Friday, July 30, 2010
The day the sun stopped shining
Prof. T. J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, and his sister, Stella, a nun describes the day the teacher was brutally attacked by Muslim extremists. He also describes his life as a fugitive moving from place to place because of his fear of being arrested by the police as a criminal
By Shevlin Sebastian
On the morning of July 4, Professor T.J. Joseph, 53, of Newman College, Thodupuzha, accompanied by his sister, Stella, a nun of the St. Joseph of Cluny order, and their 83-year-old mother, Aleykutty, were returning home in a Maruti Wagonr car. They had attended morning mass at the Nirmala Matha church at Muvattupuzha.
About 20 metres from their home, an Omni van came at high speed, and braked in front of their car. Around eight men jumped out carrying long knives and axes.
“Immediately we knew that something was very wrong,” says Sr. Stella. “They rushed towards the car, and tried to open the door. My brother and I held it with all our strength. With an axe they smashed the front windshield, and the windowpanes.”
Joseph was pulled out from one door and Stella from the other. “I was pushed against a wall,” says Stella. “One man held my throat and choked me. I tried to call out, but no sound came from my throat. I could see the bystanders watching silently from a distance.”
Stella then saw the men chop her brother's “hands and legs like as if it was firewood.” Joseph shouted, “Don’t kill me…don’t kill me.” Aleykutty, who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, stood between the men and hit them ineffectually on their backs with her umbrella. She also shouted, “Don’t kill my son...don’t kill my son.”
Meanwhile, Joseph’s right hand was chopped off. One of the assailants flung it into a neighbour's garden. “Their faces looked so cruel,” says Stella, with a shudder.
Abruptly, a bomb was burst, and there was a lot of smoke. “Using it as a cover, all the men got into the car and fled, but I just about had the time to mentally note down the number: AD 7201,” says Stella.
Joseph's son, Mithun, ran out of the house and fell over his father, crying, “Acha, acha.” Joseph, who returned to consciousness at that time, told Mithun, “Collect the hand and take me to the hospital.” He was drenched in blood and it was spattered all over the road.
The hand was collected by a neighbour, Prof. M.C. Joseph, who put the appendage in a plastic packet, filled it with ice cubes and gave it to the police, who later passed it on to Stella.
Meanwhile, a neighbour rushed Joseph and Stella to Nirmala hospital. There, first aid was administered, but the doctors said that the best chance of saving the hand was at the Specialists' Hospital in Kochi, which had one of the top micro-surgery departments in the state.
In the ambulance, there was Stella, a nurse and Joseph. “With my one hand, I was holding up my brother's right hand, to prevent more blood loss, and in the other, I was holding the plastic packet which contained his palm,” says Stella. “Despite the bandages, he was bleeding profusely. I was drenched in blood within a matter of minutes. The miscreants had chopped his arm so many times, the flesh had gone completely.”
Within a mere 35 minutes, the van reached the Specialists’ Hospital, 40 kms away. Joseph was wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit, for an operation that lasted sixteen hours. “It was an agonising wait,” says Stella. “I did not know whether he was going to survive. He is my only brother.”
During the time, the doctors asked Stella for fifteen bottles of blood which was provided. In the evening, an astonishing development took place. A group of Muslims, belonging to a group called ‘Solidarity’ donated blood. “We want to save the professor’s life,” they said.
Later Joseph said, “It was an ironical situation. One group of Muslims chopped off my hand, and nearly killed me, while another group was trying to save me.”
Anyway, in the end, Joseph’s hand was stitched back. Dr. R. Jayakumar, the head of the department of plastic, microvascular, and cosmetic surgery, says, “I am confident the hand will function reasonably in a few months time, but Joseph will have to undergo vigorous physiotherapy.”
It is 9.30 p.m. on a Monday. Joseph is sitting propped up, in an air-conditioned room, his arms and legs in plaster. There are dots of perspiration on his chest and forehead. “Because of the strong antibiotics, he is perspiring a lot,” says Stella, as she uses a napkin on him. Joseph’s wife, Salomi, and nephew, Joby, gaze silently. Salomi has a distressed look on her face.
The cause behind the attack
All this terrible trouble for this law-abiding middle-class family came from the slightest of errors. In an internal exam on punctuation in Malayalam at Newman College on March 23, Prof. Joseph named a lunatic, Mohammed.
“It is a common Muslim name,” he says. “The writer of the article from where I took the extract is politician P.T. Kunhumohammed. One of Kerala’s greatest writers is Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. I never imagined that the name Mohammed would be misconstrued to mean the Prophet.”
Unfortunately, some Muslim students took offence, and one of them took the question paper outside and showed it to the fundamentalists. On March 25, there were widespread protests in Thodupuzha. The college apologised for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims, and suspended Joseph.
The lecturer’s colleagues and friends advised him to stay away from the college. When it was announced in the Assembly that a criminal case would be registered against him, Joseph decided to go underground. Friends promised that, in the interim, they would file a bail petition in the high court.
Life on the run
On the morning of Friday, March 26, Prof. T.J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, went to a friend’s home at Kochi. He stayed there for a while. At 10 a.m., the television channels began airing the news about the public disturbances at Thodupuzha.
Joseph called a cousin, Antony, and borrowed Rs 2000. At 2 p.m. Antony dropped Joseph at Vytilla and said, “Whereever you are going, don’t tell me, because in case the police catch me I can truthfully say I don’t know where you have gone.”
Joseph switched off his mobile and got onto a bus that was going to Chertala. After a few minutes he decided he did not want to go there since he did not know anybody. Joseph got down and took a bus to the Town Hall at Kochi. From there went to Aluva and onwards to Chalakudy.
“I was in a daze,” he says. “I had a fear that I would spend the rest of my life in prison.” And he was also starving. He had not had any food that day, just a cup of tea.
From Chalakudy, Joseph set out for Palakkad. It was 8.30 p.m. when he reached there. After a meal at the Indian Coffee House, a waiter directed him to a lodge nearby. He checked in and spent the night there.
The next morning he went to a public telephone booth and called Reena, the wife of a teacher Raphael George. Raphael had promised to fix up a lawyer, who would file the bail application. Reena said her husband had not come home the previous night. Joseph spent the day at the lodge incessantly watching the television.
At 8 p.m., he called Reena again and she replied that the papers were getting ready and it would be filed by Tuesday. Joseph asked about his family and was told that they had gone to Salomi’s parents’ home in Murickassery in Idukki district. “I felt relieved when I heard this,” he says. Meanwhile, Reena asked him not to call again.
Immediately Joseph felt nervous. He wondered whether the police would be able to identify his location from the call he had just made. So he checked out of the hotel and left for Guruvayur at 9 p.m.
“I reached there at midnight,” he says. “I went to several lodges, but all of them wanted me to show an identity card. So I wandered till 3 a.m. and took the first bus to Thrissur.”
From there he returned to Palakkad and back to the same lodge. When he switched on the television, he was taken aback when his photograph was flashed on all the channels. “Now I had to fear the police as well as the fundamentalists,” he says. “And that made me very sad. The police had so casually put my life at risk. It seemed that I was a person with no value. Without a proper investigation, they had already labelled me as an accused.”
Joseph would come to know much later that his brother-in-law Saju and Mithun had been taken into unauthorised custody at Thodupuzha station. There, the police harassed them physically and mentally, in order to find out the whereabouts of the professor.
Meanwhile, Joseph waited for two days at the lodge, constantly watching the TV channels, to hear about the bail plea application, but there was no news. He called Reena, but the mobile was switched off.
It was at this moment that he discovered another irony: he was staying in a Muslim lodge. Most of the waiters had Muslim names.
He called a friend, Michael, in Kattappana and asked him to check whether anything was being done about the bail application. Michael called, but Joseph’s colleagues gave vague replies.
Joseph had a look of sadness on his face as he says, “Nobody had taken the responsibility of filing the bail application, nor had anybody stood up for me. I had been cast aside. People lacked courage. I realised that I had no option but to surrender.”
Michael asked Joseph to come to Kattappana and surrender there. So Joseph went there. However, the Kattappana Circle Inspector said that a lot of paperwork would have to be done, so it was better for Joseph to surrender at Thodupuzha itself.
On April 1, the Thodupuzha Deputy Superintendent of Police, K.G. Simon, was informed. Joseph set out from Kattappana in a taxi. Simultaneously, a police team left from Thodupuzha. Joseph was arrested near Painavu.
After spending a night at the Thodupuzha police station, Joseph was produced in court and remanded to custody. He was taken to the Muvattupuzha sub jail.
In jail for the first time
Joseph was put in a cell with murderers and thieves. They had all heard about his case by reading the newspapers. Normally, when a new person enters a cell, he gets a couple of beatings from the others. “But because I was a teacher they left me alone,” he says. “Since I had come in after the 5 p.m. dinner, they asked me whether I wanted ‘kanji’ (rice gruel) and I said yes.”
Later, a thief shared a part of his meal. The warden was supposed to give some clothes to Joseph, which had been given by his relatives, but he did not bring it, till the next morning.
“Thanks to the insistence of the other inmates, a thief gave me an old 'mundu' to wear,” he says. “It was a nice experience. The convicts behaved well with me. I had entered the jail on April 2, Good Friday, and secured bail only on April 7.”
Immediately on his release, through the media, Joseph apologised to the Muslims, the college management and the people of Kerala.
In the hospital room, Joseph pauses, and says, “When the fundamentalists pounced on me, I knew in my heart that I had not done anything wrong. I knew that they had not attacked me, but had assaulted the liberal ethos which has existed in Kerala for thousands of years.
“The edifice of liberalism is crumbling, unless the people can stand up and take a united stand against fundamentalism. Once Basheer had written a short story called, 'Bhagwad Gita and the Kuremulakalum’ Do you think he will be allowed to write a story like that now?”
It is 10.45 p.m. and Joseph had been speaking non-stop for more than an hour. He looks tired and is gasping for breath. Suddenly, I commit a gaffe. I present him with my visiting card. He stares at me, points with his eyes at his damaged and immobile arms, and gives a smile.
(The New Indian Express, Kerala)