The Story of Shama and Shahzad

Crouched inside the small, sparsely furnished, poorly lit room, voices could be heard from outside, voices that had distorted into a snarling, indecipherable noise that grew by the moment. Their fates were sealed, and no wall, leave alone the mostly mud wall of the room, their sanctuary against the methodical fury of the mob outside, would keep them shielded for long. As the roof splintered after constant blows, they were dragged outside by more hands they could count. And abused, shouted at by so many that it all became one screeching, deafening roar. Their bodies, malnourished, abused by years of labor, were dragged so mercilessly it was a miracle their limbs did not come apart. Their pleas, their wails, were all in vain. The verdict of doom had been declared.

The venue: Chak 59, Kot Radha Kishan, District Kasur, Punjab, Pakistan. The spectacle: 1200-1600 Muslims against a Christian couple. The charge: alleged desecration of the Holy Quran. The investigation-trial-sentencing: all by the mob, from the mob, for the mob.

Shama, 24, and Shahzad Masih, 26, were brutalized by a frenzied crowd, who after tearing their clothes, breaking their bones, dragging them across the village, threw them in the burning furnace of the brick kiln where the latter worked. Shama, the mother of three, was four months pregnant. Shama, eyewitnesses say, was wearing clothes that did not burn easily, so her clothes were torn off of her, and she was wrapped into cotton: cotton burns easily. And she had to be burnt. The mob had decided.

Their six-year-old son told media about the hell no child, no grown-up, is meant to witness. That many, many people beat up his amma, abba. That his amma, abba were tied behind a tractor and dragged through the village before they were burnt.

The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, 1992 of Pakistan be damned, Shahzad, like the estimated 4.5 million indentured laborers (as per the Bonded Labor Liberation Front Pakistan), had his time, blood, family, and even life tethered to the brick kiln, where he worked for peanuts. And a loss of self. This case is about the millions of those -- countless of whom are children -- who are forced to rent their valueless existence on a lifelong lease to influential men who not only build assets but also an army of faceless, nameless people who toil for them for a pittance for life. Think of leaving: you will be accused of one thing or the other, and pay a price. Sometime, with your life. As in the case of Shama and Shahzad.

Allegedly, a few pages of the Holy Quran were found outside the couple's house. Allegedly, Shama had thrown them out while cleaning her deceased father-in-law's trunk. Allegedly, it was a conscious desecration of the Quran. The village clergy were informed, and before asking the "culprits" for any explanation, the atrocity had been announced through the loudspeakers, the rage fanned, and the hysteria suitably orchestrated. This was worse than Salem in 1692; here, there was no pretense of a trial. No questions were asked why an illiterate Christian woman, with no malice towards the majority Muslims, would throw the pages of the Quran in full view of the village. No questions were asked how those pages even got there. No questions were asked why in an increasingly intolerant village of Muslims, a "lowly, minority" couple would have the guts to even think of desecrating the Quran, leave alone do it. The answers were not required. The "jihad" of the elimination of the "undesirables" had to be carried out.

What IS the story of Shama and Shahzad? Is it about the absence of any social, moral and legal code for the workers of brick kilns where the wellbeing and safety of the laborers are of no significance, and forced labor is the norm? Is it about the growing intolerance towards anyone who does not share the same faith as that of the 96 percent majority? Is it about the alarming lawlessness where the might of the mob holds more authority than any regulated system? Is it about the misplaced arrogance that if the chant is that of the sanctity of the faith -- notwithstanding its usage simply as a ploy to persecute the weak -- no court of law is needed to pass the sentence?

In 2014, the very fact that the mob lynching of anyone in the name of religion has taken place is the biggest question that the government, lawmakers, religious authorities, human rights organisations, social activists, media and civil society in general may have difficulty to even confront. For a myriad reasons. And until the very issue of "blasphemy" is not brought to the fore with an emphasis on an open, objective, rational and logical debate, with its contextualization in religious, social, moral and legal domains, there will be no end to persecution of people in the name of religion.

The aftermath of Shama and Shahzad's killings has been as it should have been in any civilized country. Pakistan erupted into disbelief, sorrow and anger. For once, there were no ifs and buts. For once, it was unanimous. All civil, religious, political polities condemned the killings, and asked for strictest action against the accused. Now it is up to the courts. Most of the accused have been caught, and the case has been registered under sections 302, 436, 201, 148, 149, 353 and 186 of the PPC, and seven of the Anti-Terrorism Act. Will justice be done to Shama and Shahzad? Will there be closure for their families who are, so far, unable to even have a burial for them? How do you bury a few charred bones? Will there be any solace for the couple's children who saw them go through hell on earth? Until then, I have no Rest-in-Peace for Shama and Shahzad. It feels too little, and too much like a lie to me.

(The abridged version of this blog was published in Express Tribune, Pakistan, on November 14, 2014)