“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Sunday, July 10, 2010. The tim e was around nine in the morning. The Professor was returning home in a car after attending an early morning service at a church close to his home. His sister, a nun in the Catholic Church, and his mother too were travelling with him. As the car neared his home, he found a white Omni van stopped in the middle of the road. It was blocking their way.
But he did not suspect anything ominous. The Professor’s car came to a halt close to the stationary van. Suddenly, a bunch of young men armed with swords and knives emerged out of the van. The next moment, they were rushing towards the Professor’s car. They dragged the frail Professor out on to the road. His sister and mother were ordered to shut up and stay inside the car. A sword flashed in the morning sun. It chopped off the right palm of the Professor. It fell on the dusty road. Blood gushed forming a puddle around it. One of the attackers picked up the writhing palm and flung it off into the nearby bush. The sword of the assailants flashed again. This time it hit the victim’s left leg. Someone from the neighbourhood came running towards the scene. There was a sudden explosion nearby the vehicles. Everyone froze. The next moment, the gang piled into their van and drove away…
The brutality reminiscent of the dreaded dark ages as described above did not occur in some godforsaken land of the barbarians. It took place in a place named Muvattupuzha, near Kochi in Kerala. It happened in ‘God’s Own Country’ reputed for its high rate of literacy and the culture of communal amity. As the Hindu daily wrote later in an editorial piece, “The act of a gang that cut off the hand of a college teacher, by wielding an axe on a thoroughfare in Kerala in broad daylight, had Talibanism writ all over it...” Prof T J Joseph, who was grievously injured in the bloody attack, was teaching Malayalam in the Newman’s College, Thodupuzha. It is a Christian minority institution affiliated to the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. The attack was an act of retribution against the Professor for ‘insulting’ Islam.
Some four months before the tragic assault, in March 2010, the professor had set a Malayalam question paper for an internal examination for the Second Year B Com students of his college. The question paper was meant for just 27 students who had opted for Malayalam as their second language. One of the questions was aimed at assessing the skill of the students in applying appropriate punctuation marks in a given passage. The passage that the professor chose to use for the question was taken from a book entitled Thirakathayude Reethisasthram (Methodology of Screenplay).
There could be no suspicions about the bona fides of the book from which the Professor took the passage. It was a book published by Kerala State Institute of Languages, a venture funded by the State Government. The book was one of the reference books prescribed for the B.A. Malayalam course of the University for the year 2009-2010. It was also once a reference book for the M.A. Malayalam course. The specific passage the professor selected came from the article “Oru Viswasiyude Kandethalukal” (The Findings of a Faithful) by P T Kunhumuhammed, a well-known name in the field of Malayalam literature and cinema.
The chosen passage dealt with an imaginary dialogue between a lunatic (Bhranthan) and the Creator (God). There was no name for the lunatic in the original version. In it, the character was mentioned simply as ‘Bhranthan’ (The mad man). But the Professor chose to give him a name. Since this character addressed God using a term generally used by Muslims (Padachone), the Professor decided on the name ‘Muhammad’ for the character. Incidentally, there are thousands of people across the world with ‘Muhammad’ (also ‘Mohammed’) as part of their names. The renowned Malayalam author Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the freedom fighter and founder of Pakistan, are a couple of examples. Thus, there were no known reasons for the name to cause any controversy. The professor’s explanation was that he gave a specific name to the character to make the dialogue sound more lively and authentic. Besides, the name appeared to fit the passage in view of the fact that the name of its author itself carried ‘Muhammad’ in it (P T Kunhumuhammed).
However, since the name ‘Muhammad’ was also the name of the Prophet whose divinely revelations constitute the Holy Koran, the sacred scripture of Islam, its use in the passage came handy for those looking for an excuse to whip up religious emotions. So, once the question paper became public, all hell broke loose. An impression was created that the professor gave the name deliberately to insult the Prophet. For Muslims, it amounted to blasphemy. The fringe elements that wanted to exploit the situation communally, had no interest in the reality that there was neither any mention nor the slightest hint anywhere in the passage to support the suspicions of an intent to hurt religious feelings. But, the adapted passage went viral. A section of the media chipped in with their own motivated interpretations to fish in the troubled waters. The fact that a Christian professor working in a Christian institution was behind it gave credence to the communal suspicions.
I believe that the language used in the dialogue was apparently crude and also uncivil to an extent. But the Professor had nothing to do with it. Except for giving the lunatic a name, the Professor had retained the passage in its original form. May be, the original author had used his literary freedom to use such language. May be, no eye brows were raised since the author was a Muslim, although an apparently left leaning one. While in all likelihood, the professor had no evil designs of hurting any religious sentiments, I feel that it was serious error of judgement on his part. While the rudeness of the dialogue might have gone unnoticed when its original author articulated it years ago, the professor should have realized that in an environment of increasing religious extremism and intolerance, it was imperative to be extremely cautious while dealing with matters implying even the remotest overtones of disrespect to any faith.
Some of the hotheaded Islamic youth outfits would not have such ‘insults’ go unpunished. Copies of the question paper were circulated in communally sensitive areas to stoke emotions. The student unions and political parties exploited the situation to the hilt. There were competitive protests against the Professor. The humble and soft-spoken college teacher was suddenly transformed into the embodiment of all evils. As tensions mounted, the District Collector summoned an all-party meeting. The meeting sought action against the Professor for his alleged crime of hurting religious sentiments. The Police registered a case under the Indian Penal Code (Section 295A: Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs…). The college promptly suspended the Professor from service. Sensing that his life was in serious danger, the Professor went into hiding. A ‘look out notice’ went out from the Police. The Police took his teenaged son into custody and tortured him to find out the whereabouts of the Professor. After a week or so, the Police arrested the Professor and put him behind bars. In April 2010, he was released on bail.
Death had stalked the Professor from the day the controversy of the question paper spilled into the open. There was more than one attempt on his life. Finally, on Sunday, July 10, 2010, the Professor was waylaid on his way home from church. Right before the eyes of his aged mother and sister, the attackers chopped off his right palm. He was severely wounded on his left leg. After the attackers left the scene, a neighbour retrieved the severed palm and rushed the Professor to the nearby hospital. He was administered first aid. The palm was packed in ice. He was then taken to a major hospital in Kochi. The surgeons struggled for some sixteen hours to sew back his palm. The Professor remained in the hospital for months. There were reports of abortive attempts on his life while he was convalescing.
The diabolic act of assault on the Professor was decried by all. The media that sensationalised the issue of the question paper in the beginning came out strongly against the horrible act of violence against the Professor. Major Muslim organizations in Kerala condemned the act. Most Muslims described the tragic incident as a blot on the community. Many Muslim youngsters came forward to donate blood to the injured Professor. On 14 January 2011, the Kerala Police filed charge sheets against 27 persons for attacking the Professor. On 27 March 2011, the National Investigating Agency (NIA) took over the investigations on the case. Some of the accused were released in the course of the NIA investigation. Five of the top accused had absconded. They continue to remain in hiding after five long years. And for all the horror and disgrace the dastardly attack on the Professor evoked, one of the accused, who contested a civic body election while under custody, won his seat with a margin of a thousand votes. Obviously, there are still pockets of support for such beastly acts of violence.
The Professor was the sole bread earner for his family. With his suspension from service, the financial situation of the family turned extremely precarious. Added to it was the huge hospital bills. The injuries had incapacitated the Professor. He appealed to the University against his suspension ordered by the College management. The University accepted the professor’s plea of “unintentional error” on his part. Considering the matter in its entirety, the University decided to order the reinstatement of the professor. But the College Management would have nothing further to do with the poor man.
Newman’s college, where the Professor taught, is a Christian minority institution run by the Catholic Church. The Church would not care that the University authorities had absolved him of all allegations of ulterior motives. They would also not bother that the professor had no means of sustenance except for what he was earning from his teaching job. But nothing would come in the way of the ‘Christian’ management of the college from throwing the hapless man out of the college, once for all. Acting in what I consider a blatantly ‘unchristian’ way, on 4 September 2010, the Management of the college issued an order terminating the services of the professor.
Though the surgeons had successfully sewed his severed palm back on to his body, for all practical purposes the Professor’s right palm remained dead and useless. The recovery was painfully slow. Now that the Professor was helpless and bedridden, the entire burden of taking care of the family fell on the shoulders of his wife. As a homemaker who lived until then on the earnings of her husband, she had no idea how to go about finding the resources to run the household. As the saying goes, she was too frail to dig and too ashamed to beg. Besides, the abject poverty of the family was no more a private affair confined within the four walls of her home. The constant presence of the two police personnel posted at their home to provide security for the professor was aggravating the embarrassments of the family over its indigence.
The professor’s wife went out seeking work. She accepted whatever work she could find. It had been reported that she often worked as a maidservant at other homes and as a daily labour under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) – a life of hard labour and paltry wages. Days, months and years went by. She kept on hoping that the authorities would reinstate her husband to bring her struggles to an end. But it simply did not happen.
On 13 November 2013, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Thodupuzha acquitted the professor of all the charges connected to the question paper controversy. Hope was back in the air for the weary family. But the college management chose to look the other way. It refused to reinstate the professor. For the Professor’s wife, it was apparently the last straw that broke the camel’s back. All her hopes of finding light at the end of the tunnel were dashed. Some four months later, she decided to put an end to her life of shame and sufferings. On 19 March 2014, the forty eight year old homemaker was found hanging at her home.
On 30 April 2015, the NIA special court at Kochi found only thirteen of those still in Police custody guilty as charged. The court ordered the release of the rest on the ground that the prosecution failed to establish their guilt to its satisfaction. On 08 May 2015, the court delivered its order on punishment of those it found guilty. Ten persons were handed out prison terms of eight years. Three of those found guilty were punished with two years in jail. Since these punished have already been in jail since their arrest, they have more or less fully served the jail terms awarded by the court. All of them would soon be out of jail. None knows what would happen thereafter. None knows whether the Professor would be spared his life. The media had carried the photograph of those punished, coming out of the NIA court. There was happiness writ all over their faces. But their smiles had nothing to do with their expected release from custody soon. Those smiles were there always on those faces. It has nothing to do with jail or acquittal. One feels sorry for the wasted youth of those smart and handsome youngsters. At the same time, it dreads to see their gross lack of remorse…
It is not clear as to how the brutal attack on the professor helped in getting rid of the alleged communal insult. The attack on the Professor was in retribution to his ‘crime’ of the use of a particular name in a passage used in a college question paper. Just 27 students were meant to see the question paper and the passage concerned. But in the aftermath of the hysteria that the issue had whipped up, the ‘insulting’ material went viral on all kind of media. Consequently, the passage was revealed to millions. And it continues to be available across the globe through the Internet. In the end, the frenzy of the fringe elements has only led to a wider publicity for the controversial passage. It also irrecoverably destroyed the quiet existence of a poor family and the promising lives of a bunch of misguided youngsters.
At this point, the reader might think that this post is meant to defend the Professor or attack the people who assaulted him. In fact, the primary objective of this post is to express my anguish over the manner in which the Christian management of the college dealt with the matter. As a Christian, I find it extremely distressing to see the heartless manner in which the Church authorities behaved in the case. Love, compassion and forgiveness are at the core of the message of the Gospel of Jesus. It baffles me to see that a Church proclaiming to follow the Gospel and Jesus can act with such mindless cruelty. One wonders whether the Church has any concerns beyond saving its skin and filling its coffers.
The Church that manages the college might say that it did not wish to be entangled in the controversy. It has reputations and relationships to safeguard. But what meaning has such reputations and relationships if the Church has to sacrifice the fundamental ideals of the Gospel it is supposed to stand for. The basic Christian ideal revealed on the Cross is sacrificing even one’s life for the sake of others. How can anyone be Christian and turn his face away from people desperately crying out for help? Jesus did not come to earth to save the sacred and the holy. He came looking for the despised and the discarded. He came seeking those who slipped and fell. To err is human and Jesus came to help those err. Jesus said, “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost…” (Mathew 18:11). A Church, that cannot forgive those who slip and refuses to be compassionate towards those who suffer, has no right to preach Jesus. What moral right has the Church to shed tears over ‘Ghar Vapasi’ (Re-conversion), if this is the way it treats those already in its fold?
The truth is that the Church as we have been seeing right from its early days can in no way claim to be the Church that Jesus had envisioned. Jesus did not preach a church that amasses wealth, relishes worldly luxuries and uses its membership strength for political influence. Jesus, describing his personal situation, had said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58). But, today we have his so called representatives living in palaces. They sit on golden thrones, wear tiaras, and surround themselves with all sorts of material wealth, comforts and opulence. Once a man knelt before Jesus and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus aid to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone…” (Mark 10: 17-18). Today we see Church heads making people address them as “Holy Father” or “His Holiness”. They make the rules to make them god. What is Christian about all these Sir?
It is no secret that the Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest institutions in the world. It is one of the biggest owners of prime real estate. Reports say that the Church is the biggest property owner in New York’s Manhattan, the world’s top business centre. How can such a church claim even the remotest relationship with Jesus and his Gospel? Osho (Bhagwan Rajneesh) writes in his book ‘Zarathustra, the Laughing Prophet’, “…He (The Pope) is a representative of Jesus Christ; he should prove it by being crucified – that is the only proof. But instead of being on the cross, he keeps a golden cross dangling around his neck on a golden chain. Jesus was not crucified on a golden cross. And the cross was not dangling around his neck – he was dangling on the cross!”
The manner in which the Church dealt with the case of Professor T J Joseph actually reminds me of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea (Palestine) in the times of Jesus. Jesus stood before him for justice. Pilate said in the course of the trial, “I find no guilt in this man.” (Luke 23:4). Yet Pilate failed in his bounden duty to deliver justice. He was frightened of the mob who cried for the death of Jesus. He had political reasons for keeping the Jewish religious authorities in good humour. The Bible says, “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” (Mathew 27:24). We all know the consequence of Pilate’s failure to render justice. God was put to death on a cross. With all humility, I would like to remind the Christian Church that wherever justice fails, God dies…
Let me now conclude. Renowned German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) presents the parable of a madman in his book, ‘The Gay Science’ (a.k.a. Joyous Wisdom). Nietzsche writes, “Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: ‘I am looking for God! I am looking for God!’ As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. ‘Have you lost him, then?’ said one. ‘Did he lose his way like a child?’ said another. ‘Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated?’ Thus, they shouted and laughed. The mad man sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. ‘Where has God gone?’he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers.’”
Yes. We are the murderers of God…