The perception that the holy cross has been officially insulted could not have come at a worse moment for the CPM. Kerala Lalithakala Akademi's cartoon prize for 2019 was announced on June 10, the day the party vowed to woo the minorities back to its fold.
The winning cartoon by Subhash K K makes fun of Franco Mulakkal, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar who has been accused of repeated abuse of a nun. The cartoon shows Franco Mulakkal as a fat pompous rooster that scares away poor nuns. The Malayalam word for a male fowl is local slang for a womaniser.
However, what seems to have provoked Kerala Catholic Bishop's Council (KCBC) was not the caricature of Franco but the pastoral staff that he is shown holding. The staff has a skimpy panty tied at its curved end, the stretched undergarment looking almost like a cross.
“It is an obscene work that purposefully attempts to insult and discredit priesthood and its symbols,” said Fr Varghese Vallikkatt, the KCBC's deputy secretary general. The KCBC has even threatened legal action. “The government still doesn't seem to have learnt its lesson. They keep on hurting religious sentiments,” he said.
As if to show that it had indeed learnt its lessons, the government has decided to withdraw the award without a word. Culture Minister A K Balan has fully endorsed the charges raised by the KCBC. “It has been noted that the cartoon has certain elements that mocks at Christian symbols,” Culture Minister A K Balan said. “The government does not subscribe to this, and we have no intention of going forward with any activities that would belittle the faith of any religion,” Balan added.
The decision seems to have left Nemom Pushparaj, the chairman of Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, bitter. “Never before had the Akademi or the government intervened in the choice of the jury. The jury's decision was always final, and it was never questioned. It looks like we have now come to a stage where it has become impossible for us to even laugh our hearts out,” Nemom Pushparaj said.
(It also looks safe to assume that the government had no role in the choice of the best cartoon. Along with Franco Mulakkal is featured CPM MLA P K Sasi, who too is under a sexual abuse cloud. The cartoonist has scribbled the rooster's saw-shaped crown over Sasi's head, too.)
The Akademi chairman still feels a vindictive glee in the way things have turned out. “By making such a big fuss, they are bringing the focus back on Franco,” Pushparaj said. But the KCBC is least bothered about the Bishop. “If Franco has a problem, he will file a case. We have not said anything about him. Our problem is with a government arm using an award to defile religious symbols,” Fr Varghese said.
The three-member jury (made up of highly respected cartoonists Sukumar, P V Krishnan and Madhu Omallur) did not think so. “It was the perfection of the drawing that fetched Subhash's work the prize. The issue that he chose to depict was also relevant as the entire state was pained by the suffering the nuns were put through,” said Madhu Omallur, one of the judges.
And the decision was unanimous. “Of course we did speak about the possibility of someone raking up the religious angle. But we thought cartoons would be spared,” P V Krishnan said.
Nemom Pushparaj, too, felt the same. He thought the winning work of 2018 was even more provocative but still posed no problems. The cartoon prize had then gone to Mathrubhumi's Gopikrishnan for his 'Kadakku Purathu' (Get Out) cartoon that ridiculed Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's haughty ways.
“We were told that the choice had not gone down well with an influential section within the party. But the chief minister made it very clear that an artist's freedom of expression cannot be tampered with. He himself gave away the award to Gopikrishnan,” Pushparaj said.
Sign of the cross
Nonetheless, the government's swift climb down in the 'toon controversy' cannot be fully ascribed to the drubbing the LDF had received at the hustings. It perhaps was only taking forward with more vigour its strategy of keeping the Christian community in good humour.
In 2017, when the Munnar sub-collector had pulled down a metal cross erected inside encroached land by an evangelical group called 'Spirit in Jesus', the chief minister had famously exploded. “This has created a feeling that the LDF government is waging a war against the cross. The government will not support such moves,” he had said. The KCBC, though it had reservations about the activities of Spirit in Jesus, was happy then.