When Faith Fails In God’s Own Country

Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

Indian wives are sacrificial goats. They sacrifice their lives to save the family; they starve to feed their children and insensitive husbands; and act blind to save their torturous married lives. Sometimes, they hang themselves to get justice for their husbands.

Salomi Joseph, a housewife, committed suicide on 19 March when she discovered that her husband, professor TJ Joseph of Newman’s College in Thodupuzha, Kerala, would not be reinstated in service before his retirement.

Everybody in Kerala knows Joseph: He was the victim of Taliban-style justice meted out by the Popular Front of India. His right hand was chopped off for insulting the Prophet Mohammad while setting a question paper in 2010.

Joseph was also arrested and suspended from service. He had to spend around Rs 30 lakh for his treatment, for which he had to pledge his belongings and borrow money. It was Salomi who absorbed the tragedies one after another. She had to manage everything from cooking for the family to nursing her husband. She had to find ways to support her children’s education.

Even after a local court acquitted him last November, the college management refused to reinstate him. Joseph’s family and friends pleaded with the management to at least allow him to retire. He was ready to take voluntary retirement if the management was willing to reinstate him. But their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Joseph’s attempt to get justice from the Mahatma Gandhi University Tribunal was stonewalled by the powerful clergy and insensitive university officials. Even political parties and teachers’ unions didn’t bother about Joseph’s family.

Meanwhile, the family’s debt mounted. In such stressful circumstances, Salomi had only one option: suicide. She might have thought that if her life could not save her family, her death might help her poor husband get back his job.

For the past year, she had been complaining about severe headache and was undergoing treatment for migraine. She visited a hospital on 19 March and returned home. At 3 pm, she hanged herself in the bathroom. Her suicide would have been forgotten as a routine affair in Kerala, which ranks third in the national suicide chart. Many people in God’s Own Country commit suicide as they feel that death can offer them a real relief from the pains of living.

Salomi’s death triggered outrage from all quarters and social media was flooded with comments against the insensitive church leaders. Joseph, whose sister is a nun, was an ardent believer. But the church leaders were defensive as usual. They issued a statement saying it was the university tribunal’s responsibility to decide his case.

Their explanation was not convincing for even the faithful who religiously listen to their sermons every Sunday. Some of them demanded that a case should be registered against the college management for driving a woman to suicide. Social activists and writers started a campaign against the church leaders. Eminent writer Paul Zacharia signed an online campaign demanding justice for Joseph and even wrote to the Vatican.

Sensing trouble, the church leaders and the college management informed Joseph that they were ready to reinstate him. On 24 March, Joseph met Bishop George Madathikandathil and the latter told him that he could rejoin service on 28 March and retire three days later. The bishop also told him that the college management was happy to review his suspension on compassionate grounds.

For Joseph, the decision was a big relief. He will get his salary arrears for the past four years and can claim pension and other benefits. But what about Salomi, who was buried in the local church cemetery?

We have various systems to ensure justice, but these checks and balances failed in Salomi’s case. We believe in the system and continue to respect it. But Salomi’s life and death reminds us of the trap we are in. Tomorrow, another person will fall in the same trap. Until then, we can stay calm and feel secure. As long as it is somebody else’s life that is in peril. That is what the church leaders in Kerala taught us in the season of Lent. Never bother about your neighbour when he weeps. Because god is sleeping and he doesn’t like being disturbed.

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