T.J. Joseph: the professor who gave his hand
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A police officer reaching for his gun at the sound of our arrival is the first contrast we encounter in Kerala’s Muvattupuzha, a quiet place where the road meanders between rows of rubber trees and the wind whistles past the large, dangling leaves.
The policeman, in civilian dress, is here to keep T.J. Joseph, a retired college professor, and his family safe. As he questions us, Joseph emerges from his two-storey house and invites us in.
His living room is almost bare, just a couple of pieces of furniture and a red lamp flickering below a wall portrait of Jesus Christ. He switches on the lights and fan in the room with his left hand. The right one is hidden beneath his full-sleeve shirt. He does the household chores himself, he says, since he is now a widower.
It’s hard to think of this 60-year-old professor, with neatly parted hair and thin-rimmed spectacles, as a threat to anyone, let alone as someone needing security.
But the story of why Joseph was given police protection—and how he lost his right hand, his job, and his wife—is a tale of the limits of freedom. It is about what you can say in a country which doesn’t promise you absolute freedom but a version of it, subject to a host of laws, both legal and societal.
It is also a tale of a nobody—not a writer, artist, politician or film-maker—getting caught up in the free speech debate and inadvertently staring at its consequences.
The story unspools from seven years ago.
Joseph used to teach at a college in Thodupuzha, around 20km from where we sit. In 2010, his hand was chopped off at the wrist by Muslim fundamentalists for allegedly blaspheming Prophet Muhammad and the Quran.
Joseph had set a question in a term paper which quoted an excerpt from an essay by film-maker P.T. Kunju Muhammed. In the question, a schizophrenic asks Padachon, meaning Allah, or God, in Malayalam, an inane question. In his response, God refers to the man asking the question as the son of a dog, a common enough insult in Kerala.
But the man speaking to God was named Muhammad in the examination paper by Joseph, whereas he was unnamed in the original text. This led to the interpretation that the Muslim community and its central text, the Quran, had been disrespected. The Quran is believed to have been handed down to Islam’s last Prophet, Muhammad, in the same manner—as a conversation with Padachon, or Allah.
Joseph insists he had no clue the passage would be considered blasphemous. He claims to have been only interested in exploring the satiric element in the text, and says the name Muhammad was chosen because it was also the name of the author of the essay, Kunju Muhammed.
The essay was an old favourite, he adds, since he chanced upon it on a recommended reading list for postgraduate students of Malayalam. He liked it so much that he used to recount it to family members, so they knew it well too. Joseph is not an atheist, but as a literature professor—rather than a teacher of theology—says he was interested in the absurdist, darkly humorous subtext.
But people wouldn’t believe him. The question paper set off a series of agitations. Fundamentalist Islamic outfits like the Popular Front of India (PFI) and moderate parties like the Indian Union Muslim League held protest demonstrations against Joseph and his college, transforming the sleepy towns of Muvattupuzha and Thodupuzha into centres of simmering communal tension. At an ongoing session of the state assembly, the opposition attacked the government, which charged Joseph with causing communal hatred.
Joseph ran for his life.
He ran from city to city to dodge arrest. But since he could not show papers revealing his identity, he was rejected by motels everywhere, until finally—and rather ironically—he found shelter in a Muslim-run lodge in Palakkad district, 130km from his home. Within weeks, he was arrested, but was soon released on bail.
Joseph had no job to return to—his college, run by the church he belonged to, had dismissed him. Over the months that followed, he endured three attempts on his life. In their fourth attempt, when he was on his way back home from Sunday morning mass at a nearby church, the fundamentalists caught him.
The Wider Context
Compared to parts of India with similar religious diversity, Kerala has had hardly any communal riots over the last hundred years. But that’s changed in the last two-three decades, largely owing to events in other places in India, such as the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the Gujarat riots in 2002.
In this period, Kerala has witnessed the growth of more belligerent Hindu and Muslim communities, also propelled by outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and PFI expanding their presence, and the rise of firebrand orators like Abdul Nasser Madani or Kummanam Rajasekharan.
While Madani, a Muslim cleric-turned-politician, was the rallying force then for Islamic fundamentalists in Kerala, Rajasekharan was active in taking up campaigns that had at their heart matters related to Hindu-religious identity. Both had their images wrapped in social and spiritual work but were deeply invested in politics, and were accused by critics of being polarizing figures. Madani later formed his own political party, the People’s Democratic Party, while Rajasekharan rose through the ranks of right-wing outfits such as the Hindu Aikya Vedi, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and RSS, to become Bharatiya Janata Party state president in 2014.
Who Was Worse?
Joseph believes the treatment by his college and society at large was worse than the punishment meted out by the fundamentalists.
The college refused to take him back despite his acquittal in the case related to causing communal hatred. In letters circulated among 120 churches in the area and readout at a Sunday mass soon after the attack, the clergy said the assault did not absolve Joseph from the “mistakes” he had committed, such as insulting a religion. His litigation against the college, to get re-employed, went on for years without reaching any resolution and severely dented his savings. His wife, Salomy, sank into depression. She ended her life in their house in March 2014, a week before Joseph was officially due to retire. The suicide caused widespread anger against the college, and he was allowed to return to work for just one day, the final day of retirement.
“Too little, too late,” says Joseph.
How does one recover a sense of freedom after such grievous loss?
Things have improved since the time Joseph could barely sit up on his bed. He drives his car and works on his autobiography, using the reattached right hand. Things have improved monetarily: He can pay for his son’s education, renovate the house, consider his daughter’s marriage.
“But I cannot return to my children their mother,” he says.
He was still in hospital when he pardoned those who assaulted him, he says. That feeling of forgiveness strengthened when he saw the crying families they left behind as they walked to prison.
“They were just tools, brainwashed souls, acting at the behest of some manipulator of their religion,” says Joseph. “I can’t blame them, just as I can’t blame the axe that hit me.”
Unlike Joseph, society in Kerala has not forgiven the hardliners. After his hand was chopped off, and his wife committed suicide, there was a great deal of anger and contempt for religious fundamentalism. His story is now seen as a defining moment in Kerala’s tryst with extremism and free speech. Every time there is a case of censorship in the state, his is one of the first names to come up.
Like last month. An unsigned letter landed up in the mailbox of noted Malayalam writer K.P. Ramanunni, threatening to chop off his hand for insulting Islam. Fellow writers related it to what happened to Joseph, and the government immediately ordered a police investigation and issued a public statement in support of the writer.
Joseph’s worry is that his story will be used in the future when miscreants try and stoke communal tensions or stereotype the Muslims of Kerala. “It was a coincidence that I was at the crossroads with extremists in Islam. Censorship in India has no religion.”
He says he doesn’t have regrets. But if given a chance to do it again, would he change the name Muhammad to something else?
“Yes,” he says, “Perhaps I’d change it to Joseph.”
Attacking Free Thought
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar: Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer, was suspended from his day job as a government medical officer in Jharkhand this month, and his 2015 collection of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, banned in the state earlier this month. This follows objections to the book by some tribal groups, who claimed it portrayed Santhali women in a bad light. But the government has said he has been suspended for not taking permission to write the book.
M.M. Kalburgi: He was shot dead at his home in Dharwad in 2015. A renowned scholar, Sahitya Akademi Award winner and former vice-chancellor of Karnatak University, his remarks on idol worship had drawn the ire of Hindu right-wing outfits like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. Kalburgi’s death, coming after the murders of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra, got national attention. More than two dozen writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, criticizing the Akademi’s silence over the murders.
Perumal Murugan: A Tamil novelist, declared his death as a writer in January 2015, after caste groups targeted him for his novel One Part Woman. Repeated protest marches were held, and copies of his books burnt. A year later, after the Madras high court ruled in his favour, the novelist returned from his self-imposed seclusion.
Kannada playwright and activist Yogesh Master was arrested in 2013 after Hindu groups accused him of besmirching the god Ganesha in his novel Dhundi. The novel fictionalized the appropriation of tribal gods into the Hindu pantheon of deities. A group of right-wing activists also smeared black ink on his face this year, and warned him against “vilifying” Hindu gods.
K.S. Bhagwan: Recipient of the honorary lifetime achievement award from the Karnataka Sahitya Akademi, was threatened in 1985 when he released his book Shankaracharya And Reactionary Philosophy, which argues that the philosopher and Hindu saint was an advocate of the caste system. Bhagwan, whose books examine Hinduism from a rationalist position, says right-wing activists call him up regularly to issue death threats. He lives under state security.
—Rahul Chandran contributed to this story.