Guest post by SUDEEP KS and BOBBY KUNHU
On Sunday 4 July 2010, T J Joseph, a college lecturer, was attacked by a group of people on his way back from the church in Muvattupuzha in central Kerala, and his right hand was chopped off. We believe this heinous act deserves to be condemned, and that such acts pose a major threat to the secular fabric of the Kerala society.
The attack has attracted immediate media attention, and it is said to be related to a recent controversy over a question paper. Joseph, in his Malayalam question paper, had asked one question that apparently hurt the religious sentiments of some people.
The Kerala society’s response to this whole episode has been equally disturbing. Pinarayi Vijayan, state head of Communist Party of India (Marxist), calls it ‘Talibanization of Kerala’. It has been made out to be a question of ‘freedom of speech’. The media, politicians and intellectuals are busy expressing serious concerns over a ‘religion’ that is intolerant and fanatic. The Police has also let out suspicions on some groups involved in this incident, and both the television and print media have been religiously reporting it.
So where does the proverbial ‘nose’ begin in such a question on one’s freedom of expression?
The controversial question was framed based on a mad man’s dialogue with God, from a book on scriptwriting. The book is being attributed to filmmaker P T Kunjumuhammad in most of the discussions about this unfortunate incident. Mr Kunjumuhammad clarifies that it is taken from a speech that he made about the madman character Nazir in his film ‘Garshome’. In the question paper it appears as a dialogue between Mohammed and God.
Whether the dialogue should hurt the religious sentiments or not is a fairly subjective matter. It does not hurt the religious sentiments of either of the authors (one of them Hindu by birth and the other a Muslim). At the same time we feel that Nazir becoming Mohammed is not as innocent an act even if it is not intentional, and that there are reasons why such a twist could hurt someone’s religious sentiments.
Some people ask, then what about M F Hussain or Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen who create objectionable content in their works? We believe there is a difference. If one thinks Hussain’s work is crap, one has the choice of not buying it. Same with Rushdie. This does not apply to a student who does not have a choice but to answer the question even if it hurts his/her religious sentiments.
This brings us to an important question — What is the kind of audience implied when we speak of the author’s freedom? An audience that is free to choose what it wants to hear, or an audience in captivity? The concept of freedom of speech makes sense when the authors want to reach out to a notion of freedom that is equally available to the speaker and the audience.
We are not trying to justify the attack on T. J Joseph in any way. This is certainly not the way to react to a ‘hurt sentiment’. A barbaric act is a barbaric act. But seriously, there is a problem when we start making statements on a religion based on an act done by some fanatics, or in taking names of some ‘suspected’ outfits. There have been cases where a person got arrested because he subscribed for a particular newspaper. That is how the police work most of the time.
Violence is nothing new to the Kerala society. So it is alarming how a singular criminal act (especially when it is from a particular community) becomes ‘Talibanization’ of Kerala. Do such exaggerations help in any way? Does Kerala become a Gulag because CPM indulges in brutal violence in Panur? Or because BJP indulges in violence? Does Kerala become a Gujarat because of a Marad or Nadapuram? It does not. It can happen only on a marginalized community that gets ‘homogenized’ and victimized by forces both from outside and inside at the same time. It is important that we resist such a homogenization — both as outsiders and as insiders.
It is also sad that Muslims of Kerala are in a tight spot post this incident — as our friend Afthab says, “Mulsims are in the forefront in condemning this brutality, as they are the most disturbed and shamed by this violence, they are strangulated and asked repeatedly in a highly subtle way: “Why don’t you condemn these monsters? Are you really with us….?”
One of the authors (you can guess who) has been under tremendous pressure over the last two days to condemn this incident. A Hindu can continue his/her secular self even if he/she does not care about some atrocity carried out by some Hindu men or women but that does not apply to Muslims.
When contacted for a comment, poet Satchidanandan said: “I cannot comment on this without studying the context of this whole incident – What was the source of the controversial dialogue, how it became part of a book, how it became a textbook and how it appeared in a question paper. While reiterating that this was a barbaric attack, I will say that the whole episode contributes to demonizing Muslims (as I mentioned in the Sufia Madani case earlier).”
Satchidanandan has hit the nail on the head. It is indeed ironical that the discourse is being driven towards “talibanization” of Kerala by both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. It is also strange that the mainstream reactions border to frenzy without having done basic homework. For instance, most of the media and commentators have not even talked to P T Kunjumuhammad to whom the origin of the impugned questioned has been attributed to — he was fairly unaware of even how and when his speech got into the book. Meanwhile, RTF and jpg files are getting distributed over e-mail, claiming that it is a book written by P T.
We also think (regardless of our agreement or disagreement with the point of view) that it is important to state that P. T Kunjumuhammad is also equally concerned about the way the discourse is being taken forward, and he believes that there are late 19th Century and early 20th Century arguments within Islam against what was done to T. J. Joseph and to raise those arguments would be the best way to intervene in this demonization process.
There seems to be guilt by association that operates when it comes to marginalized communities regardless of the professional content of what they do or their beliefs. It is rather amusing that theories of individual and organizational mens rea are being attributed by almost all the discourses on this incident, regardless of the procedure established by law – even as the Police investigations are only in place. One wonders why the prosecution lets go if its case even before the case begins?
Rather sad, that while collectively condemning the barbaric act that chopped off Joseph’s hand, we collectively are also chopping off the arteries that would have mainstreamed the diverse Muslim lives that inhabit Kerala. We need to create more dialogues rather than creating more victims.