To Light a Candle in this Darkness

Written By: Feryal Ali Gauhar

The lane to his house is narrow, bordered on both sides by high walls, a drain running alongside the homes of the several families living in this ancient kasbah (town) of Zaidah, district Swabi. A stone wall looms to the right of the vehicle, constructed in the fashion of the ancient buildings of Gandhara, a land where centuries ago, the landscape was dotted with places of Buddhist worship idles and stupas, monasteries perched on hilltops preaching peace and harmony.

There is a stillness in the air, as if life itself had stopped as walls continued to grow higher, containing fear while keeping out freedom.

Mashal Khan’s father steps towards us. I recognize him from the coverage given by the media to this family’s profound loss, the coverage that held up a mirror to our ravaged and brutalized souls, to the hatred and bestiality that festers within. I recognize him, his daughters, his wife from the countless interviews we watched; helpless, outraged, eyes and mind unbelieving as we viewed soul-numbing footage of an enraged mob lynching a young man, hitting and kicking his inert body as it lay in the middle of a university campus where violence, not reasoning, seemed to have had been bred. That young man, Mashal Khan, the second son of Iqbal Khan, had questioned the very ethos of how his university was being governed. He had dared to point a finger at what he believed was a corrupt administration, a veritable mafia of men of letters who were devouring public funds meant to educate the young men and women of our country. He had spoken out clearly; he had not flinched in the face of the terrible threats that eventually became a reality this nation should never forget. Mashal Khan was, indeed, the light in a state of darkness, and his ruthless, unforgivable murder must not be allowed to pass into obscurity if we are to retrieve all that we have lost with his death, with the deaths of all those who have dared to speak out against obscurantism and obfuscation of all kinds.

I am ushered into a room where two young women clad in black abayas are seated on the sofa alongside the mantelpiece. Upon this mantelpiece are the many awards, trophies, and plaques received by Mashal Khan during his short but incredibly significant life. Mashal was a top student from school onwards, and he placed a high premium on education, encouraging his sisters to study and obtain the highest possible qualifications. Many women from Swabi have received professional degrees and have set the precedent for others to follow. In Mashal’s family, he carried the beacon that led the way for his sisters to maximize their potential as capable human beings, empowered with education and enlightened with progressive views.

I speak with Stooria, the elder of Mashal’s two sisters, seated on my left. She reiterates her resolve to continue with her education at the local university. She wants to become a pharmacist, she wants to help people heal. Her name is the Pushto word for “star”, and she wants to shine in the firmament which shelters their home from the wrath of a mob gone mad with desperation, fed on fear, fed on countless years of injustice, ignorance, and neglect. She wants to heal all these people, she says, for they did not know what they were doing when they destroyed one of their own, a classmate, a friend just yesterday, a despised and reviled enemy today. She talked about Mashal’s love for books, about his curiosity regarding the social and political histories of different nations and about his obsession with justice. Stooria insisted that it was these things which cost her beloved brother his young life, for in environments where questions were not to be asked, where injustices were not to be questioned, where the corrupt were allowed to roam free and the powerless were fettered, it was a crime to speak out, to question, to demand justice. She spoke patiently but within her I could feel the resentment, the outrage of a darkening sky closing in on the narrow shaft of light that had shown through her moist eyes as she mourned for Mashal.

The room where I sat could have been anywhere in our beloved country. There was a courtyard preceding it, with several string cots placed in the shade of the verandah. Older women sat here while men stayed outside in the lane, silently supporting this grieving family. I embraced each one of these women, and felt their hearts beating against mine, throbbing with the anguish of having buried a young man who was never given a chance to speak in his own defense before being hounded, shot in the head and chest, stripped bare, dragged along the corridors of his hostel and into the street, beaten, punched, kicked, pummeled, and battered with rods. Many of these young men who participated in the orgy of violence unleashed on April 13, 2017 were his classmates. The student who shot Mashal Khan was also his classmate. Those who pounded their fists against his chest and head, already bleeding, those who kicked him in his ribs and spine, were his fellow students, gathered at a brutal lynching on an ordinary day at a university named after a man who spoke for tolerance and justice, and for the rights of the Pakhtun nation.

Mashal Khan was wrongfully accused and wrongfully, brutally, murdered by an enraged, misguided, and merciless mob. This has been established by an omnipresent media. The charges leveled against him were declared misleading and untrue. This has been declared by the highest authorities in the land that the alleged corruption of an entire administration running the affairs of the university now in the spotlight is something that should not be allowed to pass into oblivion, like the countless other instances where people have died seeking justice. In an environment where the trust deficit between citizens and the machinery of state is growing every day, it is paramount that the accusations made by Mashal Khan against those who were siphoning off university funds, or those who were holding several posts simultaneously, being paid several salaries in contravention of university rules, or those who were overcharging tuition fees from young men struggling to be educated, be investigated by the most competent authorities. That vigilante justice was allowed to take the life of a young man in a place of higher learning at a time when justice itself was under siege. It is something that should shake up the entire nation and force us to look at ourselves in the mirror this tragedy has held up to us.

It has been established by sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists that the type of crowds that turn violent are fed on the fire of frustration and fueled by a set of grievances resulting from long-standing and unresolved problems and issues. During the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler manipulated and then exploited human passions and resentments to mobilize a society against Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Russians – anyone who was not “German”. Hitler used growing antipathy towards the “other”, the “outsider”, and fomented the insecurity of a large segment of the German population after World War I to whip up hatred against a perceived enemy, anyone who was different, anyone who represented a different set of values, who looked different, who subscribed to a different set of beliefs. Hitler fueled the xenophobia of a nation perceiving itself to be isolated, and led it towards one of the biggest genocides of contemporary history.

Similar was the case when the students of Abdul Wali Khan University at Mardan dragged Mashal’s already lifeless body into the open and brutalized it again and again, endlessly, every punch, each kick, each screaming invective, each accusation lightening the burden of the gathered crowd. For that crowd, those hundreds of students, young men who signify the future of this nation, were burdened with much: they had been gifted the burden of ignorance by an educational system that denies the spirit of enquiry, which crushes the spirit of debate. They had been fed on the obscurantism of a clergy that has glorified murder in the name of religion. They had been deprived of the tools of reason by a faculty that teaches by rote instead of by reading and understanding and discussing texts so that all views are considered, dissected, deconstructed and debated. These are the young men who become the frontline in a war of darkness against light, young men drowning in a deep well of ignorance and frustration, unable to see the light, unwilling to stand behind the one man who held up the torch beneath which all was obscurity and shadow.

What happens when such a mob gathers to bay for blood? Who is to stop the lynching? Where was the security apparatus? What do the university authorities have to say for themselves after such a heinous crime has scarred their institution forever? What do the followers of Bacha Khan have to say about a university named after his son, supposedly created to uphold the values of the tall and imposing figure also known as the Frontier Gandhi, a man who preached harmony and non-violence? How do we understand that those who profess to be enlightened and progressive are the very people who stopped the adoption of a resolution in the KP provincial assembly condemning this brutal act in the name of religion?

If we study the footage of the gathering on that fateful day within the premises of the AWK University, we can see the fury being whipped up by the instigators of this crime. We can feel the quickening pulse of the crowd as it prepares itself for the hunt. We can smell the blood and can see it slipping over their eyes, blinding them to reason. We have seen it before, in the killing of the two young men in Sialkot, many years ago, a case still unresolved. We have seen the bodies of a man and his pregnant wife burnt to death inside a kiln where they fashioned clay into baked bricks, murdered on an allegation of blasphemy. We have seen crowds rip apart and burn the bodies of alleged petty criminals, caught in the act, condemned and sentenced by a mob which is judge, jury, and executioner all at the same time. We have seen a young girl thrown to ferocious dogs as part of punishement pronounced by the long-outlawed panchayat system of rural Pakistan, we have known of peasants being beaten to death by their feudal master over the accusation of a petty theft. We have searched for the graves of women buried alive, and we have heard parliamentarians justifying such murders as being part of sacrosanct tradition. We have searched for the bodies of young women killed over the innocent and joyous act of clapping while a song is sung to celebrate a brother’s wedding. Over the past several years, we have watched with horror as acts of terror have taken over 70,000 lives. And few have become numb; turn their faces away and look at the distance, as if this was not happening, as if nothing was out of place, as if it was just an ordinary day, an ordinary crowd of young men intent on killing their colleague.

It was not an ordinary day when I walked through the narrow lane leaving Mashal Khan’s house, my heart heavy with the burden of impotence. There was nothing ordinary about his father, a poet who struggled hard to educate his children, selling biscuits in places far from Zaidah, small towns in Gilgit Baltistan, many miles from his home in this village in district Swabi. Iqbal Khan told me about the biscuits he would sell in the tiny district headquarters of Gahkuch where I had spent part of a summer living in the village of Hamardas, trying to understand why so many young women were taking their own lives, despite being educated, or perhaps, as I discovered, because they were educated but were forced to marry young men who had tended livestock or irrigated fields and knew nothing of the wealth of knowledge that could be gained through education.

There was nothing ordinary about Mashal Khan’s mother who lamented that she could not kiss her son’s hands before burying him as every bone she held was broken. There was nothing ordinary about the anger in Aimal Khan’s voice as he spoke about the injustice and unjustified frenzy that took his brother’s life, his eyes brimming with tears as he described the insensitive filming of the horrific lynching by fellow students using phone cameras. And there was nothing ordinary about the fact that a string cot lies alongside Mashal Khan’s grave, laid there for the police constable who keeps watch over the grave, protecting it from those who had stopped every car leaving the university campus that day, searching for Mashal Khan’s body, swearing to set to fire the broken remains of this brilliant young man who stood first in every class, who had so much to offer us, who perhaps did not belong to prevailing mediocrity and hypocrisy but stood for excellence and integrity.

The young men accused of Mashal Khan’s murder represent the dehumanization of a society where a war rages within us; planted, nurtured, and harvested by those who wish to see us slide into chaos and anarchy, allowing for the bigoted to lead the ignorant, these men are soldiers in an army of terror. Such armies are bred wherever discontent flourishes. Such armies are strengthened by the failure of governance and the mockery of accountability. Such armies cannot be stopped by a lone policeman guarding a freshly dug grave. Only the light that Mashal held up can show us the path out of this darkness. Only the will to cleanse our souls of bigotry and narrow fundamentalism can heal the wounds inflicted upon the soul of this nation.

As I stood besides Mashal’s grave, the two young women in the black abayas came to join me. We stood silently in that peaceful plot of land planted with poplar trees by Iqbal Khan when he bought this tiny property for his sons to build their homes upon. Now his younger son lies buried beneath the soil of the ground that was to be his future home. It is here, next to the wheat fields and beneath the poplars that Mashal would come to study. And it was here that I stood with the two girls, unknown to Mashal’s family, having traveled all the way from Rawalpindi to offer their prayers at the grave of a young man they had never met, but whose death they lamented as if he was one of their own.

As we raised our hands in supplication, I said a silent prayer for the two young women, brave and courageous, caring and compassionate, everything that we needed to become human again, to be led out of the darkness that has fallen upon us.


The writer studied Political Economy at McGill University, Montreal, Media Education at the University of London, Development Communication at the University of Southern California, and Cultural Heritage Management at the National College of Arts, Lahore. She teaches at apex institutions, writes columns for a leading daily, makes documentaries, and has published two best-selling novels.
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