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The lonely struggle of Mashal Khan’s father against the ‘narrative’ of intolerance

He doesn’t blame the accused men, only the “narrative” that brought them to where they stand now.

MASHAL FATHER IQBALHARIPUR: The ride along the reptilian road to Central Jail Haripur is claustrophobic. The shops straddle the road oppressively; the rush-hour traffic heaves. Only the roadside mulberry trees and the occasional field bring green relief from fume-laden air, however transitory. Arrival at the jail, where a notice mentions visiting hours for prisoners on death row, doesn’t do much for the mood either.

For the last couple of days, Iqbal Khan has been taking this road to come to the maximum-security prison where the accused indicted in the murder of his son, Mashaal Khan, are incarcerated. He walks the sun-beaten driveway, a lonely figure in grey negotiating security barricades, resolutely facing another day in a court established in the jail premises for the trial.

If he is daunted by the sheer imbalance of the plaintiff-to-defendant ratio in this case — one versus 61 — it doesn’t show in his face.

And that is just the court case. Away from it, if one takes into account the “narrative” he blames for the murder of his son, it could well be him against the World, a lone articulate voice asserting itself above a blizzard of noise seeking to strengthen that murderous narrative.

Since the case hearings started this month, Khan spends his waking hours on the roads between Peshawar, Abbottabad, Islamabad and Haripur, meeting lawyers. He likens the experience to “weighing frogs” — you get hold of one lawyer only to find another leaping away because of their busy schedules.

Still, he says, he could not have done without the help from volunteer lawyers, many personal friends. They helped him have the case shifted from Mardan to Haripur, away from the pressure of local heavyweights and politicians backing the accused men. On the totem pole of those seeking to win the case, Khan stands at the base: a man of average means dependent on support from others.

Whether Khan wins or loses is a matter for the law to decide. But hinged to the outcome of this case are consequences for a greater battle.

“It is not as if people just got up and killed Mashaal,” says Shahab Khattak, one of the lawyers assisting Khan. “People say there is a difference between mainstream and madressah education. There is none: their syllabi and outlook were shaped by the Afghan War. Our electronic media promote extremism and the world powers active in the region want that psyche because it serves them.”

In the wake of his son’s lynching, a lesser man would have been shattered. In Khan’s case though, grief has been sublimated into a dogged determination to fight against injustice. Since Khan is a poet, he doesn’t speak of his son but a light that was extinguished.

In his mind, Mashaal, the son, has become mashaals, the beacons. He doesn’t blame the accused men, only the “narrative” that brought them to where they stand now, all 61 of them — a narrative that routinely snuffs out the beacons, without anyone raising a voice for them.

“We lost Mashaal but I don’t know what message we gave to the world in his death,” says Khan, hazel eyes glazing over as if looking inwards. “A lot of blood has been shed in this country. I don’t know if our rulers are just money-minting machines because they have no feelings. Don’t they have children at home?”

Perhaps the man he is has fortified Khan against the tragedy and the trials that followed. A poet-reformer and a social worker, he has astounded everyone with a composed response to his son’s brutal murder. No tears from him but a stoic, steadfast cleaving to what’s at the heart of the matter.

Mashaal’s murder was brutal, evoking widespread outrage. But he also had Iqbal for a father, a respected figure with strong social bonds and political beliefs. “I had social and literary connections,” he says. “Intellectuals and human rights activists stood by me. I don’t know if others are so lucky.” If he doesn’t grieve in public, it is because he doesn’t want to let down his beliefs.

Mukhtar Bacha, a well-known political figure in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says that all their lives, progressive thinkers have employed philosophy to appeal to people. All it took was a tappa — Pashto folk verse — to revolutionise thoughts when Khan read it first as he spoke to the media about his son’s murder. And it wasn’t about Mashaal.

Khan now reads the tappa: “If I could, Iqbal, inscribe on the soil of this land / A verse such as one to shake the wolves’ reign.”

Iqbal Khan, the poet, rages against the dying of light — and no old age or approaching death it is either. Khan’s lonely struggle, as he sits in a muggy roadside restaurant recounting progress on the court case, is against the darkness that descends when truth and thoughts are subverted by syllabi; when beacons are doused and dragged about in educational institutions to put fear into the hearts of citizens.

Khan’s verse is no elegy for a lost son, but a lament for lost generations. -DN

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