It has been 11 years since members of the radical Islamist organization Popular Front of India chopped off the hand of T.J. Joseph, a professor of Malayalam in Newman College in Kerala alleging blasphemy for insulting Prophet Muhammad after a question he set for an examination was misunderstood by a section of the Muslim community in the state.
A Malayalam professor, Joseph today tells his story through his autobiography- ‘Attupokatha Ormakal’. Penguin Books on Monday released the book’s English translation- ‘A Thousand Cuts: An Innocent Question And Deadly Answers’. The publisher describes the book as "a chilling account of religious extremism based on a true story.”
In this interview with Outlook, TJ Joseph speaks about his book, why he doesn’t hate his attackers and how he hopes for a better tomorrow.
Edited Excerpts and extracts from the book:
The English translation of your autobiography comes at a time the Church in Kerala has raised concerns about alleged 'Narcotic Jihad' in the state. The same Church had not stood by you when your hand was chopped off by fanatics. Is the timing of your book a sharp reminder?
The English translation of my book, ‘Attu Pokatha Ormakal’ is getting released today. It is true that today we are living in a time when the evil forces of religious extremism are gripping not only the Kerala state but also the country and the world. However, the church’s recent comment (on Narcotic Jihad) is an attempt to create a controversy. Religious institutions use such controversies to keep their flock together and binding because the followers’ blind belief and total slavery to the religious system is the working capital for any religion. Religious and political leaders always use people’s sentiments and divisive tactics to keep their people submissive and obedient.
We are actually following a wrong notion of secularism. In a secular state, there’s no place for any religion. But we have been misled by our religious leaders and politicians to give importance to all religions under a false sense of religious co-existence. The fact is two religions can never co-exist. Because, all religions believe that they are the true religion and others are wrong. They may be under an undeclared truce. They are controlling themselves for the sake of their own self security. This religious harmony is only an illusion. It can break and erupt anytime. It is very easy to stir people’s sentiments especially in a country like India. It is unimaginable for them to see truth in all religions. The ideology of some religions- Semitic religions- even advocate annihilating other religions.
We are living in a time when the science and technology have made great progress. We are enjoying all achievements of modernity. But our mindset is still that of a period where people believed earth was flat. You can see what’s happening in Afghanistan. We feel ashamed of it. But it’s not different here, only that it’s not getting manifested here in such forms.
A decade after the attack on you, do you think fanaticism has declined in Kerala? Or, is it on the rise?
It’s been 11 years since I was attacked. Today, our cultural sphere is filled with more hatred, more division and more religious extremism. You can see it in the current debates and discourses here.
There's a big debate in Kerala today on the widening rift between Muslims and Christians in the state. Political analysts say that it was reflected even in the last Assembly elections. What’s going on in the state?
It’s all the game plan of the religious and political leaders to protect their wealth, power and position. The fact is that people are blindly falling prey to them. My words and writings are for a society that live with peace and harmony. I don’t utter a word that will create any division in the society. My book is to help people break the barriers of their religions and to help them restrict their religions to their private spheres. I dream of a society where humanism and equality thrive.
Your publisher has described your book as a story “of fortitude, determination, forgiveness and compassion, told with rare wit that will make the readers chuckle through their tears.” Could you please tell us your feelings about your book?
While writing this book, I had tried to take a detached position. As a writer, I am committed to establish humanism in the society. It’s true I have forgiven my attackers. I have always had an empathetic mind. I have tried to keep the book simple, poetic and readable for all kinds of readers. I have always tried to look at myself and my life with a touch of humour. It has helped me gain the confidence and energy to overcome my difficulties.
In the hand-chopping case, the convicted Popular Front of India (PFI) activists appeared not at all remorseful as they were smiling on cameras after the court order. The PFI is still functional in Kerala. Do you think you have got justice?
I don’t think any victim would get justice by punishing the culprits. Do you think Nirbhaya got justice after the court sentenced her attackers? When the culprits get sentenced, it only means the state has delivered justice. I have long forgiven my attackers. They didn’t know me, nor did I know them. We were not enemies of each other. They committed the crime because of their ignorance or their obedience to their masters. They were mere tools. They are not the villains but their philosophy and scriptures are. I have no hatred for them like I don’t have any hatred for the axe that was used to chop my hand. I used to feel sympathetic to them when I saw them in the courts during the trial. Like me, they and their families have also suffered. Their smile is expected because they don’t feel guilty. For them they have done what’s right as per what they have been taught to get to the paradise. I am happy to see others being happy and smiling.
Are you hopeful for a better society and a better tomorrow?
We have the examples of the Scandinavian countries. There people don’t give much importance to religions. They are responsible citizens. Hence, you can see even the crime rate is very low there. In fact, historically religions were meant to create responsible societies. But, we are now seeing religions making people violent and intolerant. We should dream of a society which thrives on equality and humanism where people will be free from the barriers of religions and will stand to help one another. I hope my book will be a step towards building such a world order.
Extracts from the book:
I greeted the bishop with my palms together. I kissed his ring when he extended his hand to me, genuflected and then touched his feet.
‘I’ve done no wrong knowingly. Please forgive me.’
‘Please rise,’ said the bishop. As I stood up, a tear fell to the ground from my welling eyes.
He asked me to sit down and then spoke to me for about ten minutes. At the time the trouble broke out in Thodupuzha, he was attending an event in Vazhakulam. When the news reached him, he hurried back to Bishop House. Police protection had been arranged here as well. Finally, he granted me leave to go.
I also met Monsignor Francis Alappatt, the corporate educational secretary, Father Kuriakose Kodakallil and Father Koyithanathu and explained to them my non-culpability in the question-paper matter. I felt like a heavy burden had been lifted off my shoulders when I started back for home.
During the initial days, none of our neighbours or acquaintances visited us and they kept their gazes averted every time they passed by our house. One day, the doorbell rang, and the sight of two strangers in our yard made me nervous.
‘I am Ravi Muvattupuzha.’
‘I am Binil.’
Both were rationalists from the Muvattupuzha area. They had come to offer any help that they could provide. I assumed that they had taken me for a fellow-rationalist, who had been charged with blasphemy.
‘I am not a rationalist.’
Ravi said, ‘It doesn’t matter to us whether you are a believer, or an atheist, or a rationalist. We only see you as a human being who is being hounded by religion, the media, and the government. It’s only our humanity that has made us look you up.’
I liked that sentiment; they were also the first people who had approached me offering help. They left their phone numbers with me. A few teachers from Newman College and Nirmala College close to me also visited me. I learnt from them about the steps taken by the college authorities in my absence.
While things were being explained to the protestors on March 26, the decision came from the higher-ups in the management to give up all defence and throw me to the wolves. A press release that I had been suspended was issued. The college principal, Dr T.M. Joseph, held a press conference in which he apologized to the Muslim community for wounding their religious sensibilities. That was tantamount to pouring oil on the fire—protestors turned into rioters.
If the college authorities had been steadfast and honest enough, the controversy would have died down in a day or so. However, they joined the protestors, became their mouthpiece, and showed remarkable alacrity to abuse me. They used their political clout to file the case solely in my name and worked to create evidence against me. The handwritten copy of the question paper was retrieved from the wastepaper basket of the Malayalam department and handed over to the police by Father Raju Jacob Pichalakkat, my ex-student, colleague, and the college bursar. The next day, in his speech in the college church, Father Pichalakkat also announced that finding that paper had saved his skin.
Half of the questions in that paper had been set by Father Pichalakkat. Now imagine if that particular question had also been set by Father Pichalakkat. Would Father Pichalakkat have had the integrity to admit that although the handwriting in the manuscript wasn’t his own, the question was his? I can only hope so.
I had always been on good terms with the college management. The manager used to interact with me like a friend. On the first day after this issue flared up, he had advised me to stay away from home on the basis of that friendship.
However, as soon as the management decided to adopt Caiaphas’s justice, he was ready to tell even outright lies. In his statement to the police, he declared that I was unhappy with the management and that was why I had tried to cause them problems by setting such a controversial question.
I had believed that my ex-student and colleague, Father Pichalakkat, would be my sturdiest defender in my absence, holding up my honesty of purpose. However, he proclaimed everywhere that my question did hurt Muslim sentiments.
To my utter surprise and consternation, the following categorical statement was made by Reverend Dr Thomas Periyapuram, in the college’s managing board meeting following the controversy:
T.J. Joseph has insulted not only Islam and Prophet Mohammad with his controversial question. He has done that to our Holy Trinity as well. The poser ‘how many pieces will there be if a mackerel is sliced up’ and its answer as three pieces was written down on purpose to blaspheme the Holy Trinity comprising the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.1
We need to take into account that the reverend is a doctorate-holder in Malayalam language and literature, a guide to research students, ex-principal of Nirmala College and the Vicar of the Kothamangalam Cathedral. It was amazing how, in his pursuit of the impetus for the controversial question, his research instincts smashed through the bounds of literature and landed in the hallowed precincts of Christian theology.
This éminence grise and maven conveniently overlooked the documented fact that the dialogue was in P.T. Kunju Muhammed’s article just so he, the reverend, could stir dissension and animus in the hearts of Catholic board members.
While I was in jail, in a contrived op-ed piece on secularism in the Deepika daily, the revered Archbishop Mar Joseph Powathil wrote:
This deed of a teacher should have never come from a Christian name-bearer.
When I read that piece, I lamented that the light from the pellucid Biblical proscription ‘Judge not, and you shall not be judged,’ had not touched the reverend’s heart. Monsignor Thomas Malekudi was the chairman of Deepika, owned by the Catholic Church. I had no idea at that time that this op-ed piece was part of the intrigue to ostracize me.