At the very outset it must be conceded that there is no universal yardstick that defines a sense of humour: what some people might find funny could be deemed offensive by others.

That is all the more reason for the leadership of supposedly enlightened sections of society to maintain a liberal outlook, elevate themselves above the rabble and refrain from making religious, communal or sectarian “issues” of what were clearly intended to be light-hearted: particularly the essays of cartoonists who consistently run the risk of stoking fires among the thin-skinned.

Kudos are therefore due to the executive committee and general council of the Kerala Laltihkala Akademi for rejecting a bid by the state government to review its decision to award a controversial cartoon focused on the activities of the suspended Bishop Franco Mullakal who is out on bail for alleged sexual abuse of a nun.

Though the Akademi’s leadership is nominated by the state government, it said the decision was taken by award-adjudication jury, and there would be no going back on that. It was a bold decision, and rare in the present era of accommodating religious leaders for political advantage.

While the state government, particularly after the furore following the Supreme Court’s order on Sabarimala, was anxious to avert fresh trouble with the powerful Kerala Catholic’s Bishop’s council, the Akademi has stood firm in defending the Constitutionally-guaranteed fight of freedom of expression. For that is at the core of the controversy ~ far too many political forces are trampling upon a fundamental right.

Argument will continue if a religious symbol was denigrated in KK Subhash’s sketch highlighting the allegedly infamous activities of the ex-bishop, but since the jury was duly appointed its decision has to be honoured. That principled stand taken by Kerala Lalithkala Akademi could serve as a benchmark with nationwide application, and provide a refreshing change from the prevailing regime in which religious groups wield exaggerated clout in political and administrative spheres.

Thus far the more “national” Catholic Bishops Council of India has not joined issue on the cartoon, it would be well advised to remain aloof ~ having already taken a less-than-forthright position on Franco Mullakal’s “activities.” As it had earlier stated “the law must take its course” on the nun’s complaint, so too must the issue of defamation be judicially determined ~ not by clergy-led protests on the streets.

Through a series of recent directives Pope Francis has cracked down on renegade priests, and while a cartoon in a Kerala publication might escape the attention of the Vatican-establishment, its diplomatic mission in New Delhi must keep the highest authorities in the Church posted of the series of unsavoury developments. For the Catholic leadership in the Vatican, the CBCI and indeed in Kerala too must concede to the reality that “there’s no smoke without fire”, and no allegedly offensive cartoon would have been drawn if the prevailing circumstances did not trigger it.