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Plot to divide Kerala on communal lines?

An overview of the incidents leading to hand-chopping of a college lecturer and its consequences in Kerala’s contemporary politics

By Firose KC,

March 23, 2010 was a usual working day for Newman College in Thodupuzha, a Christian dominated town in South Kerala. It was exam season and among many other colleges affiliated to Kottayam Mahathma Gandhi University in Kerala, Newman College also conducted an internal assessment exam for the 2nd Semester B.Com students. More than the result, one particular question of the Malayalam language paper got attention of the public; both among the “secular” and “religious” fanatics of Kerala this controversial question created uneasiness and protest. It soon led to a law and order violation and eventually to a criminal act of chopping the hand of the lecturer who prepared the question paper.

Prof. TJ Joseph, 53, the HoD of Malayalam, prepared the question. It asked the students to give proper punctuation marks: Here is the English translation of the contentious question paper:

Muhammed: O God, God!

God: What do you want, son of a b**ch?

Muhammed: If I slice a mackerel, how many pieces there will be?

God: Son of a b**ch, how many times I have told you that it will be three pieces?

The trouble started here. The question paper used colloquial Muslim phrases like “Padachon” for God and the man who was asking the question to God was named Muhammed. The conversation was partially taken from a book, titled “Thirakkadhayude Reethishasthram” (How to write Screenplays), edited by Binu Kumar and published by Kerala State Language Institute and prescribed by the Mahatma Gandhi University. Originally, the dialogue was from director PT Kunjuhumuhammed’s speech given at a screenplay workshop. But he also chose not to name the madman. The trouble was with naming the madman as Muhammed and the way he was addressed. Had it been any other Muslim name, nobody would have bothered. But Joseph has an explanation: “As the Malayalam word Padachon is used by Muslims to address the God, I looked for a common Muslim name and I first thought of using the name of director PT Kunjumuhammed himself. Later I decided to write only Muhammed not to agonize the director”, says he.

It is obviously sad and questionable that the veteran teacher did not find it inappropriate and offensive to name the madman as ‘Muhammed’ and to use highly offensive word for him through God. “I know many Muhammeds, such as PT Kunjumuhammed, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, N.P Muhammed, etc… I just considered it as a Muslim name. I had no intention to pester Prophet Muhammed”, adds TJ Joseph, though difficult to subscribe.

Hammer & Sickle mark out Kadachira village as CPI(M)’s

While typesetting the question paper, the typist did raise his concern whether this wouldn’t be problematic as Muslim students might feel offended. According to reports, he talked to Joseph about changing this but the latter chose to proceed. The principal also approved the question. While writing the exam, a Muslim girl called Thasni refused to answer the question and instead wrote that it is against her religious sentiments.

Things did not end there. Fate had its turn and the contentious question paper leaked and spread like fire. Local Muslims of Thodupuzha organized a protest. They called for a hartal at Thodupuzha and that was followed by the police imposing IPC 144 Act. The mob protested against the lecturer and the College authorities.

Police soon filed a case against TJ Joseph and issued arrest warrant for his provocative action. Joseph burrowed to escape from aggressive mob and the law. On March 26, by the time the damage was done, the college authorities apologized for the mistake of TJ Joseph, a late action. Had the College authority come up with corrective measures in the beginning, the consequences could have been averted. However, both MG University syndicate and Newman College authorities had suspended TJ Joseph from the service.

“There are 56 students in the 2nd semester B.Com. In this batch 24 students selected Hindi as their additional language. The other 32 opted Malayalam. Out of this 32, four are from Muslim community and rest of them are Christians and Hindus. No one filed any complaint with regard to the question paper issue. Though Newman College is governed by a Christian management, we welcome students from every religion. Here 47% of students are Hindus, Muslims are 14%, If Muslims want seats, we provide those even in the management quota”, Father Manuel, the local manager of Newman College, was quoted saying.

Seeing the situation potentially turning violent, Moosa Najmi, the Imam of the Nainar Mosque of Thodupuzha, called an urgent meeting of Imams and urged the people to keep calm. But that was not enough to stop the violent mob. The Muslim mob marched to Newman College. While the rally was going on, some conspirators pelted stones on the lamps of Srikrishnasami Temple at Thodupuzha. This provocative action made the condition worse. Still there are unclear doubts about the stone pelting. It is an assumption that somebody was deliberately doing this to create a Hindu–Muslim clash. Anyway Sangh Parivar also indulged in the quandary.

Police did not fail to arrest Muslim youths in connection with the violence and issued arrest warrant against TJ Joseph. A lookout notice was issued to produce him in front of the law. But a week later, on April 1, Joseph yielded before the police. He was remanded for a week and sent to sub jail, Muvattupuzha. The Court granted him bail on April 7.

A worse answer to the bad question

Malayalees, like any other consumerist society, tend to forget things very easily. The mainstream society had almost forgotten and forgiven the mistake committed by TJ Joseph. But in certain quarters, things were not calm. Joseph received death threats. He even complained to the police. No security was given to him. In fact, a few emotional beings were waiting for avenge: to commit the most stupid act of violence in the name of a community.
On July 4, TJ Joseph was returning from the Nirmala Matha Church, Muvattupuzha, after the Sunday mass. His aged mother Elikkuty, sister Mary Stella, wife Salomi, son Mithun and daughter Ami accompanied him in their car. About a few hundred meters away from their home, a belligerent gang in a Maruti Omni stopped them on the way: the gang contained about six persons looking like conservative Muslims in their typical dress code. Assailants created a horrible scene by using crackers and attacked TJ Joseph with sharp weapons. They chopped Joseph’s right hand and threw the separated palm to the nearby homestead.

The gory incident scared not only the family but the entire civil society and the state machinery in Kerala. Joseph’s family could not identify the criminals. They only noted the registration number of the vehicle. But later Police said that the number was fake.

Condemnation of the thoughtless incident came from all walks of life, especially from mainstream Muslim organizations, secular intellectuals, politicians and cultural activists.

It made big news on Kerala’s highly competitive TV channels. The visuals of chopped hand were broadcast continuously for days to come, even without thinking of the insensitivity and criminality of such a visual to families and children. Channels came up with live and hot discussions on the attack. The society collectively condemned the attack.

Injured Joseph got first aid from a hospital at Muvattupuzha, and then he was admitted at Speciality Hospital, Ernakulam where his separated palm was stitched up to his body by a panel of expert doctors. Another positive incident which got public attention during the trauma was the act of donating blood to the attacked Jospeh by the activists of Solidarity Youth Movement, a sister organisation of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. According to the hospital authority, 100% success of the surgery cannot be promised.

Reaction to the chopping incident

Secularist Keralites denounced the brutal attack on TJ Joseph. Politicians, religious leaders, social activists, cultural luminaries, and people from all walks made their remonstration. Major political parties like CPM, INC, Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), CPI and BJP condemned the attack in very strong words. Muslim religious organisations questioned the Islamic legitimacy of the attack. Samastha, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, Sunni-Kanthapuram group and Nadvathul Mujahideen declared their stand on this issue unambiguously denouncing it and urged their followers to work hard for a secular society.

“Even though Mr. TJ Joseph is charged with a serious offence, the attack cannot be justified. We have the judiciary to take proper action. Sin against sin, offence against offence will cause big damages to peace and tranquility of the society. The attack actually was a disgrace to religion and secularism, and it damaged inter-religious relations,” said PK Kunhalikkutty, the General Secretary of IUML.

Various religious organisations from both sides (Christian and Muslim) had taken special care not to spread the fanatic violence further. In a way, wise interventions from various quarters stopped the violence from spreading in new ways.

From the very beginning of the incident, it was the newly formed Popular Front of India which was under the target. The police and the people by and large suspected that the PFI was behind the attack, though the party, in a press conference in New Delhi, and in its mouthpiece Thejus, denied its involvement. However, the party’s denial was more or less mild, not very strong or unpretentious. It said “if party workers are involved in the attack, they would be kept away from the party and shall not be given legal assistance.” Activists of PFI, which was formerly called NDF, involved in debates on the Islamic legitimacy of the chopping act by quoting incidents from Islamic history out of context. Finally, according to sources, the party had to strictly ask its members to stop the SMS and email campaign justifying the act.

The police filed a case on the attack; almost all of the arrested and the suspected belong to the PFI. Then, came a spree of raids across Kerala. The police indiscriminately raided homes and offices that belonged to PFI and questioned even women without following judicial procedures. At the same time, it was accused that the main culprits stayed away from the police. More than a dozen people are detained and all of them are active members of PFI.
As part of the investigation, police questioned many youngsters and raided various premises including the local, district and state offices of PFI. Even at midnight Police disturbed the ladies and children, without police women being present. It is strongly pointed out by Human Rights groups that the police violated human rights during raids. “When the police came to search my house, all of them were males. And they terrorized us. Police seized the Malayalam translation of Holy Quran, some CDs and my hubby’s passport. It was very cruel. Surely I will complain to the Chief Minister, Home Minister and Women Commission”, said Sajida, the wife of Mansoor, the district secretary of PFI, Ernakulam.

There are many Sajidas. During the raid Police seized costly and valuable things including computers, books, CDs and Passports from different centres. During the search Police did not give any receipt for the seized goods and they didn’t disclose them.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the Director General of Police (DGP), on a complaint alleging that many members of a Muslim community have been harassed by the frequent search in relation with TJ Joseph attack. NHRC directed the DGP to submit a report within two weeks.

According to P Abdul Hameed, the State General Secretary of Popular Front of India, Police have hidden agendas and they are manipulating the case. “Police seized an air gun from the house of one of our members, next day newspapers reported that police had seized a pistol. Police must disclose the truth on what they seized and why they have taken that”, he said.

It is very clear that the police behaved totally irresponsibly in the Muvattupuzha incident. They targeted Muslim youth and tortured them. In most cases, Police’s behaviour was beyond being tolerable. Planned and frequent accusations on Muslim youngsters terrorized them and the entire community was forced to defend themselves in spite of their unwillingness to accept the criminal act of a few miscreants.

Also, in the least democratic spirit, it is not acceptable to crush a political organization for its accused involvement in a crime and raid its state level offices for a local incident. “Had they followed the same principle, how many times would the CPI-M’s and BJP’s headquarters in Kerala would have been raided”, asks PFI leaders.

A brief context to the question paper

It needs to be noted that for the last one year or so, a good quantity of provocative pamphlets were being circulated in south Kerala by Christian missionaries insulting and attacking Muslim sentiments. A father called PJ Samkutty (Sam Jacob) of Chungappara, Pathanamthitta wrote a controversial book, titled Chinvad Palam (the invisible bridge to heaven). Having written this on his deathbed, he had asked not to publish it before his death. The book was outrageously sacrilegious to Islamic sentiments, according to those who read it. One can doubt, if such a potentially hostile atmosphere between the two minorities in Kerala was deliberately being created, especially against the backdrop of the merger of two Kerala Congress parties, which would eventually lose the second largest seat-winning position of Muslim League in the state.

However, the controversial book Chinvad Palam was banned by the state soon after the attack as the book too had unacceptable content on Prophet Muhammed.

Political interests

According to Paul Zacaria, well known writer and social commentator, the way the chopping issue had been handled was politically motivated. Many Muslim leaders and writers in the state believed the CPI-M was cashing in on the issue as in the coming assembly election they are apparently going to lose for UDF, as goes the anti-incumbency tradition in Kerala.

In the previous assembly election, certain Muslim parties and organisations like INL, PDP and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind had supported the LDF, the CPM led alliance. However, the honeymoon has ended and the PDP and INL are no longer interested in CPI (M) policies. Jamaat-e-Islami Hind has already declared their independent political party. CPI (M) leaders strictly oppose the ideological stand of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and PFI and term them as fundamentalist, obviously resembling the way western media terms Islamist political groups across the Muslim world.

Almost a year back, PFI announced a political party namely Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI). The party has been successful in drawing national recognition within a short span, with slogans and agendas of Dalit-Muslim unity. Kerala unit of SDPI is perceived as a threat to existing political alliances.

Christian community too is not very close to LDF, especially after the merging of two Christian dominated Kerala Congress parties in support of the UDF. As a result, the new political scenario urges LDF to appease the majority Hindu community for their votes.

The very next day of the attack, CPM leaders reacted furiously, not just against the attackers but on the entire community. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and State General Secretary of CPI (M) Pinarayi Vijayan called the assault as Talibanism, a word coined by the US army as part of their assault on Afghanistan.

Police seized dodgy weapons from raids at various centres. And it was shown continuously on TV screens that the weapons were packed in PFI posters! It put the police version dubious and locals at places complained that the police came for raid carrying weapons.

Media too played its vulgar role in the issue by celebrating the attack. Despite the heinous goriness of the incident, it was not for the first time, a crime was publicly executed in Kerala in broad daylight. There are several party villages in Kerala for every mainstream party, where the party goons do every sort of atrocity, the most condemnable being the beheading of a teacher in his classroom in front of kids and causing the loss of a leg for a small girl in Kannur. But this was religious violence, whereas secular violence has been given some public nod which religious violence do not much enjoy anywhere in the world. The channels and newspapers presented this single incident as a national disaster putting the Muslim community in dark shades.

Kerala to be a Muslim state in 20 years!

On July 24th, while talking to journalists in New Delhi regarding the attack on the college lecturer, the Chief Minister of Kerala, VS Achuthananthan accused that the extremists are trying to make Kerala a Muslim majority state in a short span of time. “Within 20 years Muslims will become the majority community in the state. They have been converting many into Islam for this purpose by offering money and proposing to marry Muslim women. However, police have identified their secret agenda”, thus went the totally irresponsible statement of the CM.

Chief Minister’s statement was strongly questioned by all Muslim organizations and a few cultural activists. VS, who had made the infamous anti-Muslim statement about the educational progress of Muslims in Malappuram as a result of copying in exam halls, has now again come under dubious lights about his real political affiliations. However, despite criticism from many sides, he stuck on to his comment and was not ready to retract.

The planned indict on Muslims apparently started during the regime of EMS Namboothiripad, CPI (M)’s legendary leader, himself. He started injecting Islamophobia’s primitive modes by involving in the Shari‘a debates in the 80s. About the Babari Masjid dispute too, one of the comments made by EMS was to construct Ram temple where the masjid stood.

“Fanatic Campaigners” aim campuses
Most of the recent communal issues in Kerala were originated from schools and campuses. A hijab controversy is already running in the state, as many Christian management schools refuse Muslim girls to enter campuses wearing headscarf. Love jihad also had critically divided the campus into communal lines, making even friendships impossible between Muslim boys and girls from other communities. What is interesting is that none of these issues are created by students. The educational uplift of the Kerala Muslims has again become a real headache for the power-handling castes and communities in Kerala, and they are creating all sort of troubles to demolish the trust over the Muslims in the State, one can argue.

(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])

[Photo by outlookindia.com]