Fundamentalist assailants convicted

Print edition : May 29, 2015

Professor T.J. Joseph after he was brutally attacked on July 4, 2010 by Islamist fundamentalists. Photo: Vipin Chandran

The story of Professor T.J. Joseph, a college teacher in Kerala who survived a murderous attack by a group of religious fundamentalists five years ago for what they maintained was an inappropriate reference to the Prophet in a question paper he prepared, perhaps has no precedent in the history of the State.

Seven assailants waylaid the professor on July 4, 2010, as he was returning home with his mother and sister after a Sunday mass at a local church in Moovattupuzha in Ernakulam district. They threw a crude explosive, pulled him out of his car and attacked him. They cut off his right palm, nearly severed his left leg, and left him to die.

The case was taken up by the Kerala Police at first; nearly a year later, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the probe. Fifty-four persons were originally named as accused in the case but charge sheets were prepared only against 36. Of the 36, a trial court in Kochi convicted 13 men on March 30—10 of them for conspiring and committing a “terrorist act” and three for harbouring them. Eighteen men were acquitted for lack of evidence. Five, including the accused key conspirator, are absconding.

They were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for terrorist activities, conspiracy for terrorist activities and being part of a terrorist group; the Explosive Substances Act; and several sections of the Indian Penal Code. The 10 accused were also found guilty of unlawful assembly, rioting with deadly weapons, wrongful restraint, causing grievous hurt, using dangerous weapons, criminal intimidation, promoting religious enmity and attempted murder.

The judge of the NIA Special Court, P. Sasidharan, observed while reserving the sentence on March 30 that the accused had committed a terrorist act on grounds of religious faith and promoted disharmony among members of different religions. He said that the prosecution had proved beyond doubt the involvement of 10 of the accused who had entered into a criminal conspiracy to kill Joseph by inflicting grievous injuries.

But he said that the prosecution could not prove beyond doubt the charges, including conspiracy, planning and funding, against the Popular Front of India (PFI), a confederation of radical Muslim organisations in south India, which was one of the accused.

The verdict comes after a 23-month-long trial, and without the investigating agencies arresting the main culprits, who went into hiding immediately after the attack. The PFI took the position all along that the crime was committed locally against the teacher for a blasphemous act and that it had no role in it. It alleged that the police were prejudiced against the organisation.

Joseph’s troubles began after volatile protests erupted in Thodupuzha following the allegation that in a Malayalam language question paper meant for degree students of Newman College, where he taught, he had introduced an inappropriate reference to the Prophet in an excerpt from an essay written by a well-known film-maker, P.T. Kunjumuhammad.

The essay had been suggested as “recommended reading” for postgraduate students by the university and refers to a conversation between the hero of Kunjumuhammad’s 1999 film “Garshom” and God. The film-maker, a former MLA, explains in the essay that he got the inspiration for the particular “form” of conversation in his film from a lunatic in his village who often used to imagine that he was having a conversation with God.

However, in the question paper, Joseph used the name “Muhammad” to refer to this villager (who had no name in the original) while asking students to add proper punctuation marks in the part detailing the villager’s imaginary conversation with God. Thus, the excerpt provided in the question paper looked like a conversation between a “Muhammad” and God and the content of the exchange was widely interpreted as blasphemous. (See “Yet another blow”, Frontline, October 8, 2010.)

Copies of the question paper were circulated in the college and surrounding areas and a volatile situation ensued. Several organisations, including the PFI and its student wing, the Campus Front, and student groups of the Indian Union Muslim League and the Congress, launched agitations. Soon, a case was filed against the professor “for causing communal hatred” in society. Joseph went into hiding and the police issued a look-out notice against him, with his photographs repeatedly being shown on television. He was arrested a week later. The college authorities gave a public apology and announced his immediate suspension from service. Four months later, when things seemed to have settled down, he was attacked.

Joseph survived because he was rushed to a speciality hospital in Kochi, about 50 km away. Though there was widespread condemnation of the attack, life turned upside down for the professor and his family. His palm and leg had to be reattached through a long surgical procedure and the huge amount of blood he needed to stay alive was donated by a group of Muslims. He was bedridden for months and his family lost its only source of income.

Immediately after the attack, Joseph was also dismissed from service by the management of Newman College, a government-aided private institution administered by the Diocese of Kothamangalam. Joseph was therefore also barred from serving under any of the institutions associated with Mahatma Gandhi University to which his institution was affiliated. The management first said that the professor would be taken back if “the Muslim community was willing to pardon him” but eventually took the position that Joseph’s only recourse was to seek legal remedy.

The Bishop of the Syro-Malabar Church issued a pastoral letter explaining to parishioners why Joseph would not be absolved of his mistake just because some religious fundamentalists took the law into their own hands and cut off his palm. “If we think that he has been absolved of what he did, it would mean that we are accepting the cruel deed of anti-socials….Punishment has to be implemented by those who have the responsibility to do it and as per the law. It does not behove of a democratic society if, instead, it thinks that it is enough if somebody or the other implements the punishment.”

Though the university and the then Left Democratic Front government demanded that the professor be reinstated, and a magistrate’s court in Thodupuzha exonerated Joseph from the charges of insulting the Prophet, the church and college management stuck to their stand. Joseph was put under police protection, but he and his family had no financial support and survived with the meagre income of his daughter and support from well-wishers. Unable to withstand the misery and the struggle, his wife committed suicide on March 19, 2014. Joseph rejoined duty only on March 28, 2014, a few days before he was to retire from service. Despite several appeals, the State government waited for the special court’s verdict to announce that his retirement benefits would be disbursed “soon”.

“I have no interest in the court judgment. It is a case between the government and the offenders. My soul’s court had pardoned all those who were involved in the crime even when I was in the hospital bed,” Joseph said in Kottayam, at a function organised to release a book authored by him (Nalla Padangal or “Good Lessons”) and published by DC Books.

Accepting the first copy of the book, he, however, held the college authorities, the police and the government responsible for making him the target of fanatical elements by first putting him in the dock and forcing him to go into hiding and then arresting him on a baseless allegation when he had never intended to insult the Prophet.

The release of the book coincided with the NIA special court verdict on March 30. “The book I wrote with my right hand is being released by my left hand. It is dedicated to my wife,” he said.

R. Krishnakumar

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