A lecturer with Newman College in the town of Thodupuzha in Kerala, T.J. Joseph, was brutally attacked on July 4, 2010, allegedly by members of a fundamentalist group. It was an act of retribution: Mr. Joseph had framed a question for an examination for his students in the college, which offended their religious sentiments. The punishment meted out by the aggrieved group was to chop off his palm: it was reminiscent of medieval practices.
The authorities of the college, apparently endorsing the claim of the fundamentalists, suspended the ‘delinquent' teacher and ordered an enquiry. The enquiry committee concluded that he had deliberately subscribed to an activity that promoted feelings of enmity between different communities/ religions.
The controversial question paper by itself had not lead to any manifest enmity between different religious communities, as the enquiry report had suspected. But the fundamentalists created a law and order situation by resorting to rioting.
Consequently, the lecturer was dismissed from service, and thus debarred from “future employment in any of the institutions maintained by or affiliated to the university.”
Mr. Joseph had had no record of communal bias or instigation during his career in the college. He is reported to have been a conscientious teacher with a rapport with students and cordial relations with colleagues: this is evident from the public testimony of students. To them his dismissal was thoroughly unexpected, and they struck work demanding his reinstatement. But the college authorities did not relent. They took the position that they would reconsider their action only if the Muslim community made an appeal to reinstate him, or the court issued an order to that effect. A highly irrational act was thus sought to be imbued with legal respectability and given a communal character.
This incident is symptomatic of the creeping influence of fundamentalism that has led to violence in the country at large and certain recent outbursts in Kerala. What has happened to Mr. Joseph is also indicative of the vulnerability of academic space and the authoritarian tendencies of certain managements of educational institutions in the state. Mr. Joseph almost lost a limb (it has since been reattached through a difficult surgical procedure) to the brutality of religious fundamentalism, and he has now been deprived of his job by an insensitive and inhumane college management. While the fundamentalists resorted to the act in order to terrorise the ‘deviants' and ensure that their religious fiats are carried out by all, the college management saw it as an opportunity to enforce discipline and to nip in the bud the influence of critical and rational thinking. Both actions are highly deplorable. Unfortunately, these have not led to a sufficiently strong reaction from the public.
It appears that there is ambiguity in the public mind about Mr. Joseph's own role. The reason is that the charge against him involves meddling with religious sentiments. Although new religions and sects emerge out of non-conformism and as a critique of the present, the established religions mostly see their interest to be linked with the status quo. That was perhaps why the Catholic Church was not moved by appeals to their humanitarian and philanthropic credentials. The Church has now issued a pastoral letter supporting and justifying the action of the college management. It is surprising that in a state that is surcharged by protests and a variety of public interest litigation processes, except for teachers' and students' organisations the liberal intelligentsia has not come forward in defence of Mr. Joseph.
The ‘crime' he committed was to frame a question by reproducing a conversation between God and ‘Muhammad' from a text written by film-maker P.T. Kunhi Mohammed, who is a believer. The ‘mistake' he made was to change the name of the character of a lunatic in the original, to ‘Muhammad.' The fundamentalist group was enraged by the use of the name of the Prophet.
Why Mr. Joseph changed the name is unknown. He is reported to have stated that he was not influenced by any religious reason but used a shorter version of Mr. Kunhi Mohammed's work. ‘Muhammad' is a popular name among Muslims, and there is nothing in the text of the question paper to suggest that it was the Prophet who was implied. Nor did it contain any critique of any religion — including Islam, Christianity and Hinduism.
But to a fundamentalist group that resorts to terror tactics as an instrument of coercion, it provided an opportunity to further its cause. Among Hindus, Rama and Krishna are popular names and are worshipped as incarnations of god. Imagine a situation in which a reference to these names, in literature or academic texts or in a question paper, is considered blasphemous! If this happens, soon writers will find it difficult to give a name to their characters.
That fundamentalists indulge in such irrational behaviour is not surprising. They still live in medieval times, and with hardly any respect for human values. But that cannot be expected from those who have taken the responsibility of imparting education to people. The authorities of Newman College where Mr. Joseph has taught for 25 years quickly took the questionable step of first suspending and then dismissing him — all in the name of communal harmony and secularism.
Unfortunately, they did not realise that the greatest threat to secularism and communal harmony is religious fundamentalism. That is why the management's offer to withdraw the dismissal orders if the Muslim community made an appeal for such a withdrawal, becomes self-contradictory. The management seems to have overlooked the fact that by doing so it was reinforcing the communal, and not secular, consciousness. What was done would only help legitimise the fundamentalist forces and not strengthen secularism, as the college authorities claim. In fact, they should have stood by Mr. Joseph and defended his academic freedom as a teacher. Instead, they compromised with fundamentalism and extended to it a helping hand — also sullying the Christian character of the institution.
It is time the managements of public-funded private institutions were brought under a democratic structure, so that healthy norms prevail in these institutions and higher education becomes accessible to larger sections of the population, including the poor. It is to be hoped that either through legal intervention or democratic struggles Mr. Joseph would be reinstated, or adequately compensated.
But the brutality of the fundamentalists, on the one hand, and the irresponsibility of educational entrepreneurs, on the other, have already vitiated the academic atmosphere. In order to overcome this situation, new steps are called for, both from the government and civil society.
It also raises the larger, even if contentious, issue of the management of education in Kerala. Since 1984, the government, through a system of financial aid, meets the entire expenses towards payment of salary and maintenance of private colleges. The share of the management is meagre. What the managements typically do, however, is to milk these institutions through various means.
It is common knowledge that most of these colleges indulge in corrupt practices, both in the matter of appointment of teachers and grant of admission to students. Since there is practically no control exercised by the government or the universities over aided institutions, many managements treat colleges as a source of income. Some of them also fatten their purses by conducting self- financing courses, utilising facilities created by public funds. The Central government has introduced in Parliament a Bill to prevent the prevalent unfair practices in the field of education. How far it will succeed in doing so is anybody's guess.
Religious fundamentalists are on the rise among Muslims and Hindus. Permitting them to influence the practices of education has long-term implications. The most dangerous possibility is the state of social and political consciousness such compromises would produce. Compromising with religious fundamentalism, as the authorities of Newman College have done, is likely to lead the country to Talibanism.
K.N. Panikkar is Chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research, Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council and the General President of the Indian History Congress
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