crowd outside Lahore Press Club was chanting slogans, Khan’s family sat in a simple memorial ceremony at their home, reading the Quran. He says a bigger gathering would be held at his grave on May 13.

The support that poured in from across the country and all over the world helped the family cope. For Iqbal, it is a matter of pride that there are people for whom Mashal is a beacon of hope, a guiding light, as he was named to be.

Students across Pakistan studying in public universities know Mashal’s fight well. They understand his struggle against various groups on campuses and corrupt administrations.

Nida Afzal, a first year student at Punjab University, says when she heard of Mashal’s story, she could easily imagine something similar happening at her own campus.

“Most students have just accepted violence on this campus, so we don’t even think twice when we hear that Jamiat killed someone or someone set the Engineering Department on fire.”

For many students, the fight for campus freedoms has become even more urgent in the wake of Mashal’s murder. “Mashal Khan pushed us to work harder. If a single person can raise his voice for justice, then why can’t we do it as a group?” she asks.

She says she strongly advocates non-violence and a healthy dialogue at universities.

This 18-year-old has also faced threats and says student activists were conscious of of the sensitive issues. “Unlike Mashal, we found support from some professors and who seniors can guide us. For instance, they know they can’t criticize the university administration and they work on creating more spaces for women and spaces for dialogue where people can engage even if they don’t want to.”

Haider Butt, 22, is embroiled in a battle closer similar to that of Mashal’s at Government College University in Lahore. “Most student societies here are managed by advisors who keep an eye on what they are doing and don’t allow us to say or do anything that challenges the university’s narrative,” he says.

When he spoke out against some questionable practices of the administration, Mashal’s case was used as an example to discourage him and his friends. “They told us to be careful and warned us that what happened to Mashal could also happen to us,” he says.

This did not discourage him. “As part of the Progressive Student’s Collective, we organised rallies in support of Mashal, a day after his death and the largest demonstration was in GCU,” he says.

These student struggles represent the desires of thousands of young students attending public universities. “No problems can be solved by rioting or through war. These problems can only be solved through books, the law and democratic processes,” says Iqbal.

It is because of this belief in the law that Mashal’s family has filed an appeal in the Peshawar High Court, challenging the bail granted to 25 people sentenced to four years in prison by an Abbottabad bench.

They are also challenging the acquittal of those released by the ATC court.