Thodupuzha, KERALA — On July 4, 2010, T.J. Joseph was returning home from Sunday mass with his family in Kerala’s Idukki district when a group of seven menstopped his car, dragged him out and chopped off his right hand at the wrist. The attackers accused Joseph, a Catholic and the head of the department of Malayalam at Newman College in Thodupuzha, of blasphemy and of insulting Prophet Mohammed in a question paper he had set. The gory incident made national and international headlines and was widely condemned.
According to the National Investigation Agency, the men who attacked Joseph “with deadly weapons and explosive materials” were members of the Popular Front of India (PFI). This organisationcalls itself a social movement for the empowerment of minority communities, but is often labelled a radical outfitsuspected of political killings and links with the Islamic State militant group. Most recently, in December 2019, several of its activists were arrested for allegedly instigating violence against the Citizenship Amendment Act in multiple states.
Joseph’s severed hand was surgically reattached within hours of the attack, but his life was never the same. Now, almost a decade to that day, his autobiography is making ripples in Kerala society and re-igniting the debate on religious intolerance. Not because it touches on the Islamic fundamentalists who targeted him but primarily because of his scathing account of the injustice he says he suffered at the hands of his own religious community and its leaders. Published by DC Books and released onJanuary 29, 2020, the Malayalam language book is titled Attupokatha Ormakal, which roughly translates as Un-severed Memories.
“Islamic fanatics attacked me once,” Joseph told HuffPost India in an interview shortly after his book’s release. “The Christian denomination to which I belong ruined my life by excommunicating me and terminating me from my job without giving any valid reason. Unable to withstand the isolation and financial crisis caused by the loss of my job, my wife died by suicide.”
Calling himself a “living martyr of Christian fanaticism”, the 63-year-old accused the church of making him a scapegoat to avoid a direct confrontation with the Muslim groups that attacked him.
“The church is not ready to interfere in the right of any individual to write any kind of book. Mr Joseph and his readers can reach any conclusion. As far as the church and the college management are concerned, we have always followed the rules, regulations and procedures,” Fr Varghese Vallikkatt, chief spokesperson of Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference, told HuffPost India. “In the book, he is finding no difference between those who chopped off his hand and those who tried to obey the rules and regulations prevailing in this country. He has every right to do so but the church has its own reasons to believe that it followed only rules and never tried to make the professor a scapegoat.”
The Christian denomination to which I belong ruined my life by excommunicating me and terminating me from my job without giving any valid reasonT.J. Joseph
This is the second book in recent times to drag the Syro Malabar Church into a sticky situation. As reported by HuffPost India in December, expelled nun Lucy Kalapura’s memoir, also published by DC Books, was a scathing commentary on the church.
A question paper and a blasphemy charge
Joseph set the controversial question paper in March 2010 for an internal exam for second-semester BCom students. To test them on grammar, he selected a passage from a book on cinema written by P.T. Kunju Muhammed, an award-winning director affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In the passage, a schizophrenic man asks Padachon – Malayalam for “Allah” or “god” – an inane question. God responds by calling him the son of a dog, a common insult in Malayalam.
While the man is unnamed in the book, Joseph gave him the name Muhammed in the question paper. Joseph said he named him after the book’s author. He also pointed out that the question paper was approved by his superiors, and that the book was in the recommended reading list for graduate and post-graduate students of Malayalam.
Trouble started after the paper was reportedly leaked to a section of the media. A prominent Malayalam television channel, now defunct, aired an “exclusive” report, alleging that the Muhammed in the question paper alluded to the prophet and founder of Islam, and accused the professor of insulting him. The media storm that followed sparked outrage amongst Muslims, with moderate parties as well as radical organisations such as the PFI organising massive protests across the state.
As the controversy snowballed, Joseph went underground, fearing arrest. While the police went about arresting his attackers, they registered a case against him for causing communal hatred. Joseph ran from city to city. Refused accommodation almost everywhere he went, he finally found shelter in a lodge run by a Muslim proprietor in Palakkad district. It was from here that he was arrested on April 12010.
Refused accommodation almost everywhere he went, he finally found shelter in a lodge run by a Muslim proprietor in Palakkad district. It was from here that he was arrested on April 1 2010.
Joseph wasreleased on bail soon after. But he had no job to return to. The college had suspended him in March that year on the grounds that he had created enmity between two religions and had engaged in blasphemy. In the following months, Joseph said, a group of men appeared at his house on three separate occasions under various pretexts. Joseph avoided them, but on the fourth attempt, the attackers severed his hand.
“In the beginning, when the question paper controversy erupted, the Syro Malabar Church and the college management under it gave me their full support, vouching for my integrity,” Joseph recalled. “However, a high-level meeting of church authorities in Kerala was held and thereafter, everybody changed their stands. At the meeting, a decision was taken to not antagonise the PFI and other radical Islamic outfits. Thereafter, I was all alone.”
The meeting, Joseph said, was held in the second week of March 2010.
“It was the stand of the church supporting Islamic fundamentalism and the canard against me that resulted in the PFI attack and the loss of my hand.”
From crisis to crisis
The attack left Joseph’s right hand permanently damaged and he said he used his left hand to write the manuscript. The 431-page book gives a detailed account of the ordeals he faced, even long after the controversy died down.
After supporting him initially, the church excommunicated Joseph. This means the church officially declared that Joseph was no longer its member. His wife, two children and aged mother were also marginalised as the members of a family of an excommunicated devotee.
“For reasons best known to them, the church authorities attempted to portray me as a terrorist with heavy doses of Islamophobia,” he said. “They excommunicated me and prevented priests and laity from visiting me and extending any help. There began the crisis that still engulfs my life.”
On September 1, 2010, the college sacked Joseph for allegedly insulting another faith. And on September 12 that year, 120 churches in the region read out a pastoral letter at mass that said the assault on Joseph did not absolve him of his wrongs.
Three years later, a trial court acquitted Joseph in the communal hatred case. But even then, the college refused to take him back.
Joseph said the decisions taken by the church and college authorities pushed his wife Salomi into depression. In the four years that followed the attack, his legal battle against the college for reinstatement severely dented the family’s savings. In March 2014, a week before Joseph was officially due to retire, Salomi died by suicide at home.
Her death caused widespread public anger against the church and the college, especially within the Christian community. As a result, the college allowed Joseph to return to work for just one day, ensuring he would receive his retirement benefits.
According to Joseph, he used those retirement benefits to renovate his house and educate his son and daughter. “My children lost their mother. She will not return,” he said. “I have regained everything else with sheer determination and courage.”
Standing by Joseph at the book release event in Thrissur, film-maker Kunju Muhammed said the retired professor was a victim of the most brutal terror attack in Kerala’s history.
Joseph, on his part, identifies himself as a “victim of false media manipulation propelled by both Christian and Islamic fundamentalist groups.” He explained, “I am sure the Muslim organisation was misled by false propaganda. But my own people terminated me from my job, excommunicated my family, knowing fully that I am innocent. The treatment by my college and the church was worse than the punishment meted out by the fundamentalists.”
In 2015, the incident received legal closure. The trial court convicted 13 accused and handed out jail terms ranging from three to eight years. It acquitted 18 others. Some loose ends remain, with a few key accused still to be apprehended. One of them surrendered before the court in 2018.
I have never been against Islam and never attempted to disregard [the] contributions of the Prophet. If the church authorities were ready to give face value to my explanation and convey it clearly to the Islamic groups agitating against me, my hand might have been saved
But Joseph says he has long since forgiven his assailants. “The youths who attacked me were just tools,” he said. “They were brainwashed souls who acted at the behest of some sick minds. Why should I blame them?’’
His book, he said, is an attempt to make his stand clear. “There are people who still misunderstand me and my intentions,’’ he explained. “I have never been against Islam and never attempted to disregard [the] contributions of the Prophet. If the church authorities were ready to give face value to my explanation and convey it clearly to the Islamic groups agitating against me, my hand might have been saved. Instead, the church portrayed me [as] a villain and facilitated the extremist attack on me.”
According to academic and writer Shaji Jacob, the attack on Joseph was a wake-up call to Kerala on religious intolerance. “After Joseph’s hand was chopped off and his wife died by suicide, Kerala society started treating religious fundamentalism as a matter of utmost concern,” he said. “Now, his autobiography proves beyond doubt that no religious group is free from intolerance and obscurantism. The Catholic Church has treated him badly even after the courts exonerated him from the blasphemy charge.”