MUMBAI, India – A government-backed arts group in Kerala, India, has refused to rescind an award for a political cartoon depicting Bishop Franco Mulakkal after a complaint from the state’s Catholic bishops.

Mulakkal, the bishop of the Punjabi city of Jalandhar is charged with raping a nun on multiple occasions at a convent in Kerala, an accusation he denies. Cartoonist Subhash KK drew a political cartoon depicting the bishop as a rooster being propped up by a local politician who has supported him in his legal battle, while a group of nuns run away.

The cartoon won an annual award from the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, an autonomous cultural organization of the Government of Kerala which supports the visual arts.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council called the cartoon “incendiary and objectionable” and said it insulted religious symbols.

“In the name of condemning Bishop Franco, the cartoonist has insulted Christianity by drawing an objectionable picture on the Good Shepherd symbol. The Left government in Kerala has honored such a distorted cartoon,” said Father Varghese Vallikat, the council’s spokesperson.

“We are not raising it because Bishop Franco was depicted in the work. By using that case as a context, the cartoonist has insulted Christianity by drawing an objectionable picture on the Good Shepherd symbol,” he said.

After the criticism last week, the government said it would review the award.

“While the government accepts the theme of the cartoon on Franco Mulakkal, we are viewing the insult to a religious symbol seriously. In the light of this serious issue, the government has asked the Lalit Kala Academy to review the awards given for cartoons this year,” said AK Balan, Kerala’s Minister for Law, Culture and Cinema.

However, after the review, the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi refused to rescind the award, citing freedom of expression.

“Cartoon as a probing art will lose its meaning if its hands are tied. It is unfortunate that humour is viewed using the spectacle of vested interests. May there be an atmosphere in which cartoons are enjoyed with an open mind,” said Thomas Antony, the secretary of the Kerala Cartoon Academy.

Mulakkal was charged in April after a months-long investigation into the accusations of a nun claiming he raped her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The nun is a member of the Punjab-based Missionaries of Jesus congregation, but said the attacks happened in Kuravilangad, the location of one of the order’s convents in Kerala.

(On Sept. 20, 2018, Pope Francis temporarily relieved Mulakkal of his pastoral duties for the Diocese of Jalandhar, and appointed the retired auxiliary of Mumbai, Bishop Agnelo Rufino Gracias, apostolic administrator of the diocese.)

Mulakkal will be the first bishop to be put on trial in India, and the case has put the spotlight on the Church in a country where Christians make up less then 3 percent of the population.

However, Kerala has 6.1 million Christians – over 18 percent of the population of the southern state – and 60 percent of them are Catholic. The Church is considered politically powerful in the state, and the supporters of the nun say local officials have tried to stonewall the investigation.

One group of nuns held protests against Mulakkal in Kerala, supported by an organization called Save Our Sisters.

Father Augustine Vattoly, an officer of Save Our Sisters, denied the cartoon offended Christian sensibilities, but just “mocked the political and religious situation in Kerala.” The priest told Crux it “speaks sarcastically about the Bishop Franco case.”

“Why should Catholics be offended with this cartoon?” Vattoly asked.

“They should be offended when an allegation of this kind arises. A bishop in a position in which an allegation of this kind should never arise,” he said.

He also said Mulakkal has gotten “all the protection” of the political and religious establishment in Kerala, “even if he commits a criminal act.”

“This cartoon represents the indignation of a people towards the rotten political and religious atmosphere,” he said.

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