Bad reporting costs professor his hand


I RATE it as one of the most horrendous incidents of crime reported from Kerala in the recent past. The circumstances in which it happened made it all the more blood-curdling. Prof T.J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, was returning from the church with his mother and Sister Mary Stella, his own sister, when their car was intercepted and he was dragged out and his right palm chopped off.

When I called Sister Stella after a great effort in getting her telephone number, she had not yet recovered from the horrible sight of the hacking off of her brother's hand. She, too, was assaulted when she tried to save her brother from the clutches of the fundamentalist fanatics. The incident reminded me of several scenes in Malayalam movies where the villain's hand is cut off to wreak vengeance.

While art imitates life, in Prof Joseph's case, it was life that imitated art. At the time of writing this column, a week has passed but the Kerala Police have not been able to arrest all the professor's assailants who came in a white Maruti Omni. It is the same police which claim credit for arresting two dreaded criminals who escaped from a high-security prison in the state within a couple of days of the escape. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs that a murderous gang can attack a person on a public road in broad daylight and speed away to safety.

By now readers have an idea of what led to the attack. Prof Joseph is alleged to have blasphemously referred to the Prophet Mohammed when he prepared a question paper for the B.Com Second semester students of his college. When reports of the alleged blasphemy appeared, many places, including Thodupuzha, witnessed massive demonstrations. The police promptly registered a case against him and very soon he surrendered to the police.

Every channel and newspaper reported that the professor "apologized". On its part, the college promptly suspended him for one year. All this had a salutary effect and passions were cooled. Then, all of a sudden, the Taliban-type attack came flummoxing everyone within and without the state. All through, I had been trying to find out the version of Prof Joseph. Alas, not one newspaper or television channel in Kerala bothered to publish it, though they could have easily accessed him. All they needed to do was to get hold of the written explanation he had given to the authorities of Newman College.

Instead, rumours were allowed to spread. And when rumour-mongers were at work, their imagination knew no bounds and Prof Joseph instantly became a "blasphemer" who did not deserve leniency. Let me be frank, I could never believe that a learned person like Prof Joseph would ever consciously commit blasphemy. He taught in a college named after Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of 19th century's greatest converts to Catholicism, who wrote the most famous poem, "Lead Kindly Light".

Of course, my own effort from New Delhi to get to the bottom of the blasphemy case began only after the poor professor, now battling for his life, "lost" his palm. Doctors are not sure whether they have succeeded in their operation to stitch the severed palm to the hand. They are, in fact, keeping their fingers crossed. Now, let me tell you what actually happened.

There were in all 56 B.Com students appearing for the second semester examination. Out of them, 32 had chosen Malayalam as their second language. It was Prof Joseph who set the question paper. The question-setter is given freedom to select any short passage from anywhere for the question to test the knowledge of punctuation marks.

He chose a dialogue from the book "Thirakkathayude Reethisastram" (Methodology of Screenplay) edited by P.M. Binukumar and published by the Kerala Bhasha Institute, financially supported by the Kerala Government. The book was based on the contributions of various scholars at a seminar held in Thiruvananthapuram.

It is a measure of the book's merit that it was a prescribed reference book for the B.A. Malayalam students of Mahatma Gandhi University for the year 2009-2010. Earlier, it was prescribed for the M.A. Malayalam students. In other words, Prof Joseph chose the portion from a university-prescribed book.

The passage in question was taken from the article entitled "Oru Viswasiyude Kandethalukal" (The Findings of a Believer) by P.T. Kunhumuhammed, who was once elected to the Kerala Assembly from the Guruvayoor (famous for a Hindu temple) constituency on the CPM ticket. He directed an award-winning film "Garshom" based on the life of a Gulf-returnee.

The passage lifted from the book for the question begins: "Bhranthan chodikkunnu: "Padachone, Padachone!" (The lunatic calls, Creator, Creator) "Enthaada naiyinte mone" (What, son of a bitch?) "Oru Ayala, Oru Ayala. Athu Murichal ethra kazhanam?" (If a mackerel is cut, how many pieces will there be?) "Moonnanennu Ninnodu ethra thavana paranjittundu, Naaye!" (How many times did I tell you dog that there will be three pieces?)

The student's task was to give the punctuation marks at the appropriate places. Prof Joseph made one change in the passage. He substituted "Bhranthan" (Lunatic) with "Mohammed". So the "controversial" sentence went like this, "Mohammed chodikkunnu: Padachone, Padachone!" (Mohammed calls, Creator, Creator!) Why did he do that?

He has an explanation which the media never bothered to publish: Prof Joseph thought it would not be proper to begin a passage with the word "lunatic" which would take away the seriousness of the dialogue. Since he calls out to God as "Padachone" (Creator) which only Muslims use for God, he thought it would be better to call him Mohammed, which stands for any Muslim.

So the Mohammed, he thought of was an ordinary Muslim, not the Prophet, who received divinely revelations which were compiled to form the Holy Koran. In the whole world there is no name more popular than Mohammed. There are millions of Muslim men who have Mohammed as part of their names like Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, the well-known writer, and P.T. Kunjumuhammed, who authored the passage in question. It is a common practice in Muslim societies to call a Muslim man "Mohammed" if his name is not known to you. Nobody takes offence at that. It is like calling Christians "Achaya" (brother) in Malayalam.

Incidentally, the Prophet's birthday is celebrated as "Nabi Day" (Prophet's Day), and never as "Mohammed Day", for the simple reason that Mohammed is not a synonym for the Prophet.

Thus blasphemy was far, far from Prof Joseph's mind when he prepared the question paper. As his sister, a Catholic nun, told me on the phone, "My brother is a voracious reader. He has great regard for all religions and he has never used any blasphemous word against any religious icon". One of his colleagues, who knows him, rather too well, told me on the phone that "Joseph would never use a derogatory word, let alone a blasphemous one".

If the media chose to publish this version and put the record straight, I am sure Prof Joseph would not have lost his palm. Instead, rumour-mongers were allowed to enjoy a field day. Now, some questions need to be asked. When I was at school, one question that was invariably asked in examinations was: "Change the following sentence from direct speech to indirect speech: Rama killed a snake". The answer is: "A snake was killed by Rama".

Now, if somebody says the question is blasphemous because "Rama" in the question refers to Lord Ram and the "snake" to Anantha, a divine serpent, who has 1,000 heads and 10,000 germs that illuminate all the regions of the Netherworld, it would indeed be difficult. In that case, many of the English teachers of that period would have been "palm-less".

I know for sure that Mr Raja Raja Verma, who belonged to the Pandalam royal family and was, therefore, a "relative" of Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala, who taught me English at Government High School, Pathanamthitta, never lost his palm. It was his teaching that enabled me to write this article, though the errors, if any, are entirely mine.

One more confession: When I read the passage in question, I was not greatly impressed by either its literary quality or the philosophy it contained. Now let's turn to author P.T. Kunjumuhammed to know how he came to write it: "The article was based on a lecture by me in Thiruvananthapuram. The incident narrated is also a true one. In Chavakkad, there was a mad man who used to speak to God'.

"The man often sounded like a Soofi and treated God as a close companion. "He seemed to have the freedom to address his God by whatever name he wished," he added.

Kunhumohammed's mentioning of the incident was related to a scene from his movie 'Garshom'.

"There is a scene of the protagonist, Sainuddin, meeting God in the movie. I derived the form for that scene from the Chavakkad lunatic. To explain this, I recalled the old story," said Kunhumohammed, who is sad at the ugly turn of events which followed the question paper. (The New Indian Express, July 9).

The so-called "Islamic warriors" who attacked the professor do not realize that they caused disrepute to their religion by behaving in this intolerant fashion. When the story of the attack appeared, a Muslim journalist friend who, at that time, did not know the circumstances in which the professor was attacked told me about an episode from the life of the Prophet.

When the Prophet began preaching the new religion after the angel Jibril (Gabriel) told him that there was only one God, Allah, and that Mohammed was his messenger or Prophet, while he was in retreat at Mount Hira (near Mecca), he was often the butt of ridicule. A woman used to throw mud at the Prophet everyday when he passed by her house. He never complained, nor rebuked her.

One day there was no attack from her. The Prophet got puzzled why she did not attack him. It was found that the woman was unwell. The Prophet visited her and prayed for her speedy recovery. Needless to say, she became his follower.

The story did not surprise me as the Prophet had to undergo a lot of hardship because he questioned idol worship which was widely prevalent in the Arab land. At one point, he even had to migrate for safety to a Christian-ruled Ethiopia.

However sad the mutilation of Prof Joseph is, there is a ray of hope. The entire Kerala society condemned the barbarous attack in one voice. If they thought that it would lead to religious conflict, they were sadly mistaken. Every Muslim organization worth the name condemned it. What's more, youths belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami were the first to come forward to donate blood for the professor.

But it is doubtful whether the attackers have learnt any lesson from the incident. They are so full of venom and hatred that they even tried to sneak into Prof Joseph's hospital room, allegedly to complete their mission.

Prof Joseph and his family did the right thing in pardoning the assailants. But Kerala Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan cannot take such a lenient view, for he has to bring to book everyone who planned and executed the murderous operation against the teacher.

Otherwise, personal liberty will be at risk in Kerala, renowned the world over for welcoming every creed that today flourishes in the state. Let me conclude, "If a truth is only a selected small part of the whole truth, it may not be truth". The Press owes Prof Joseph an apology for not publishing his version in time.

Asia, ReligionAJ Philip