MOBS do many things in Pakistan: they harass women, they burn down buildings, they torch cars; they are guilty of devastating Gojra, of tearing the bodies of Muneeb and Mughees Butt to pieces, cheering the killer of a governor, mourning the death of a dictator. They are guilty also of the murder of a man named Mashal Khan. For anyone who needs to refresh their memory of the horror, in the parade of horrors that ticks by on news channels every day, he was the man killed by a mob after being dragged out of his hostel room at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan.
Mashal Khan was a student of mass communications; but to his murderers he was merely a target of vengeance and hatred, all the poison of intolerance cast on a single body. Such was the level of brutality that the mob continued beating him long after he was dead. Weeks later it turned out that university officials had conspired with students who disagreed with Mashal Khan’s liberal views and orchestrated the attack. A number of them were suspended from their positions as the investigation proceeded. The student who ultimately shot Mashal Khan was also identified.
Mashal Khan was murdered last April, and last week there was the beginning of accountability for the murderers who take refuge in mobs. On Feb 7, an ATC judge announced the verdict in the Mashal Khan case at Central Jail Haripur. Per the verdict, one man was sentenced to death, five were given life sentences, and 25 other men, all accused in the case, were sentenced to three-year imprisonment. Twenty-six of the 57 men accused of the crime were acquitted. According to the judgement, there was not enough conclusive evidence that the 26 men who were set free had committed any overt act in the killing of Mashal Khan — although it appeared that they were identified in the video of the lynching.
The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has said that it will appeal against the acquittals. Members of Mashal Khan’s family, still in mourning for a young man who became a victim of Pakistan’s inner brutality, did not feel that the acquittals delivered complete justice in the killing of their son.
Making sense of the verdict is vexing business. On one hand, in a country where so many killers walk with impunity, particularly when they have killed those who stand for freedom, there is a push to celebrate any punishment and any accountability as a victory. That perspective suggests that the fact that a man was sentenced to death and others to imprisonment ought to sate those who have mourned Mashal Khan.
They are wrong. The reason is simple. Punishing only half the members of a mob that was collectively responsible for the death of an innocent delivers only half the justice. Members of mobs take refuge in the very anonymity, the shadow, and the subterfuge afforded by large crowds. As experts have pointed out, mobs enable the abandonment of individual conscience. When everyone is doing it, they believe, no one is responsible for it.
Definitions of ‘overt act’ also become superfluous in this context. What, one wonders, constitutes an overt act in the case of a rabid crowd of men intent upon and successful in beating a man to death? Is handing a cudgel to another man in the crowd an overt act? Is kicking the already dead body of a man an overt act? Does it matter if the kick or the strike or the blow struck a still living or completely dead body? Isn’t the intent of a man to watch while others kill also an act of murder by inaction? Isn’t such inaction punishable?
None of these questions have been answered. Ignoring them imposes a particular cost in Pakistan. After the verdict was given, the men who were acquitted in the case were set free. In Mardan, the city where the lynching occurred, the freed men were welcomed as heroes. A large crowd filled the Mardan motorway, blocking it completely. The crowd was addressed by impassioned clerics belonging to the JUI-F and the Jamaat-i-Islami, who vowed to push for the release of the others. According to at least one report, one of the acquitted men, who addressed the crowd from atop a vehicle, vowed to convene more mobs to kill those whom he thought were not worthy of life, lesser Muslims, lesser humans.
It is this last fact that makes it imperative that every single person who is part of a mob be made accountable for the actions of the mob. As the ‘welcome’ gathering in Mardan (and other such gatherings in other places in the country) proves, mob murder has become a tactic for certain segments of the population. A crowd, these killers believe, can accuse, convict and kill with impunity just based on its numbers. This is not justice in any faith, in any legal system, in any age or era. Its emergence as an act that at least one half of a crowd can get away with is not something that will deter others organising killer mobs.
In the aftermath of the verdict in the Mashal Khan case, it may be time to consider legislation that makes murder by mobs a special cause of action and that clearly states that being present in crowds that kill or hurt or injure or maim anyone for any reason can be the basis of a murder charge and conviction. Otherwise, too many will participate in killer crowds, hide under the ambiguity of ‘overt act’ and continue this trend of grotesque crimes, confident in the knowledge that half of them, or more, will get away with it.