Caught in a cliche

Why is the long arm of the law as long as it is? Why do the proverbial wheels of justice grind as slowly as they do in India? The phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” has become a well-worn cliché. Why are certain individuals so insensitive to the problems suffered by others?

The case concerning Prof. T.J. Joseph, whose right hand was chopped off by a gang of Muslim goons nearly five years ago, has highlighted some of the worst aspects of Kerala society. Yet, it is true that residents of Kerala justifiably consider themselves to be more “progressive”, “tolerant”, “liberal” and “non-violent” in comparison to societies in other parts of the country. The so-called Kerala model of healthcare and women’s empowerment are often cited as examples worthy of emulation.

All our notions about “God’s own country” have turned upside down in this terrible episode. On April 30, the special court of the National Investigation Agency convicted 13 people owing allegiance to a radical Islamic outfit, ironically named the Popular Front of India, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. They were accused of participating in or abetting the gruesome act of cutting off the hand of the Malayalam language teacher because he had set a question paper in an examination in which a particular question had offended the religious sentiments of Muslims. Prof. Joseph used to work in Newman College in Thodupuzha in Idukki district. The sensational incident occurred when he was returning home after attending a Sunday mass at a church in Muvattupuzha in Ernakulam district on July 4, 2010. The special NIA court, in its judgment, ruled that the prosecution has proved beyond all reasonable doubts that eight of the 13 accused along with others had entered into a criminal conspiracy to kill the professor by inflicting grievous injuries on him.

The court had begun the trial in July 2013 and examined over 300 prosecution witnesses, four defence witnesses, nearly 1,000 documents and more than 200 objects. Thirty-seven persons had been named in the chargesheets issued by the NIA but only 31 were tried as six individuals, including the first accused person, absconded.Prof. Joseph, a Christian, who had headed the Malayalam language department in the college where he worked, was suspended from service after the controversy erupted over the way in which he had framed a question to test his students’ proficiency in grammar. He was suspended despite expressing regrets for what had happened.

Prof. Joseph had asked his students to punctuate a passage from a fictional account of a mad person who has a conversation with himself, imagining himself to be God. The mad man in the story was named Mohammed and that became the ostensible reason why the professor was attacked after he was accused of offending religious sentiments and inciting communal hatred.This case is reminiscent of another incident that had taken place in Bengaluru nearly three decades earlier in December 1986. A newspaper had published a short story in its Sunday magazine section with the title “Mohammad the Idiot”. The newspaper had printed an English translation of a work of fiction that had been originally published in Malayalam a decade earlier. The story was about a mentally retarded, deaf and dumb young man named Mohammad who committed suicide.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the office of the newspaper and tried to burn it down. At least 16 people died in clashes and the police firing that followed the publication of the story. There were incidents of arson and rioting for three days and curfew was declared in the city and its suburban areas. Although they apologised, the newspaper’s editor and publisher were arrested and charged with fomenting communal enmity before they were released on bail.
Life follows art in strange ways, with bizarre twists and turns. After Prof. Joseph was suspended from his job, his family members had to go through tremendous economic hardship. They accumulated debts. On March 20, 2014, the teacher’s 49-year-old wife Salomi hung herself to death at their home.

Prof. Joseph had sought to be reinstated by the college that had employed him before the end of March that year. That would entitle him to receive financial benefits and meet the expenses for their daughter’s wedding. He did indeed receive the benefits but only after his wife had committed suicide. What a tragedy.
I have a personal association with Prof. Joseph. I had guided a student of political science from the University of Delhi, Abin Thomas, who had prepared a paper on how the media in Kerala had fanned communal tensions by being less than responsible while reporting the incident relating to Prof. Thomas. Subsequently, in the middle of 2012, I co-directed a documentary film on freedom of expression in contemporary India, produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, for which Prof. Joseph had granted an interview to a colleague of mine.

In that interview, while replying to a question on what freedom meant to him, Prof. Joseph said: “Freedom is a relative concept. For a prisoner, freedom is all about the world outside the four walls of a jail. For an indebted man, it means freedom from repaying his loans. A hungry man realises his freedom in food... ”He added that his teacher Jesus Christ had taught him to “love thy enemy”. “My family and I have followed his teachings in their true spirit. We forgave them (meaning his attackers) the very moment the attack took place and this will never change.”

Though I have never met Prof. Joseph face to face, I have a strange sense of affinity with him. When a film is being edited, one goes over the same footage over and over again. Even after the film has been completed, one views it repeatedly. I don’t understand or speak his language but he has become a part of me in a way I could never have imagined.In certain instances, justice can never be done. This is certainly one of them. But if each and every one of us who proudly proclaim the virtues of tolerance and oppose bigotry in every form fail to learn important lessons from the horrifying experience undergone by Prof. Joseph, ours will be a poorer society.

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