When the hand of TJ Joseph, a professor at Newman College Thodupuzha, was chopped off by a group of activists of the Popular Front of India in 2010, for setting a question paper that “hurt religious sentiments”, Kerala’s liberal consciousness suffered a massive shock.
Seven years later, however, TJ Joseph’s fate has risen again in popular memory, as a writer is being threatened with a similar fate for “hurting religious sentiments”. What’s more, a college professor is simultaneously facing similar threats of violence from a different set of fundamentalists.
Progressive writer KP Ramanunni, recently received a letter, sent anonymously but believed to be written by Muslim fundamentalists, threatening him of a fate similar to Joseph if he did not convert to Islam within six months.
Ramanunni’s purported fault – putting Islam and Hinduism on the same level in an article in a Malayalam daily that counselled members of both communities to put aside the growing communal animosity and live in peace and harmony. Incidentally, Ramanunni was praising the virtues of both religions in the piece, and arguing that the divide between the two communities was an invention of British colonialists.
"You have put Hinduism and Islam at the same platform in the garb of being impartial. These kinds of writings will misguide innocent Muslims. Kafiirs, non-believers should be given six months to convert. Those who do not convert should be assassinated," the letter said. Interestingly, Ramanunni’s progressive stance has often made him an active presence in many events organised by Muslim groups.
Deepa Nisanth, an Associate Professor of Kerala Varma College, on the other hand, has been at the receiving end of a social media smear campaign for defending the use of MF Hussain’s controversial Saraswathi painting in a banner put up on the campus by the student body SFI. Defending the use of the painting in a Facebook post, Deepa argued that people have the right to constitutional protest against the painting if it offended them.
“At the same time if someone says that the painting shouldn’t be exhibited on the poster, it is not only illegal but also anti-constitutional. As far as I know, all citizens are bound to obey the Constitution. If you, as a group and using weapons, invade on the Constitutional rights of another citizen, that is called fundamentalism,” she wrote.
The result: images of Deepa’s face morphed onto nude photographs have been circulated on social media, and she has also received death threats. One social media post, allegedly by a member of an outfit called Hindu Reksha Sena, even urged people to attack the college professor with acid. Others urged people to visit sexual violence on her family members.
Many voices have come out in support of Deepa and Ramanunni, however. Taking to Facebook soon after the threat to Ramanunni was reported, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan took to Facebook to say that Kerala had always respected the freedom of speech, and warned of strict action against anyone who sought to interfere with that freedom.
“But under no cost would anyone who issues threats and shows intolerance to one’s right of freedom be allowed to go scot free. The government will do what is required," wrote Vijayan.
Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala also condemned the threats as a challenge to the secular traditions of Kerala. “The freedom to write, speak, and express dissent is ingrained in the country’s democratic culture. Any attempt to undermine this has to be opposed,” he said.
Associations like the Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham (Progressive Arts and Literature Association) and the All Kerala Private College Teacher’s Association have also spoken out against the threats to Ramanunni and Deepa respectively.
“Writing is an expression of freedom. A writer expresses his individuality, the self in him through his writings. Any attempt to curtail or suppress the freedom of expression is undemocratic and a challenge to cultural freedom. Those attempts should be resisted. A gathering with a human face should be formed to resist that, irrespective of caste or religion,” writer and literary critic George Onakkoor told TNM.
Former MP and activist, Sebastian Paul, said that such incidents cannot be dismissed as merely actions of fanatics. “The way TJ Joseph’s hand was chopped off tells us not to write off such threats. At present intolerance is there in all spheres, it has now turned into violent intolerance. The tendency to suppress those whom we don’t like is highly dangerous to democracy,” he said.
At the same time, he urged, there was also a need for a wider reform of people’s attitudes. “Fascism can’t be attributed to a single political party, it is there in many people’s lives, as is being revealed through the threats. The law should be strictly implemented to prevent this. At the same time people should get more reformed,” he added.
However, some people also sounded a note of warning regarding the threat against Ramanunni, in particular. Pointing out that an anonymous letter could have been written by anyone with a view to mischief, they cautioned that the threat had to be investigated before it was taken at face value.
Noted social critic and writer Hameed Chennamangaloor, for instance, said, “There is no chance of a threat to Ramanunni, who is a pet of Muslim organisations, from any Muslim or Hindu outfits. It should be properly investigated.”