Remembering Mashal Khan at a time of despair, hope, and healing

Demonstration in Karachi for Mashal Khan. AFP file photo

“Pandemics don’t mean that we forget our national tragedies”, reminds a friend, paying tribute to Mashal Khan, the bright, questioning journalism student, lynched to death by a mob, 13 April 2017, at his university campus in Mardan on the flimsy pretext that he had committed ‘blasphemy’. A joint investigation team later found charges to be false. But even if they were true, nothing justifies the crime.

Mashal’s valiant father, poet and political activist Iqbal Lala, supported by many likeminded activists and jurists, fought a courageous, sustained battle in the courts for justice for his son. In February 2018, an anti-terrorism court convicted 31 people for the crime, including one sentenced to death, and acquitting 26 others. In March 2019, the court sentenced two more men to life imprisonment, including Arif Khan, a local government official and former member of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party. Mashal Khan’s family has filed further appeals before the Peshawar High Court against the acquittals.

April 13 also marks the start of Vaisakhi, or Baisakhi, the harvest festival celebrated in Punjab. And it was on this day in 1919 that the British colonists opened fire upon peaceful villagers gathered to celebrate the festival at a garden in Amritsar. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre claimed about a thousand lives. It also became a catalyst for the freedom struggle that eventually led to independence from colonial rule and the emergence of Pakistan and India as sovereign nations in 1947.

Depiction of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, where soldiers blocking the only exit fired until they were out of ammunition, killing about a thousand men, women and children. Image from Internet, source unknown

Today also marks day 253 of the clampdown in Kashmir. See this Facebook post by the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy: Who is Killing Who and for Whom?

Yesterday there was a special Easter Sunday solo performance #MusicForHope by Italian global music icon Andrea Bocelli – a message of love, healing and hope to Italy and the world. Millions around the world tuned in to Bocelli’s Youtube channel from where the concert was streamed live from the empty Duomo Cathedral, Milan, cameras panning its empty pews, interspersed with images of deserted streets.

For his last offering, Bocelli, who has been blind since age 12, walked out and stood in front of the Cathedral to sing Amazing Grace, based on a poem by John Newton, a crewman on a slave ship who later repented. The hymn reminds me of the feature film Amazing Grace (2006) about the British politician William Wilberforce’s fight to push through anti-slave trade legislation in the British Parliament. An opponent argues: “If we were to outlaw the (slave) trade tomorrow, it would bring financial disaster to many of the great cities in this country”. Sound familiar?

We shall overcome. But there will always be more challenges.

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