The brutal murder of Mashal Khan in the hostel of Mardan’s Abdul Wali Khan University, after being accused of unspecified blasphemy, has generated an unprecedented wave of public outrage.
Despite the freedom allowed to the militant organisations to promote the cult of violence, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa still remains considerably faithful to Bacha Khan’s legacy of non-violence and tolerance of religious diversity.
The territory is also relatively free of incidents of blasphemy.
(This at a time when Punjab jails had 202 prisoners charged with offences relating to religion, 91 of them convicts, including 18 on the death row.)
Thus, accusation of blasphemy against Mashal lacked credibility.
The brutal murder of a student in Mardan raises the question of who is actually responsible
Further, the complicity of the university teachers and security staff in the conspiracy against Mashal and the policemen’s refused to intervene when he could have been saved turned the case into one of extraordinary brutality.
Hence an exceptionally strong reaction.
It is also possible that the public remorse at witnessing people killed for unsubstantiated charges of offences relating to religion, or before they were convicted, and that had been building up for years, could not be borne any longer, and the community’s dormant conscience at last started turning.
But what happened between the first blasphemy cases in the early 1990s and Mashal’s lynching is a sordid story of collective failure to check the abuse of Sec 295-C of the Penal Code that has been evident all along and has been callously ignored by most people.
About a century ago, the ruler of the princely state of Khairpur received a complaint that one of his non-Muslim subjects had committed blasphemy.
He told the man to abandon his residence and relocate himself at some other place till such time as the matter ceased to provoke the Muslim community.
He chose this course apparently to avoid whetting the complainant party’s appetite for new victims and saving the non-Muslim subjects from living in a state of fear.
Above all, he preferred the path of peace among his people to strife around an emotive issue.
Compare this with an incident that took place in Lahore many decades later.
A high court judge berated a man who appeared as a complainant in a blasphemy case and asked him why he had failed to kill the culprit himself.
He obviously cleared the way not only for the institution of more blasphemy cases but also for the extra-legal killing of a number of citizens on suspicion of having committed the serious offence.
The theory of blinking at murder committed with a religious motivation was consolidated.
The path of peace in society was rejected in favour of a reign of violence.
“If the asserted religious motivation of the appellant for the murder committed by him is to be accepted as a valid mitigating circumstance in this case, then a door shall become open for religious vigilantism which may deal a mortal blow to the rule of law in this country where divergent religious interpretations abound and tolerance stands depleted to an alarming level,” declared Justice Asif Saeed Khosa in his widely hailed judgment while dismissing Malik Mumtaz Qadri’s appeal in the Salman Taseer murder case in October 2015.
But the gates of religious vigilantism had already been wide open for 25 years. And surrender to vigilantism had made the custodians of power and scales of justice blind to the fate of a series of victims.
Zafar Iqbal of Lahore was put in prison for having converted to Christianity.
His bail plea was rejected though no law was cited to justify his detention. He died in prison.
Naimat Ahmar of Faisalabad, a teacher, was knifed to death by one of his pupils and the latter became a hero in prison.
In Gujranwala, a Hafiz-e-Quran was accused by his wife of allowing the Holy Quran to fall from his hands. Nobody verified the charge.
He was beaten up mercilessly by a mob and dragged through the streets till he died.
And a young Christian couple was thrown in a brick kiln stove near Lahore over a wage dispute after being falsely accused of blasphemy.
The people watched in silence.
But more crucial was the silence of the custodians of the state’s authority for it meant condoning, if not explicit approval, of religious vigilantism.
If they spoke at all, as they have been doing since the arrest of a few bloggers early this year, it was to reaffirm their resolve to deal with blasphemy with an iron hand.
Maybe they wanted to pre-empt more strident calls in support of vigilantism but the effect has been just the opposite.
Each warning to anyone who fell under the mischief of laws relating to religion has become an encouragement to the perpetrators of mob justice.
The ulema were asked to disapprove of vigilantism.
They consistently declined to do so, though some of them did reject abuse of the laws for offences relating to religion.
While defending the addition of Sec 295-C to the Penal Code, the learned ulema had said that in the absence of this law it will be impossible to prevent vigilante killing of suspects.
How do they explain the surge in such killings after this law was made?
A question arose whether killing anyone for belief through terrorist methods amounted to terrorism.
The anti-terrorism court convicted Malik Mumtaz Qadri of terrorism and murder but the Islamabad High Court deemed it proper to drop his conviction for terrorism.
It was left to the Supreme Court to set aside the high court order of Qadri’s acquittal from the charge under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
This is the crux of the problem. Unless murder is treated as murder, and terrorism as terrorism, regardless of the holy robes sported by the vigilante brigade, the threat of a doomsday scenario hinted at by the Supreme Court will persist.
And more mothers will share the agony of Mashal’s mother when she found the fingers she kissed broken and the face she adored unrecognizable.
And who will ensure respect for the Supreme Court dictum that judges are obligated to decide cases “in accordance with the law as it exists and not in accordance with what the law should be.”
Time to count all the hands on which Mashal’s blood can be traced.
Courtesy : Dawn News