The Freedom to Mock: This controversial Bishop Franco cartoon mirrors an urgent need to protect freedom of speech

Cartoons are a way to laugh even in dark times. As the Church objects to an award-winning cartoon showing a rape-accused Bishop, will the Kerala govt protect our freedom to mock?

 |  4-minute read |   24-06-2019
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It took the cartoon of a Bishop, who is an alleged sexual predator, and the Chairman of a Cultural Akademi with a strong backbone, to bring into focus — once more — the need to have stronger laws to protect freedom of speech.

Earlier this month, the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, an autonomous cultural organisation attached to the government of Kerala, awarded the cartoon of the year prize for 2019 to cartoonist KK Subash for his work ‘Viswasam Rakshathi,’ reportedly depicting rape-accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal as a giant rooster, dancing on a policeman’s cap.

Immediately, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) raised objections on the grounds that their religious sentiments were hurt — not because Franco Mulakkal figured in it but because there was a woman’s undergarment fixed into his crozier or pastoral staff in place of the cross. This was a sacrilegious misuse of a revered religious symbol, according to the spokesman of the KCBC.

Meanwhile, the ruling LDF government in Kerala, which is actively trying to woo the minorities itself, swung into action and Culture Minister AK Balan ordered the Lalithkala Akademi to reconsider its choice. The BJP — which is still licking its wounds in Kerala — also jumped into the fray, calling both the LDF and UDF hypocritical, adding that if a Hindu symbol was portrayed in a poor light, they'd call it 'creative license', whereas now, the creator of this cartoon was being attacked for mocking a Christian symbol.

The Chairman of the Akademi, Nemom Pushparaj, however, stood firm.

He said that the jury’s decision was final as always and there was no question of reviewing their choice.

He added that it saddened him to think that in the present atmosphere, even laughing had become impossible. The Kerala Cartoon Academy Secretary chipped in, saying that cartoons, as a probing art, would lose all meaning if its hands are tied.

bishop-mulakkal_1537_062119055040.jpgIt's not about him. Apparently. (Photo: IndiaToday.in)

The selection committee consisted of three famous cartoonists — Sukumaran, PV Krishnan and Madhu Omallur — and they had made their choice taking into account all the aspects of the cartoon. One of the jurors told a Malayalam publication it was the perfection of the drawing that fetched Subash the prize. He added that the subject was also very relevant.

The cartoon in question, titled ‘Vishwasam Rakshathi’ (Faith Protects), apart from being striking, had several politically sharp edges to it.

A rooster in Malayalam can mean a sexual predator. Franco, 'the rooster', is dancing on a police helmet, a smirk on his face, twirling his crozier with the garment stuck in it. He is supported by two MLAs, PC George and PK Sasi. George is the MLA who publically made crude allegations about the survivor nun when she complained about the Bishop, who had allegedly raped her several times. Sasi, a CPI (M) MLA, who has been accused of sexual harassment by a party co-worker, is shown wearing a headdress similar to that of the Bishop.

A group of terrified nuns is shown fleeing on the other side.

The KCBC spokesperson said the church was not concerned about Franco being portrayed in a comic vein. The objection was apparently to the religious symbol being misused.

However, this is not the first time that Bishop Franco has been caricatured. In fact, his pastoral staff too has figured in some cartoons. In one of them, there is a nun tied up, shouting, “In the name of Jesus I command you to leave me.”

Kerala has produced some of the best cartoonists in the country — by and large, they have been unafraid. In some other states, even bloggers and Facebook users have been thrown into jail for making jokes that the political dispensation finds unpalatable. But, so far, this has not been the case in Kerala. Last year, in fact, the award-winning cartoon 'Kadakku Purathu' (Just Leave) took a potshot at Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who had autocratically ordered the media to leave during an event. Though some of his party members took objection to it, the government decided not to interfere — and the Chief Minister himself presented the award to the cartoonist.

Satirists and cartoonists are the ones who add a bit of zest to our lives. Irreverence is the spice they add to their work to make it stand out.

Will the Kerala Government realise this?

If it does, then our southernmost state will indeed be a trend-setter — and we can hope that the freedom to laugh even in bitter circumstances will continue to thrive.

Also read: When Mamata Banerjee Met Her Meme: Woman arrested for posting Didi's meme. Where's the free speech lobby now?

Writer

Gita Aravamudan Gita Aravamudan @gitagitadan

Gita Aravamudan is an award-winning author and journalist. She has worked with and written for most of the top publications in the country. Her has authored bestselling books including ‘Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide’, ‘Unbound: Indian Women @ Work’, and ‘Voices in My Blood’.

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