Crime and punishment

Published : Oct 08, 2010 00:00 IST

WHY did the management of Newman College and the Syro-Malabar Church that controlled it decide to dismiss Professor T.J. Joseph? Was it really a responsible act on the part of the management, coming as it did after the brutal attack on the teacher? Or did it mean they were seeking a compromise with fundamentalism?

The pastoral letter that was read in local parishes on September 12 to explain the action of the management claimed that Joseph had refused to own up to his mistake, the internal inquiry had gathered evidence that he had knowingly included the controversial question, the use of the name Muhammad' by him in the question was dubious, he had ignored the warnings of a DTP operator that the question was inappropriate, he had ignored the subsequent protest raised by a girl student about the question, he had deliberately tried to make it appear that the principal and the management had a role in the formulation of the question, and the principal and the college were still under threat (because of his actions).

Joseph denies all these charges. He said: When it was never my intention to denigrate the Prophet or a religion, how can I say I have done something wrong? Indeed, I have told everyone what I had done. I prepared the controversial question and no one else had a role in it. But was it not the Muslim fundamentalists who misinterpreted the question and then claimed I had committed blasphemy? Was it not they who tried to create communal tension? But instead of explaining what really happened and trying to support me, the management is now trying to level the misinterpretations of the fundamentalists as a charge against me. The charges that they pose as evidence' are false. I cannot understand the logic of their claim that they will pardon me if I say I have committed a mistake that I did not commit, but would punish me if I say that I did not commit a mistake I did not commit.

Asked why the Church took such a stand, which has now exposed it to the charge of compromising with fundamentalism, the spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, Fr. Paul Thelakkat, said: This is a minority institution and we are very particular that it should not be used by anyone to offend the religious feelings of other communities. This professor is personally responsible for setting the question contrary to this principle and has offended religious sentiments. None of us knew anything about the question.

Fr. Thelakkat, therefore, insists that it was necessary for the management to dissociate itself from the issue and give a message that nobody can inflict wounds that would hurt a community. Still I personally feel that the punishment given to Prof. Joseph is excessive, far in excess of his mistakes. That is my personal anxiety and doubt and I would recommend that he should approach a tribunal or a court of law by which the decision of the management can be scrutinised and revised, he said in a telephone interview.

According to Joseph, more than what the fundamentalists did to him, what hurt him most were the deeds of the college management. I am being punished by various agencies in the name of a single mistake. The management knew I was innocent. Yet they just made me a scapegoat in order to please the Muslim community or not to offend it, the professor said.

But the teacher could have selected an innocuous excerpt or sentence for testing the punctuation skills of students. We understand the need for intellectual and academic freedom. But academics cannot remain cut off from society. In this case, it is not like an individual or an artist expressing himself. It is a professor posing a question to students of different religious groups. Some students objected to the question, I hear. And two days after the examination, a violent mob entered the campus. That clearly shows that we are living in a community that is very sensitive to such things, Fr. Thelakkat said.

But why could the management not see it as truly an inadvertent error, one he committed without bad motives, as the professor had repeatedly said? Why can't the Church be more forgiving? And isn't it another reality in the society around us that another large section of people were seeing all this as a compromise with the fundamentalists?

Fr. Thelakkat said: If you look at it objectively, the professor should have been more prudent. If the teacher's action was against the Christian community, maybe there was meaning in our forgiving him. But if we support the teacher, we would be wounding a third party and would become accomplices in the crime, won't we? But I would still say, the punishment was too big for his crime. But, at the same time, we cannot be seen as letting him free without punishment. The act has been done not against us but against another community. There is no question of a compromise with fundamentalists. But there is a vast majority of peace-loving Muslims in Kerala and I think we should be kind to their sentiments. Even the Muslim League has expressed such an opinion. It is an issue of taking a text from its context and introducing it in a question paper. It may have been an innocuous passage if it had been put in the proper context. But when you take it out of context and implant it somewhere out of context, then it can assume a terribly volatile meaning.

Frontline asked Prof. Joseph whether, in retrospect, he felt he should have been more prudent in his selection of the name or of the excerpt which he had used in the controversial question: I do not hold such an opinion. Ordinarily, teaching is not a hazardous job. I would like to think that what I experienced was merely an accident which happened because of my sincerity in my job. I did not ever think I would have to face such a problem if I used the name Muhammad'. If so I would never have used it like that. I do not believe that when I say Rama' or Ayyappa', people would take it to mean Lord Rama' or Lord Ayyappa'. It was because some vested interests misinterpreted it that way and instigated people that those incidents happened. No teacher would be able to teach if they start thinking like that. I don't think it would be right to restrict teachers like that or put them in chains.

R. Krishnakumar
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