The Blood on Our Hands

*Originally published in The Nation. Unedited version below:

“How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all.”

– W. G. Sebald

A glance at his profile reveals bits and pieces from which you can patch together his person: poetry, musings, an avidness for photography, friendships, quotes from books, posts on global affairs and local issues, a love for knowledge, an interest in Sufism, support for women’s rights and a heart for humanity.

This was Mashal Khan, a kind and gentle soul whose crime was to think freely, to have the audacity to think differently, and to envision a better society and a better people.


He was brutally murdered in Mardan.

Is it even a shock that such a horrific incident took place in a country which has institutionalized bigotry and hate? Where politicians, representatives, leaders, judges, journalists, anchors and clerics peddle hate, bigotry and violence every single day?

Before the matter of blasphemous posts was concocted, Mashal was accused of being an Ahmadi which he had denied. Is such an incident unexpected in a land whose laws enshrine exclusion, discrimination and persecution towards the Ahmadi community?

When the state sanctions hate, it is a license for the public to have a free hand to apply it wherever and whenever they wish.

The gruesome incident also forces questions about blasphemy in Pakistan, including the reform and the repeal of the Blasphemy Law. It is undeniable that the matter warrants honest and candid debate, but it is also a point to ponder whether or not the people would stop baying for blood if the Blasphemy Law goes. In Mashal’s case, neither a formal complaint nor an arrest had taken place. There has been no appeal to law, mob vigilantism was the law of the day.

The baying for blood may not disappear with the Blasphemy Law, but let us be clear that state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas opens the floodgates for abhorrent public sentiments and abominable tendencies and menaces to come to the fore and actively play out. Trump’s ascent to the White House and the boost it has been for white-supremacists and racists stands stark in sight. One need not even look so far for proof of this, a glimpse at our eastern neighbor suffices. Modi’s rise has emboldened Hindu right-wing organizations and India has subsequently seen a sharp growth in incidents of violence, fear, threat and intimidation against those who provoke their ire.

In Pakistan, state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas, a certain narrative of Islam and the narrative of blasphemy, is an encouragement for the public to engage, express and execute their depraved schemes, bigotry, intolerance, and to take the law into their hands.

Mashal’s murder, however, must not push us into the utopian expectation and idealistic hope that the Pakistani government and state would step up to reflect on their responsibility, their complicity and decisively act to steer the country away from the destruction it is steeply descending into by each passing day.

Such an expectation and hope cannot be fostered while the state and government pander and patronize for their own agendas and interests the very elements and organizations whose extremism, intolerance and violence are fatally injuring Pakistan. Such a hope cannot be kept while religion is employed as a potent weapon for political expediency, for cheap political mileage and for silencing dissent; while lawmakers declare those who wish to see Pakistan should either mend their ways or leave the country; while the Prime Minister’s son-in-law engages in hate speech against the Ahmadi community; while political parties scurry to shake hands bloodied with the lives of thousands of Pakistanis, in the name of electoral alliances; when disappeared bloggers and arrested professors are struck with blasphemy allegations; when the Interior Minister threatens to shut down social media due to blasphemous content; when judges become moral crusaders and drum up perceived dangers to Islam to curtail freedoms.

That this witch-hunt and venom would extend and seep into online spaces was only inevitable.


Shama and Shehzad

It is too much to expect for things to change when not a leaf stirred when Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were gunned down in broad daylight, when the Christian couple of a pregnant Shama and her husband Shehzad were lynched and thrown into the furnace of a brick kiln, or when an angry mob set fire to a house in Gujranwala killing three Ahmadis including eight-month-old Hira, and five-year-old Kainat.

The involvement of ordinary people in such acts does much to underscore the extent, gravity and ideological and cultural facets of the prevalent challenge of extremism and intolerance confronting Pakistan. We are complicit, through our outright espousal of extremism, through our apathy towards its victims; through the stutter and stammer of our tongue with “ifs” and “buts” when condemning these acts, through the repugnant “justifications”, “explanations” and “questions” we offer for these acts; and through our refusal and silences to protest against them. In one way or another, we are complicit.

When an institution of education, knowledge and learning becomes the site of a cold-blooded, brutal murder, it should be enough to recognize that the Pakistani state is a rotten state, with a diseased society, both of which can never bear a truly living and thinking individual like Mashal.

The state is complicit, and so are we.

We may not have been present at the site of the murder, but we enabled it.

One can suppose that the splatters of blood are lighter on our hands, but know that they are there nonetheless.

Every day, this country dies a ghastly death at the hands of the mob it has the misfortune of calling its people, its nation.

It seems even God has forsaken Pakistan for we alone are responsible for the hell and havoc at home.

Kitni badnaseeb hai who qaum jo apne mashal khud hi inkar aur tabah karde.

Kitne mashal bujhaye jayein gay is mulk main? Aur agar hai, tau kitna tareek hai iss mulk ka mustaqbil.

-Hafsa Khawaja


2 comments on “The Blood on Our Hands

  1. nikhilarela says:

    Read your posts after a long time today. First one was a mother’s day tribute. Felt like it’s better commenting here. Also, since we neighbours have a lot more in common that we believe, it always works to dispel some filtered and polished accounts given to us by our respective media 🙂
    “One need not even look so far for proof of this, a glimpse at our eastern neighbor suffices. Modi’s rise has emboldened Hindu right-wing organizations and India has subsequently seen a sharp growth in incidents of violence, fear, threat and intimidation against those who provoke their ire.”

    The first part of this is spot on. Since BJP has traditionally been a pro-hindu right wing party, its rise almost gave a free ticket to a few motormouth Hindu organisations to make stupid statements like India being a ‘hindu rashtra’. There were also a couple of incidents of lynching over eating beef (cow is considered sacred by hindus).

    However, the second part is what I might contest. India, in bits and pieces, was always communal, just like Pakistan. And to be frank the incidents of fear and threat have started to be reported more often now (a good trend, nonetheless). This has also got to do with the image that Modi carried when he came to power – a pro-Hindu leader. Many media houses looked at him with suspicion and any activity was analysed with his reaction to it. However, he has bashed what we call ‘gau-rakshaks’ (cow protectors) and people making absurd statements on live TV and promised legal actions. Surprisingly, Modi has maintained a shocking distance from RSS policies ever since he has come to power. This has made RSS and certain extreme right wing groups criticise him on various accounts.

    I’d say India is quite well off when it comes to freedom of expression, though there is still a long way to go when it comes to rights for LGBT people and keeping religion completely out of politics.
    Jumping to Mashal Khan, the incident was indeed horrific. But the reaction part is what our (Indian) media missed. I did see a lot of outrage by Pakistanis and that does not amount to a ‘state completely bought by religion’, as many would like to claim. I sometimes feel that Indian media hates Pakistan more than the Indian public does. Can’t comment on this about Pakistan media. Naila Inayat and Mehr Tarar seem quite logical on many grounds.

    Last I heard, Ahmadis were one of the most educated and liberal communities in Pakistan, most of them doctors (this coming from one of my friends in Pakistan itself). What’s surprising is most muslims in India are not even aware that a community called Ahmadis exist. My friend told me that Ahmadis in general hide their identity from the people. By the way how is the situation in metros/big cities in Pakistan?

    • Hi Nikhil,
      Thank you so much for sparing the time to write all of this and provide a better perspective of what is going on on that side of the border. Your comment has been very insightful for me!

      What really struck me though was how a communal character is sort of a commonality between India and Pakistan, no matter how much people on both sides vehemently deny it and project it onto either just India or just Pakistan. It reminded me of this quote by Mohammad Hanif:

      “They lynch people for eating beef, we kill them for Facebook posts. We really are brothers lost at a mela.”

      I do hope both nations move beyond this myopia, its violence and onto more progressive pastures.


      I actually do agree with you here Nikhil, I feel like the sort of segments and clips we’ve seen or been shown by our own media of the Indian media, on various developments between India-Pakistan, actually does make one think that the Indian media hates Pakistan much more than what pockets of the Indian population do.

      There are, of course, channels here that churn out rabid conspiracy theories, xenophobia and hate too, but the big media houses, I personally feel, have often espoused a pro-peace narrative such as Geo’s Aman Ki Asha. And that is a grudge and resentment that many Pakistanis hold against them, in view of how they see Indian media treats Pakistan.

      Ahmadis are indeed one of the most educated and organized communities in the country, but I’m sure they must have atleast some semblance of a presence in India too.
      Unfortunately, they do have to conceal their identities here due to the constitutional instruments and laws that not only declare them non-Muslims, but criminalize their identification as Muslims too.


      QUICK EDIT: Coincidentally, while responding to you I had this post on Pakistan by Harsha Bhogle opened in the next tab to read: A friend had recommended I read this after we discussed how wonderful Bhogle’s words were on Younis and Misbah’s retirement.
      It is a heartfelt, thoughtful and beautiful piece of writing that expresses sentiments many of us share across borders. I hope you enjoy reading it just as much as I did 🙂

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