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  By A.J. Philip  
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  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
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  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
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  Prof T.J. Joseph  
  Victim of fanaticism  
  FOUR years ago, people all over the country were shocked when Professor T.J. Joseph, who teaches Malayalam at Newman College, Thodupuzha, Kerala, was intercepted while returning from the church on a Sunday and attacked with sharp weapons. By the way, the college is named after poet and priest John Henry Newman, who gave the immortal hymn, "Lead Kindly Light".

The religious zealots left him only after his right hand was cut at the wrist and thrown away like a piece of rubbish. With so many deep wounds all over his body, few expected Prof Joseph to survive, let alone return to teaching on March 28, 2014.

I was at that time in Delhi. I wanted to know what provoked the warriors of faith to attack an unarmed person in the presence of his aged mother, wife and children. Alas, no mainstream newspaper or television channel gave any details about the alleged blasphemy.

I used my contacts in Delhi to reach Prof Joseph's acquaintances on phone and get hold of a copy of the impugned question paper in which he was alleged to have committed blasphemy and the text, based on which he had prepared it. I was convinced that there was no blasphemy and I mentioned it in my first column on the subject that appeared a few days after the horrendous chopping.

Blasphemy has always been a contentious subject. Last week, I read Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar's article on blasphemy in the "Pakistan Times". She has enumerated several false blasphemy cases in Pakistan, "the land of the pure". A majority of the victims were Christians. One is alleged to have written a pamphlet against the Prophet when, in fact, he was an illiterate! It is the easiest charge that can be made against a person. Even judges who decided in favour of the alleged blasphemers had to pay a heavy price, some with their own lives.

To return to Prof Joseph, whom I visited last week at his house at Moovattupuzha, doctors did a commendable job when they joined the severed portion with his hand and took large portions of flesh from his thighs to reconstruct his hands and legs. Today, he can lift a bucket of water with his re-constructed hand and walk almost normally. Medicine and physiotherapy have been doing wonders to his body.

When things began appearing normal, yet another tragedy struck Joseph last fortnight when his wife Salome, who stood with him through thick and thin, took her own life, leaving him, his 86-year-old mother Elikutty, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and two bright, but dependent, children, Amy and Mithun. Salome had been suffering from acute depression, about which I will come to in an instant.

All of a sudden, the college management invited him for discussions during which he was told that he could join on March 28 and retire on March 31, having reached the age of superannuation. Since classes were over, he might not be able to teach but he would still be able to sit in his official chair, meet his colleagues, walk in the campus and breathe the air of campus life.

Prof Joseph is like the Shakespearean tragic hero King Lear, who was more sinned against than sinning. The zealots, who took the chopper in their hands, were thoroughly misled by the propaganda that he caused blasphemy. All that he did was to set a question paper, based on a book "Thirakathayude Reethisasthram" (Methodology of Screenplay) by P.T. Kunju Muhammed, prescribed by Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, as a reference text for graduate and postgraduate students of Malayalam literature.

To quote Wikipedia, "In the original text, Kunju Muhammed explains a scene in his 1999 film Garshom, in which the character Murali, a NRI who has returned to India, is madly talking to himself. Kunju Muhammed based the character Murali on a schizophrenic that he had met, near the road, who was talking to God. Joseph named the unnamed schizophrenic character as Muhammed in the question paper, as a reference to the author Kunju Muhammed". Mischievous elements interpreted it as a dialogue between God and the Prophet.

When Joseph was attacked, nobody saw it as an attack on Jesus's "father", who bore the name Joseph. I remember my English teacher using the sentence, "Rama killed a snake" from Wren and Martin's grammar book, to explain subject, verb and predicate. Nobody would take grammarians P. C. Wren and H. Martin to task for accusing Lord Ram of killing a reptile on which Lord Vishnu rests.

Muhammed is a common name and does not become Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), unless it is preceded by the word "Prophet". If the attackers cared to understand this and not gone by the rumours, they would surely not have turned against him. However, the same could not be said about the mighty state.

The Kerala Police, too, went by rumours and filed a case against him for spreading religious hatred and blasphemy. For a short while, when he remained in hiding without even informing his family, the police arrested his son and tortured him to ferret out information that he did not have. Of course, his son did not leave the police at that. Based on his complaint, the court has passed severe strictures against a Deputy Superintendent of Police and a Sub-Inspector, who have been ordered to pay him a compensation of Rs 25,000 each. He is yet to get the amount as the two have gone in appeal against the order.

Here, it would be pertinent to mention that the British could be accused of many things but they never tortured any family members of the freedom fighters, including even those who took part in violent activities. Nowadays whenever a person goes into hiding, the first thing the police do is to arrest his wife and children in order to put pressure on him to surrender.

It should be said to the eternal credit of the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Thodupuzha before whom the case against Prof Joseph came up that he was so convinced about the non-sustainability of the case that he summarily discharged him without even a trial. It is a different matter that the case took over three years before it could reach him.

When Prof Joseph was brutally attacked, the Kerala Government tried to mitigate the harm caused to him by paying him a lump-sum of Rs 4 lakh. "The Tehsildar made the payment after taking the impression of his toe as his hands were in bandages then." The conduct of the college management was worse. It allegedly conducted an in-house inquiry, which found him guilty of blasphemy and dismissed him from service. At that time, too, this writer wrote an open letter to the bishop concerned protesting against the management's decision.

When the church should have sympathised with him and his family, which depended solely on his salary, it rubbed salt into his wounds. It showed no human considerations, though he had a blemish-less record as a teacher at various church-run institutions before he was transferred to Newman College. Moreover, as the matter was sub judice, it should have waited for the court's verdict before reaching a conclusion. In doing otherwise, the church pushed the family into penury.

Joseph managed to get a BPL card, based on which he used to get rice at Rs 2 a kg to manage the family. There was a time when Salome even thought of taking up a job under the employment guarantee scheme of the government to keep the hearth burning.

As the professor's elder sibling, Sister Marie Stella of Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, described this part of the story, I realised how important food security was for the teeming millions of the country.

Of course, well-wishers like former students and colleagues provided him a helping hand but for which Prof Joseph would not have been able to get the treatment he needed. He vividly remembers that day when he did not have any money to pay his lawyer before his crucial appearance in the court. A former student visited him at his house. While taking leave of his beloved teacher, he thrust into his hands an envelope containing Rs 10,000 in cash. Anonymous well-wishers used to deposit even amounts as small as Rs 100 in his bank account. All this shows that the well of humanity has not yet dried up in the country.

As a teacher, Prof Joseph was entitled to reimbursement of his medical expenses but the government has been denying it on one specious ground or another. The last he heard on the subject was that he had not submitted "the essentiality certificate" along with the bills. What's worse, he was not even allowed to withdraw money from his hard-earned provident fund savings. Meeting Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Finance Minister K.M. Mani proved useless.

Finally, when the court fully exonerated him of the charge of blasphemy in November 2013, it gave rise to hope in Joseph and his wife that the college would reinstate him. One television channel even reported that he would soon be reinstated. After all, there was no ground on which he could be kept in a state of dismissal. However, the management was equivocal on the question of reinstating him.

Finally, word came that the college would not allow him to rejoin service. That was the time when his wife fell into acute depression from which she could not recover. Of course, people may say that suicide is not a solution but then suicide, induced by depression, is a different kettle of fish.

Now the question is: would the church have reinstated him if his wife had not committed suicide? The answer is clearly in the negative. Is reinstatement a compensation for all the sufferings he underwent? No, not at all, as it does not compensate for the torture he and his family suffered. The moment the college dismissed him from service, many of the church members and even colleagues tried to keep away from him.

Similarly, the government cannot escape from its responsibility to compensate him for all the expenses he incurred on his treatment without which he would not have been able to regain his health. The officials who sat on his medical bills on one pretext or another should not be allowed to go scot-free. Similarly, those who took the decision to dismiss him without any rhyme or reason need to be taken to task.

The religionists behaved no better than the fanatics, who could be given the benefit of the doubt that they did not know the true circumstances of the case. However, the former knew that Joseph was innocent and blasphemy was never on his mind when he painstakingly prepared the question paper. A less serious teacher would not have taken so much trouble to prepare a question to test the students' punctuation skills. He or she would have just taken a passage from a newspaper report.

The case against those who took the law into their own hands is yet to be concluded. Prof Joseph said it was immaterial to him whether the court punished them or exonerated them, because he had pardoned them. "As a citizen, it was my duty to assist the police in their investigation of the case. Salome had also completed her deposition before the judge,"

Prof Joseph has bitter memories of the trial when he was ridiculed and pilloried. He could stand his ground only because he had nothing to hide. Political parties and political leaders, save a VS Achuthanandan or a MA Baby, have to ask themselves whether they behaved in the best interest of academic freedom and secularism when they turned their eyes away from the poor professor who suffered at the hands of religious leaders and religious fanatics.

The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at
Courtesy: Indian Currents
  By  A.J. Philip  
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