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King who sacrificed son for justice

C Aryama Sundaram recapitulates the story of Manunidhi Cholan who sacrificed his son to pronounce justice to a cow.

india Updated: May 02, 2006 17:41 IST

Jessica Lal has achieved in her death what most cannot in a lifetime. A wretched tale of corruption, abuse of public office, insensitivity and public apathy has been exposed. Gaping holes, not loopholes, in our legal system and the approach of those who administer it will long be debated. What, however, has been the most notable expose is of leaders who take to public life and pervert it to mean private opportunity.

But culture tells us of other ways to be. Manunidhi Cholan was a ruler of the Chola kingdom, whose capital was Thanjavur (Tanjore). His name aptly meant ‘Dispenser of Law and Justice’. Outside his palace was a bell that any person with a grievance requiring the king’s immediate attention could ring. Much like Article 32, a fundamental right to seek redress of any injury to a fundamental right. Courts today may be reluctant to answer such petitions but the Cholan bell was always answered.

One day the bell rang stridently. The king was informed that it was merely a cow tugging on the rope. But the responsibility of public office and the duty to answer to everyone, however small, made the king enquire into the cause. It transpired that the cow was heartbroken over the loss of its calf, crushed under the wheels of a chariot. The driver had not stopped - but was identified as the king’s favourite son.

Acting as legislature, prosecutor and judge the king decreed that the retributive theory of punishment (still the basis of criminal jurisprudence) would apply with no exception. “An eye for an eye,” said the law. So the king pronounced judgment and ran his chariot over his son: a calf for a calf. He had no option — live up to responsibility or abdicate public office.

Myth has it that the celestials showered flowers on him as a “True Ruler”. Legend says he continued to rule in deep personal sorrow but as a great, just and impartial ruler. Is there a message in this for someone, somewhere? Who will answer India’s bell?