Kerala’s apex cultural organisation on Monday upheld its award to a controversial cartoon that has outraged Christians, despite government pressure to withdraw the accolade.
The executive council and general council of the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, the state government’s autonomous culture-promotion body, “have unanimously decided to respect the decision of the award committee”, Akademi chairperson Nemom Pushparaj told a news conference.
“We have also decided to seek legal opinion whether the cartoon has in any way hurt religious sentiments,” Pushparaj added.
Culture minister A.K. Balan, however, repeated his request to the Akademi to rethink the award, accorded on June 10. “The government remains steadfast in its stand: the Akademi should re-examine today’s decision,” he said.
The controversy comes at a time The New York Times has sent shock waves worldwide by dropping the daily political cartoons from all its editions — after a particular cartoon was deemed anti-Semitic — inviting accusations of undermining free speech and the cartoonist’s art.
The cartoon by K.K. Subhash that has raised temperatures in Kerala shows Bishop Franco Mulakkal, accused of raping a nun, as a rooster. What has mainly angered the Christian community is the pink bikini panty strung across his crosier (staff).
The cartoon appeared last October on the cover page of the Hasya Kairali, a niche satirical magazine without a large circulation. It largely went under the radar before the Akademi chose it for its annual awards last week.
Since then, Christians including the clergy have held street protests. After Monday’s reaffirmation of the award, a demonstration was held outside the Akademi office.
Contacted by The Telegraph, Subhash said he had no comments on the Akademi’s decision. “What do you want me to say? I have nothing to say on this,” he said.
Titled “Vishwasam Rakshati” (Protection of Faith), the cartoon shows Mulakkal as a rooster perched atop a police cap propped up on a baton by Kerala Janapaksham lawmaker P.C. George, who had backed the bishop.
Next to George is CPM lawmaker P.K. Sasi, who was accused of sexual harassment by a member of party youth wing DYFI and was suspended from the party for six months. The cartoon also shows nuns running away, apparently scared of the bishop.
When the protests erupted, the Kerala Cartoon Academy, a collective of cartoonists, had condemned the increasing “intolerance” in all spheres. “It is sad that the community is losing the openness to accept cartoons with a smile,” it said.
A much-relieved Thomas Antony, the cartoon academy secretary, welcomed the Akademi’s decision on Monday.
“This cartoon does not insult religion as is being portrayed. There should be a free atmosphere for cartoonists to work in,” he said.
Cartoonist and former secretary of the group, Sudheer Nath, too lauded the Akademi. “The Lalithakala Akademi is an autonomous body that does not report to the government. It was only apt that it took its own independent decision,” he told this newspaper.
Nath backed Subhash, saying: “The bishop was all over the media as a rape accused, who later got arrested. Naturally, cartoonists drew him.”
Mulakkal, then bishop of Jalandhar, was arrested on September 21 last year for allegedly raping a Kerala nun 13 times between 2014 and 2016 during his visits to her convent in Kottayam.
After his arrest, the church removed him as bishop of Jalandhar. He was chargesheeted in April.