Explained: How PFI first gained notoriety after chopping off Kerala professor TJ Joseph’s hand

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The nationwide raids on Thursday, spearheaded by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), in which 106 leaders and activists of the controversial Popular Front of India (PFI) has once again put the spotlight on the group, which has been in existence since 2007.

The searches resulted in the arrest of 106 members from across 93 locations — 22 from Kerala where even the PFI chairman OMA Salam was picked up. In addition, 20 arrests were made from Maharashtra and Karnataka each, 10 from Tamil Nadu, nine from Assam, eight from Uttar Pradesh, five from Andhra Pradesh, four from Madhya Pradesh, three each from Delhi and Puducherry and two from Rajasthan.

The NIA officials said the raids had been carried out in connection with five cases related to funding of terrorism and terrorist activities, organising training camps for providing armed training and radicalising people to join banned organisations.

Also read: Islamic State recruitment, 2020 Delhi riots, and more: The long ‘crime record’ of the PFI

The PFI has had a violent, crime-ridden past; it first gained national infamy when members of the organisation had chopped off the hand of Kerala professor TJ Joseph on 4 July 2010.

Today, as the PFI faces a nationwide ban following the raids, the professor speaking to News 18, said: “Their programmes, actions, and involvement in various terror activities indicate they are a threat to national security. They have been involved in several attacks over the years and in the interest of national security, it is important to eliminate this terror outfit PFI. Such organisations are a danger to our country and the government should take the strictest action to ensure they are completely decimated.”

We take a look back at the horrific crime that took place 12 years ago and how it put PFI on the nation’s watchlist.

A question paper and a gory incident

In 2010, TJ Joseph was the head of the department of Malayalam at Newman College in Thodupuzha.

In March of that year, Joseph had set a question paper for an internal exam for second-semester BCom students. To test them on grammar, he had chosen a passage from a book on cinema authored by PT 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 passage hadn’t named the man, Joseph named him Muhammed after the author’s name.

The question paper quickly turned into a massive controversy when it was leaked to the media. A prominent Malayalam television channel — now off the air — had alleged that the Muhammed in the question paper referred to the prophet and accused the professor of insulting the prophet.

What followed was a media storm like no other, with radicals and moderates holding agitations across the state. Joseph went into hiding, as the police registered a case against him for causing communal hatred.

Unable to find shelter anywhere, Joseph was finally arrested on 1 April 2010.

He was released on bail — but his life was no longer the same. The college had suspended him in March for creating enmity between two religions and had engaged in blasphemy.

On 4 July, still struggling with being suspended and being painted as an Islamophobe, Joseph was on his way home from Sunday mass in Kerala’s Idukki district when a group of seven men stopped his car, dragged him out and chopped off his right hand at the wrist with an axe.

One trauma after another

After the attack, Joseph was rushed to hospital with his chopped hand on ice. In a surgery that took 16 hours, doctors were able to surgically reattach his palm. But his hand was permanently damaged.

He spent months in agonising pain — and today he has come a long way from barely sitting up on his bed.

However, if the trauma of the attack wasn’t enough, the constant hate and the Church’s excommunication drove his wife, Salomi, into depression and in March 2014, she died by suicide.

The investigations

The incident quickly gained national and international headlines and the arrow of suspicion pointed towards the PFI.

In 2011, the NIA, who took over from the Kerala Police, identified a total of 54 people involved in the hand-chopping incident.

The chargesheet filed by the NIA said that the PFI was behind the attack.

Also read: Is the PFI a gateway to Islamic State and other terror outfits?

In 2015, the incident reached its legal end. Thirteen people were found guilty in the sensational case, of which 10 had direct involvement in the attack and were charged under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act apart from attempt-to-murder and rioting. The three others were involved in giving cover for the assailants.

The court acquitted 18 others. A few key accused were never apprehended. One of them surrendered before the court in 2018.

Joseph was then quoted as saying by the Indian Express: “In the court of my conscience I pardoned them long ago. In future, no teacher should be punished like this for a non-issue. The police should not have acted (arrested him) on a baseless allegation. I had not insulted the Prophet. The police unnecessarily arrested me, put me in lock up. They made me a target for fanatical elements.”

In an interview in 2021, he said, “I don’t think any victim would get justice by punishing the culprits. I have long forgiven my attackers. They didn’t know me, nor did I know them. We were not enemies of each other. They committed the crime because of their ignorance or their obedience to their masters. They were mere tools. They are not the villains but their philosophy and scriptures are. I have no hatred for them like I don’t have any hatred for the axe that was used to chop my hand. I used to feel sympathetic to them when I saw them in the courts during the trial. Like me, they and their families have also suffered.”

His autobiography and the present

In February 2020, Joseph penned an autobiography titled Attupokatha Ormakal (A Thousand Cuts: An Innocent Question And Deadly Answers) that told of the religious extremism and the ordeal he underwent after the shocking incident in his life.

In June this year, the Kerala professor, who now lives a quiet life at his home in Muvattupuzha, won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award-2021 for his autobiography.

Since his attack, Joseph has published four books since his attack in 2010 and all of them were written using his left hand, which he trained himself to, after his right hand was chopped off.

With inputs from agencies

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Explained: How PFI first gained notoriety after chopping off Kerala professor TJ Joseph’s hand
Explained: How PFI first gained notoriety after chopping off Kerala professor TJ Joseph’s hand
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