Remembering Mashal Khan

by Shah Rukn-e-Alam

We must never forget, Mashal Khan was murdered because he was good. His goodness moved him to turn away from the hateful path laid down in the lessons of our curriculum,in the organization of our universities, in the form of our laws, in the speeches of our leaders and in the conduct of our geopolitics. In turning away from this hateful path, and in becoming a responsible and vocal student, he became alien to his fellow students, and a threat to his university. Therein lies the tragedy of Mashal Khan. Our hypocritical system, built by Zia, using US dollars and Saudi lies, to serve western anti-communism in the name of Islam , could not abide him.

Raised on a cold war script, of black against white, of communist against ghazi, his fellow students could not see the complicated, sweet, pacifist working through his own mix of Marxism and Sufism for what he was. To them he became a bogeyman, a Russian agent, a communist bent upon spreading atheism, a blasphemer. They had little else to contextualize a class fellow who spoke for student rights and against the abuse of his university administration. The administrators of Abdul Wali Khan university raised on the same fables and used to their unquestioned authority, could not abide a student openly speaking about their corruption on television. The system turned on him.

On 13th April 2017 the assistant registrar posted an official notice that Mashal along with his friends was under investigation from blasphemy. It didn’t take convincing for his fellow students to gather into a angry mass. For them Mashal’s form had become alien, he was a malignant outsider. Decades of poisonous discourse, about Hindus, communists, Ahmedis, of traitors, of the fundamental denial of humanity of the other, that has dominated our curriculum since Zia, did its work providing cover for the abuse of power. They chose to forget the human being they had seen with their own eyes, he was no longer a fellow student, an individual on his own political and spiritual journey, he was not a loving son, nor a brother, he was no longer a human who loves and is loved. Mashal Khan had become to them anything but himself, and upon him they projected a swirling mass of bloody fantasies that saw them doing Allah’s work.

When he was brought home, a day later, his mother could not recognize his body. His skull had been smashed, his knuckles broken, his battered body would only be recognizably his by the birthmark on his arm. On the day he was born everyone had believed the mark auspicious because it looked like “Allah” was etched on his skin.

He was shot, thrown down a flight of stairs and beaten with bricks and sticks. His dead body was mutilated,as students took turns to hack at it with whatever they could get a hold of, to earn their roles as guardians of the prophet. Finally they tried and failed to burn his corpse. They captured all this on mobile phones, to make war on Mashal’s memory, and reduce him to the moment they had complete power over him.

All they have captured, however, is an ugly crime against a fellow student. All they have immortalized is the horror of a system that failed to teach it’s youth how to navigate difference. Democratic spaces, spaces of free speech where ideas could be discussed and debated were systematically destroyed. Student unions were banned, universities were handed over to reactionary administrators, who systematically empowered reactionary student groups with access and administrative perks. A barbaric and violent form of student politics was shaped under the banner of banning violent student politics. A student body shrinking in terror in front of an unaccountable administration and their armed group of favorites ready to violently terrorize dissidents, religious groups and ethnic minorities in the name of the Quaid and Allah, was the new ‘order’ on campus. Public discourse became poisonous and conspiratorial, as the Zia dictatorship systematically began engineering violent extremist groups to fight in the Afghan war. A brand new ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ Pakistani culture, was concocted based on the anti-woman, anti-freedom values of Saudi royalty. The past, was reinvented, white washed and twisted to shape the new vision of what it meant to be Pakistani, all else was deemed malignant and alien.

It is a devastating indictment of our education system that to the administrators of AWKUM and its student body the non-violent socialist Mashal, inspired by the non-violent progressive politics of Bacha Khan, studying in a university named after his socialist son, seemed unrecognizable. To these products of our system violence and the destruction of Mashal’s body would be used refute the person Mashal and terror would be used to ensure that society validated their fantasies.

The mutilation of Mashal’s corpse, the refusal of his local Imam to lead the prayers of his funeral, the public threats towards anyone attending his funeral, the open threats to desecrate his grave were all attempts to coerce the country into validating the righteousness of the crime that had been committed. The goal was to make the memory of the flesh and blood person Mashal fade, it would be like so much else replaced by shallow Zia era demagogy. And the people resisted. Iqbal Lala, Mashal’s father organized a funeral in spite of the threats. Sherin Yousafzai, packed a gun knowing the threats that were being made and showed up.When the prayer for Mashal Khan began there were only four people. A homeless man who watched all of this happening began running in the streets calling people to come out of their homes and slowly the crowd began to grow.

A few days later Iqbal’s neighbors who didn’t show up to the funeral held a rally for him. They offered a fateha for him and laid a wreath on his grave.
“Please forgive us Iqbal Lala for giving you severe pain by showing indifference when you faced such a grave crisis. We also seek forgiveness from the departed soul,” a local resident said. The terror began to fade, human decency revolted against it.
Rallies were held in Mashal’s name, the memory of his humanity would not be allowed to fade. To remember in our country within the context of it’s brutal dictatorships and post-colonial state, with the constant attempts to erase inconvenient truths from popular memory , is a radical act.

Iqbal Lala standing next to his son’s grave. He continues to push to transform our education system

Mashal is of course neither the first nor the last victim of our brutal system. We live in a world of surging blasphemy cases and university administrations that continue to abuse their power. Students, especially those belonging to ethnic or religious minorities continue to be terrorized by armed students and unaccountable administrations. Harassment, rape and murder continue to be followed by cover ups. The universal validation demanded by his murderers, the attempt to define a new normal of terror, turned the struggle over Mashal’s memory into the struggle for Pakistan’s soul. Mashal has become a rallying cry of those students, myself included, who are pushing for safe free campuses with legitimate student unions to protect students from the abuse of administrations, and create a new legal democratic political order instead of our current illegal barbaric one.

Mashal has become a rallying cry for movements everywhere trying to transform our education system

The government of course continues to respond to the participants of the student march with sedition charges. One of those who were arrested for sedition during these marches was Iqbal Lala. He had come out in support of student unions and safe campuses. Mashal’s memory, the struggle to ensure that people remember that he was killed because he was good, the struggle to remember his flesh and blood humanity and the struggle to transform the order that killed him, are all linked. That is something we must never forget.

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