The act of a gang that cut off the hand of a college teacher, by wielding an axe on a thoroughfare in Kerala in broad daylight, had Talibanism writ all over it. The State has been noted historically for the peaceful co-existence of different faiths and beliefs. This act of barbarism, however, points to the rise of blood-thirst driven by religious fundamentalism that certain fringe elements may be seeking to impose on the State. That it was a planned operation carried out with brutal intent adds to the shock. Without reference to the nature of the alleged provocation behind the act, what has happened is a challenge to civilised society and the rule of law. After all, the management of the college concerned had suspended the teacher for an inappropriate reference to the Prophet that appeared in an examination question paper and apologised for the aberration. The law has been taking its course and a criminal case against the teacher was being pursued. What the criminal fanatics have managed to do is to put on the defensive those who support the secular-democratic cause, and give a handle to majoritarian intolerance. The culprits need to be apprehended and prosecuted immediately.
If there is a silver lining here, it is that every political party in Kerala, organisations across the country representing both the religions concerned, and democratically minded sections of society have been prompt in condemning Sunday's savagery. Hearteningly, several Muslim youth organisations came forward to offer blood to the victim as he lay fighting for life in a Kochi hospital. To its credit, the State government has acted swiftly and decisively at every stage — a fact acknowledged amply during the course of a discussion in the State Assembly. The House condemned the incident in one voice. Most important, the atrocity did not trigger any communal backlash. But there is a larger lesson here. Freedom of expression has increasingly come under attack from religious fanatics in democratic and secular India and it is the duty of society and the political system to intervene more effectively to defend those who are targeted even if they express unpopular views. At the same time, those who work in academia and those who value intellectual freedom and creativity must be sensitive to the political-social contexts, which are quite often fragile if not volatile. All sections must unite to ensure that the heart-rending tragedy of a teacher making a misjudgment and ending up losing his hand to an act of Talibanesque savagery is never repeated.