A Chinese Sojourn – Part 1

This trip had been in planning for many years now. The wonders of the world had to be checked off one by one and the Great wall had been pending. And so finally the itching feet took over and we were on the move again, this time taking a 20 hour flight through Japan’s Narita headed for Beijing over the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, covering the swath of the American northern states on the way. While I will in the course of the many more blogs hit upon specific memories of Beijing, this one will be lesser in word content and show you some of the life we saw in that lovely city. We enjoyed the hustle and the bustle of the massive city housing some 20 million people (that is the official count. The unofficial count is much higher for out of state people are not counted as Beijinger’s) and surprisingly found ourselves quickly at home. In many ways we were reminded of Istanbul, and the characteristics were similar, an immensely proud people, focused in their struggle with their daily lives, and blissfully unaware of other languages, especially English. So we spent a week perfecting our inborn talents of sign language, bringing many a smile to the person on the receiving side and managing wonderfully, ably supported by my journalist brother who lives in Beijing.

At the Subway - They are well marked, and tell you in English audio the name of the station it stops at plus the next one coming up
 We saw the sights and heard the sounds of Beijing, which for me was very special for I had been studying some aspects of the Ming dynasty for awhile and reading up heavily on Cheng Hu’s exploits. So to place the person and get a perspective was very important. The Forbidden City, the Yongle emperor Zhu Di’s massive constructions etc were so important and an understanding on why China sometimes closes its borders to ‘barbarians’ was paramount. We hit the standard tourist trail and climbed the great wall, saw the palaces and temples, summer palace, went to Tianjin and finally covered Xian where the 8th wonder of the terracotta warriors was taken in with awe, but I will definitely not make this a tourist narrative for then it would take the tone of a guide book.

The Box Auto - They have stainless steel bodies, or so I believe, and are supposedly more expensive than the multitude of taxis
 But we were luck for we lived the week with my brother and saw Beijing in a different light, with the insiders track woven through. We ate in Beijing’s local restaurants, smelled the streets walking many a mile, enjoyed Uyghur food, had some great Pakistani food at Mughal’s, wandered around the tourist traps of Yashow, the electronic markets and the Pearl market, saw the many jade and pearl factories and crisscrossed the city through the subway with ease. Curiously most of the tourist places were crowded with Chinese tourists not westerners. There were a few Indian tour groups here and there, some Malay Tamil groups as well. And finally we caught up with a college classmate of mine after 31 years…

We saw this at Tianjin - another three wheeled auto
 But there is so much to say and it would be boring if I went through it in a explanatory monotone. So let me try to say it with a few pictures. Take a look at the vehicles and transportation in China in this blog, they range from the basic bicycle (there are so many types of them) to the bullet train.

The taxi is very cheap the minimum charge is 10RMB plus 2RMB

The bus which many use

The Police car - electric drive, mostly seen at large tourist locations

Cycles, mopeds, scooters - you do not see many mobikes though

See the man at peace in the middle of a very crowded road, watching the traffic serenly!!

She has a lot to carry to work
Another tri-wheeler...

You can see the stainless steel boxed auto rickshaws, the same tri-wheel cycle rickshaws, the three wheel taxis and police vehicles and of course the many types of cars, the most popular being the VW sedans. But on the top of them is the Bullet train which we took from Beijing to Tainjin that hit an incredible speed of 327kmph (205mph) for most of the journey.

The Bullet train from Beijing South to Tianjin

They hit incredible speeds - now restricted to 327kmph
It is also a land of contradictions, you see so much of originality, you see a massive amount of meticulously preserved history, but you also see the other side, the knock off industry, the perfection in copying and you will even see the pyramid and the sphinx and you see a people obsessed with their mobile phones (900 million users) and mp4 players…more on all that later..

See how the women keep the sun and dust at bay - the veil wrapped around their faces

The pedestrian crossing has many uses
The Dragon boat at the summer palace
To be continued.................

Click on pictures to see bigger images

Tipu, Unniyarcha and Wodeyar – truth or fiction?

The short lived people of Puthooram Veedu

When my good friend Premnath sent me details of a recent article in Manorama about Unniyarcha and her life with Tipu, I quickly read it through and was somewhat flabbergasted. It was definitely a possibility, but connecting the most hated villain to a much loved heroine in their real life was not that easy though reel life could and would easily portray such events. All kinds of thoughts passed my mind. Was it a case of Stockholm syndrome in Unni’s mind perhaps? I thought as I dived into the article. The article itself was devoid of details and skimmed over some events and situations to finally come up with an even more startling conclusion. But well, I got my thinking cap on and started checking out the facts. It did not really result in any kind of corroboration or conclusion, but the hypothesis from Mananthery Bhaskaran may or may not be far from truth. Whatever said and done, it made sense to revisit the story of the protagonists and see what may have happened.

Most Malayalees have seen Nasser and other screen actors prancing round and enacting the roles of Tatcholi Othenan, Aromalunni, Kunhiraman and many actresses playing the role of the legendary swords-lady named Unniyarcha. Their stories have been passed down ages through the pleasant Vadakkan Pattukal (Northern ballads) and were duly popularized by the movies. Well all these named people were highly skilled in the art of Kalaripayattu and martial arts. Unniarcha was apparently an expert in the use of the flexible sword Urumi. They were (not the Othenan family though) Chekons or Chekavars who became famous around the late 16th century as a kind of mercenaries, fighting ankhams, and furthering martial arts. Ayyappa Chekavar fathered Aromal and Unniarcha, and they lived in the Puthuram house (Bhaskaran informs that the father was Chirukandan Nambiar or Chindan and the mother was Unnichira). The Puthoram house controlled some 4 kalaris while the Aringodan house controlled 18. In total there were about 42 of these schools of martial arts. The Ankham tradition had been established (see my previous article about Ankhams) and was being popularized by travelling bards, singing them in simple Malayalam using a pleasant meter and in tune with a Pana veena. Their exploits are many and very interesting to read, but we will not talk about all of that here, and concentrate on Unniyarcha.

A pretty damsel, well endowed, well versed in swordplay and other fighting techniques, that was she. Unniyarcha was married to Kunhiraman during her teens (Aaatumanammel Unniarcha as it appears was born around 1769 and must have been married at 1784 or so). Kunhiraman was a smart lad alright, but somewhat lacking in courage and adventure, which Unniyarcha of course compensated for, from her side. One of her first acts of valor was a duel with some Moplah riff raff hailing from Nadapuram who tried to molest her as she passed through the forest with her husband in tow headed towards the Allimalar Kavu to see the famed festival there. He mother in law and husband had cautioned her but she ventured into the forest path undaunted, reluctant husband in tow (Note that as a Chekavor, she would not have had Nair soldiers protecting her entourage). And of course, we did not have paved roads then (The first of these roads were ironically laid in Malabar by her later tormenter Tipu, in order to move his forces and artillery). Anyway as the story goes, the Nadapuram Moplah’s harassed her and the irate lady whipped out her sword and chopped a number of them to shreds. Later when the mob figured out who it was, the Moplah chief came to her (one Nagappan Chettiar had to mediate) and gave her a lot of gifts to pacify her…And so went many stories about her courage and valor.

Thus lived the sister of Aromal and Unnikannan, twirling her Urumi, and doing good deeds like rescuing other women of her village from being kidnapped and so on, in the midst of the other sad events that befell her family, like the untimely death of her young brother in deceit after the duel with Aringodan. To establish perspective, let us take a quick look at that famous story.

Her brother Aromal was also equally famous and it appears that he entered into an ankham or duel to fight the famous fighter Aringodan after getting a fabulous purse of 10,001 panams. The ankham was fought on behalf of two brothers who were vying for control over family property. The argument had reached such a stage that only an ankham was possible to make a final decision. The duel was well publicized and large rewards were offered to the two fighters, Aromal and Aringodan, both equally good with the sword. Aromal wins the duel, however his cousin Chandu who had a grudge against him due to the refusal of the Puthuram family earlier to get him married to Unniarcha, took revenge by injuring Aromal Chekavar mortally with a lamp (there are other versions as depicted in the movie Oru vadakkan veeragadha). The dying Aromal tells of the deceit to Unniarcha who swears ‘koodi paka’ or revenge. Chandu gets married to Aringodans sister after the fight and Unniarcha by then curiously begets a child Aromal unni. This is the first of the anomalies in the story, for it is said that she never had any children by Kunhiraman. So whose son was Aromal Unni? This question will come up again in our study, a little later. Aromal her brother died unmarried but had a tryst with Tumbolarcha and had got her pregnant, but I am not sure what happened there and of course a liaison later with Kunjunuli at Alatur..

Let us now take up the story line of Unniarcha’s life from the research carried out by Bhaskaran, who hails from the same family as Unniarcha.

Times were tough, and the Mysore sultans were on the rampage in Malabar. Hyder had died and Tipu had taken over around 1784. As it appears, Tipu ended up in front of Unniarcha, now aged 19 or so, during a fight in N Malabar. Unniarcha’s family and followers were fighting with Tipu’s army for their life in the Tellichery region, and they were making inroads. Tipu had to intervene finally and he does so with typical treachery (unlike practices in Malabar), he gets hold of her sister in law and chops her to pieces, ordering Unniarcha to surrender or else he would treat all the others remaining in her family, the same way. Seeing the futility of her fight, and in order to save the rest of the family, she lays down her arms and becomes part of the winner’s booty, in a military camp, until later when Tipu adds her to his famed Zenana in Srirangapatanam as a favored wife. She later fathers a son and a daughter through Tipu and remains his wife till Tipu’s death in 1799, though plotting revenge all the time. After Tipu’s death in 1799 she visits her mother Unnichira in Tellicherry, and goes back to Mysore, this time to the court of Krishna Raja Wodeyar. Finally she dies some time in 1822 or so, aged 62 in Mysore. This is the story provided in the Manorama article.

I was confused, now what became of Aromal Unni, her son, the avenger of his uncle and killer of Chandu as the ballads state? Was that boy a creation by some movie script writer? For according to Bhaskaran, Unniarcha had no children by Kunhiraman. Another question plagued me, was Unniarcha really part of Tipu’s harem? Yes, of course it is true that Tipu had a large Zenana or harem, which was much talked about and it is clear that he had a number of Hindu women in the collection of over 600 women, 260 from Hyder’s Zenana and 300 from his own (don’t ask me what he did with them…Gidwani, his chronicler and others who have written great eulogies might even say that he ran a benevolent institution for the 500 war widows or some fancy stuff like that). But all this was getting me nowhere, so I have to visit Tipu’s harem and check around in the annals of history. And that is how I reached the famed Zenana in Srirangapatanam pictured in my collection of books on Tipu and those obtained from the well stocked local library, and dived deep to look for traces of our beloved Unniarcha.

Ah! Srirangapatanam, I remember seeing the remnants of that once glorious palace decades ago, but when I saw it then, I had no interest in history. Today I read about the very same place in its splendor and regret the lost opportunity, but well, the Daria Daulat was indeed beautiful palace even in pictures. As the tourist site Asia rooms puts it…..

As the palace was special to the mighty son of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, he called it 'Rash-e-Jannat' which literally means the abode of happiness and the envy of heaven'. The name inscribed by him on the wooden banisters of the palace can be seen by the visitors even today. Though a large part of the palace is preserved well, the eastern wing of Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace that housed the 'Zenana' or 'Harem' has been destroyed over the time. What exists today are the wonderfully cusped rosewood arches that rise above the fluted stone pillars and the beautiful frescos, painted elaborately on the ceilings and walls of the palace. Zenana was the part of the palace appropriated to the ladies, who were carefully concealed from all eyes, save those of their royal master. Many of these were the daughters of Brahmins and native princes, who had been made captives in infancy, and brought up in the Mohammedan religion, ignorant of their parentage, and of the world beyond the walls which surrounded them.

It was into this palace that Unniarcha would probably have been taken to. But then was she a principal wife? We will find out in due course.

Tipu had many hundred women in the Zenana, majority being high caste Hindus but also women from Georgia, Persia, Europe, and Turkey and women from many families in Arcot, Tanjore, Hyderabad and even Delhi. It is also stated that there were some from Malabar. Was Unniarcha among them? Each of the senior ones had their apartments furnished according to the customs of their place of origin. All of them had been converted and were guarded by eunuchs. Like Tipu’s other desires, objects that were curious rare and outstanding found their way into his palace, similarly was composed his Zenana, and into it possibly came the fighting beauty from Malabar. Did she thrive there or die a morose lady? At the Zenana, the sultan’s favorite wife presided the Zenana hierarchy and established control. The Zenana was also controlled by a Raja khan, his confidential servant who had access to any of them according to Thomas Marriot who was in charge of the Zenana after the Sultan was killed.

Life proceeded in the Zenana without much to offer as change, and secluded behind the walls, Unniarcha may have missed her land and customs, but Tipu was close to his death. Bhaskrans states that by now Unniarcha was a favorite wife and that she established considerable clout over him.

History books make no mention of this, however but there is only one tantalizing clue that Tipu had a son from a Hindu wife, and his name was Abdul Khaliq (KKN Kurup). Abdul khaliq also turns out to be the hostage provided by Tipu to the British in 1872 (pictured in a few paintings of the time) and was later married to the daughter of the Arakkal Bibi in 1789. So Abdul Khaliq cannot be Unniarcha’s son for she herself must have been captured by Tipu around 1789.

Now this was a time when gifts were important and girls and women were given away as gifts by Sultans. Even cast off wives or concubines were gifted to lesser officers or subordinates as human khila’ts or nazar’s. But let us take a look at Tipu’s family with a lens. We are able to do it as some events unfolded when Tipu fell to the British in 1799. One of the first things that took place was some looting and pillaging of the palace. There were, however, reports that British armies might have broken another implicit injunction by plundering Tipu's harem, and these reports inspired an immediate flurry of investigations and denials by the political and military authorities. The liberation of Tipu's harem was the subject of a Thomas Rowlandson cartoon published in 1799 which shows otherwise. Anyway the men put in charge of bringing order at the Zenana were Arthur Wellesley and Col Thomas Marriot - Paymaster of Stipends. A few people including one Reverend from Malabar came to claim some of the women on behalf of their husbands. Wellesley made a list of the women in the Zenana ( I tried hard to get this but have so far been unable to track it down) and assured that they would be properly taken care of or disposed, though he found it amusing that the British had to attach urgency to this task. Anyway they decided to take care of the wives and offspring of the Sultan with great seriousness and the princes of course decided to take all advantage of the situation, goaded by their mothers and the many accompanying aunts and step aunts (interestingly Tipu had determined even earlier that his sons were wastrels and had curtailed their benefits and put them to arduous tasks, but the situation changed with their capture by the British).

The two sons who rose to the apex were Fatteh Haider and Abdul Khaliq. Khaliq as I mentioned earlier was the person who had married the daughter of the Cannanore Bibi. Khaliq and his brother Muiz ud din were the two hostages Tipu had to give to the British as part of the treaty in 1792 (Here again I detected an issue. It is said that Khaliq was betrothed off to the Arakkal bibi’s daughter in 1789. But history books say that Khaliq was only 8 years old when delivered as a ransom to the British in 1792). For three years he was trained in British ways at Ft St george Madras and returned to Tipu. Tipu saw that the two sons who came back were even more insolent brats and sent them now to Paris for improvement of their behavior (how, it beats me) and further education. Anyway Khaliq is now in custody after the death of Tipu at Seringapatanam, ensconced at Vellore and devising ways of making money. As these two are of no further interest to us in this story let us discard them from this story. The only reason I brought them up was the aspect that Khaliq was born to a Hindu wife of Tipu and the prospect that the wife was Unniarcha. Let us therefore look at the wives of Tipu one final time.

The wives listed in history books were Ruqayya banu, Raushana Begum, Khadija Zamana, and they were all deceased before Tipu himself died in 1799. At the time of his death the fourth wife was Padshah begum. All of them had Islamic lineage. Another wife has been identified as Buranti begum, the Delhi lady. Fatteh Haider was borne to a Roshani begum (pum kum from Adoni) though Fateh insisted that she had been promoted to Khas Mahal before Tipu died. Khaliq was the son of Raushana Begum. There is no mention or possibility of a Malabar lady in this group or she would have otherwise have ended up in Vellore under British custody. But according to Bhaskaran, Unniarcha spent her last years in Mysore with the Wodeyars. As Bhaskaran puts it, she became a principal wife of Tipu and his confidante and Unniarcha learned Kannada and English at the Zenana, which seems a little strange for the Sultan actually spoke Persian, Urdu and Arabic. She had a temple constructed for her (unlikely as it is firmly established that all Zenana women were converted)….and after the fall of the Tipu, she moved in with Krishna Raja Wodeyar.

The situation gets a bit murky here for Mummadi Wodeyar was born only in 1794 . Between 1796 and 1799 there were no Wodeyars, so who could Unniyarcha have connections with? Was it with the Khasa Chamaraja Wodeyar IX who died in 1796? I do not know, though the book ‘Annals of The Mysore Royal Family’ may provide some clues. Anyway Unniarcha would not have had a Krishna raja connection while living in the Zenana which was strictly controlled as we saw. So only one person comes up in my mind, the wily Purnayah.

The key to her move to Mysore if such a thing happened may have been Purnaiah, who had been involved with Malabar from the Hyder days and continued as a minister with Tipu. After Tipu’s death he switched sides and joined the Wodeyars, and coached and trained the infant Mummadi Wodeyar and later teamed up with the British as a Dewan of Mysore. But I am sure Bhaskaran has a complete story and we will see it someday as a book. In the meantime I will continue the search for the list that Arthur Wellesley prepared of the women remaining in the Zenana.

The story thus continues to remain a myth. If Unniarcha was born in 1766 and was taken away by Tipu in 1789, then it is impossible for her to have mothered Aromal, unless he were Tipu’s son. But that is also not possible for according to legends, Unniarcha was very much around Malabar and goading Aromal to take revenge on Chandu. Even then the timelines would not be right for such events would not have occurred in difficult times when the Sultans and their army were encamped in Malabar (those events would have found their way into the ballads). Then again, let us for a moment assume that Unniarcha was a favored queen in the Zenana. This is also not possible for the name was never seen in Wellesley’s or Marriott’s papers. The queens listed and the sons that come up do not indicate any person of Malabar origin. But then she could have been a lesser consort. If that were the case, she would have remained in Srirangapatanam after all the others were taken to Vellore by the English. It is then possible that she joined up with the wily Purnaiah and moved to the Wodeyar household. So for me the story is still a myth, but then again I may have missed the links that Bhaskaran has seen or possesses. I look forward to hearing more about this story.

Thus the story of the Aromal and Unniarcha as we know may belong to a time before the Mysore sultans decided to come south.

Whatever happened to Aromal Unni, Kunhiraman and all the others? I do not know….

What happened to Tipu’s wives and sons? The motley group was moved to the Vellore fort where they lived a life of luxury and waste. The two sons who rose to the fore were very poor specimens of humanity according to Hoover and were more interested in playing politics and finding ways of hurting each other as well as collecting wives and concubines, with the very large pension provided by the British. They made a mess of their life and were somehow wrongly pictured as possible culprits behind the not so famous Vellore mutiny of 1806 about which I will write about another day.

Ultimately, Unniarcha alone proved to be long lived among the short lived and much talked about Puthooram Veettil chekavars in real life and in legends. As for the sultans, like it was once said, “Haidar was born to create an empire; Tipu to lose one.”

Note: This article is a simple study of the events around the Zenana of Tipu in 1799 and is not meant in any way to discredit the article mentioned or the researcher Bhaskaran. The attempt was only to try and reach a rational conclusion from the limited information in the article. Perhaps I do not have the full foundation or all the facts, so I beg to be forgiven in such a case and eagerly look forward to studying them some day. Nevertheless, my feelings for Tipu will continue to remain negative.

Men without hats – James Hoover
Tipu Sultans search for legitimacy – Kate Brittlebank
Nawab Tipu Sulatn – KKN Kurup
Sword of Tipu Sultan – Gidwani
History of India – Julia Corner
Malayala Manorama 17th April 2011 – Article by Bijish Balakrishnan

Pics - Wikipedia, Columbia.edu, Google images

On Presidential Pardons

America exhibits contradictions now and then, and sometimes you wonder at the time and effort the bureaucracy spends in sticking to a written rule with no regard for or the lack of common sense to the process. The other day I was going to Florida and saw on the in-flight magazine how one could fold a US currency note and make a paper fighter plane with it. On the net you can peruse umpteen sites telling you how you can make pictures of the twin towers with US currency notes, and in amusement parks you can see machines where you put in a penny into a die casting machine and get some funny flattened stuff out. Back in India I have come across kids who leave coins on railway tracks to see what happens and pick up the flattened piece off the tracks after the train has gone. But are they all things one can do without getting into trouble?

In quick summary it appears that in the US you can do all these things so long as the intent is not to cheat or defraud somebody. But if it is used for profit or fraud, the story changes, as it did for one young man.

Well this is the story of a young man who decided to do something more interesting with the US Penney. As you know the one cent or penny is slightly bigger than the 10 cents or the dime. The penny is made mostly of copper and hence somewhat more malleable and ductile. So he figured a way of cutting the sides off the Penney and getting it down to a dime size. That would not have helped in a shop, but the coin vending drink machines were fooled by the ruse and gave him and his friends a number of drinks at a tenth of the cost. Of course this was back in the days when money had more value and drinks cost less than they do today.

Ronald Lee Foster, from a place called Beaver Falls, Pa., was eventually caught and convicted in 1963 of mutilating coins and sentenced to a year’s probation and a $20 fine. As it appears, Foster was among 17 Camp Lejeune Marines who had come up with the idea to cut pennies into the shape of dimes. The Marines used the altered pennies to cut down on the cost of soda (their salary was $82 per month) and cigarettes in vending machines in the camp. One could get a 30 cent pack of cigarettes for 3 cents. Anyway, their luck ran out when a Secret Service agent was put in the barracks, Mr. Foster stated, probably because the vending company had caught on. So they were marched off to a judge, and their commanding officer entered a plea on their behalf and the judge sentenced each to a $20 fine and a year’s probation.

The boy was later shipped off to Vietnam. Before going he had paid the fine and completed the probation. He had assumed that with this he had thus paid back his debt to society. But unfortunately his record remained unclean and the felony was on the books, as an open issue. As you may know, a felony is generally considered to be a crime of "high seriousness" (unlike a misdemeanor which is not).

As definitions go, in many parts of the United States, a convicted felon can face long-term legal consequences persisting after the end of their imprisonment, including:
  • Disenfranchisement
  • Exclusion from obtaining certain licenses, such as a visa, or professional licenses required in order to legally operate (making many vocations off-limits to felons)
  • Exclusion from purchase and possession of firearms, ammunition and body armor
  • Ineligibility for serving on a jury
  • Ineligibility for government assistance or welfare, including being barred from federally funded housing
  • Deportation (if the criminal is not a citizen)
Foster returned from the war, served in the Marines for 12 more years, worked in the manufacturing segment, got married and had a son. Well, after all these years, some 65 of them, Foster decided to apply for a gun permit in 2005 and found the same denied as he was a felon. "I never knew we had a felony hanging over our head," Foster said. At the time of the event, "They just marched us in there, and our colonel said we were all good guys."

Fosters lawyer filed the paperwork for a pardon. I am not sure why it was not sent to the state Governor who has similar powers to issue a criminal pardon, and why it went to the president, but I can assume that this was a federal felony and not a state felony as it dealt with federal currency. The process sin Fosters case took a year and a half and included FBI agents checking out his story. Finally President Obama's signed to absolve Foster, who carried a felony record for coin mutilation since 1963, his first pardon. As reports go, Foster's 47-year-old crime was easily the strangest on the list of presidential pardons released late last week for the retired mill supervisor in Beaver Falls, Pa., found himself forgiven along with cocaine dealers, a liquor law violator and a counterfeiter.

The report continues that finally he got the call stating that he was one of nine individuals who received pardons from President Barack Obama. “It was a little bit of a surprise since it’s a year and a half since I started the procedure,” said Mr. Foster. A general statement regarding all 9 pardons was provided by the WH counsel. “The president was moved by the strength of the applicants’ post-conviction efforts at atonement, as well as their superior citizenship and individual achievements in the years since their convictions,” said White House spokesman Reid Cherlin. Mr. Obama has received 551 pardon petitions in the course of his presidency, of which he’s denied 131, according to the Justice Department. Another 265 petitions were closed without presidential action.

The last I read was that he was waiting a few weeks to seek his permit. But the secret for turning pennies into dimes will expire in the barracks of Foster's youth and he has no plans of providing further details about that.

Mr. Foster said he feels pretty good about it finally happening and even a little surprised, but to him, it was the right thing to do.

“You read all the paperwork and the story behind and it just didn’t make sense to have a felony for that offense,” he said. “[Getting a permit] will be the first thing I will do,” he said.

So fine, that was a bit of common sense finally. But how about the machines those flatten out pennies to other shapes? Is it legal? Is it legal to deface or destroy legal tender? It appears that this was once clarified by the Dept of treasury (as I say, it appears – I do not know this for sure) with the following explanation

A federal statute in the criminal code of the United States (18 U.S.C. 331), indeed makes it illegal if one "fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales or lightens" any U.S. coin. However, being a criminal statute, a fraudulent intent is required for violation. Thus, the mere act of compressing coins into souvenirs is not illegal, without other factors being present.

And that set me thinking, we do not hear very much about Indian presidential pardons. What happens out there?

Under the Constitution of India (Article 72), the President of India can grant a pardon or reduce the sentence of a convicted person, particularly in cases involving capital punishment. A similar & parallel power vests in the Governors of each State under Article 161.

Do you remember how Vijayalakshmi Pandit pardoned Kawas Nanavati? Read my article on that very interesting story here.

But it is a little different in India, for it is important to note that India has a unitary structure of government and there is no body of state law. As defined, all crimes are crimes against the Union of India. Therefore, a convention has developed that the Governor's powers is exercised for only minor offenses, while requests for pardons and reprieves for major offenses and offenses committed in the Union Territories are deferred to the President. And a few of them find their way to Rashtrapathi Bhavan.

Wiki explains - Both the President and Governor are bound by the advice of their respective Councils of Ministers and hence the exercise of this power is of an executive character. It is therefore subject to Judicial Review. It also depends upon other provisions of law i.e. section 54 and 55 of Indian penal code, Sections 432,433 and 433A of criminal procedure code of Indian criminal justice system and also the sentencing policies of state.

In the case of capital punishments the presidents tend to pass the pardons down the line and not take any decision. For example, Dr Abdul Kalam who recently laid down the high office of President has also expressed this philosophy “I cannot give life to anyone, I don’t see why I should give death” and eposes that convicts under death sentence need to be treated with compassion, counseling and spiritual guidance instead if condemning to the gallows, whilst pleading for Presidential pardon to be granted in the above estimated 20 cases of death sentence awaiting Presidential pardon during his Presidential tenure. As a matter of record, Dr Abdul Kalam inherited 12 cases of death sentence for presidential pardon from his predecessor namely Shri K R Narayanan and has now left to his successor, Smt Pratiba Patil the sensitive and controversial dossier of Presidential pardon in the estimated 20 cases of death sentence détentes awaiting the execution of death. (Extracted from Soul creeper’s excellent write up on the subject)

Without any precedent, ex President A P J Abdul Kalam had advised the Government to consider a pardon for a majority of an estimated 50 individuals on Death Row whose mercy petitions are pending before him. This recommendation came after the Ministry of Home Affairs got back to the President saying that these cases, about 20, were not fit for Presidential pardon.

In the last three decades, Indian Presidents have commuted the sentence in only 10 of 77 petitions decided by them. But well, to conclude, it does seem pretty onerous in India and is used only in the rarest of rare cases. As newspaper reports mention - According to a Right to Information reply, President Pratibha Patil, in a recent decision, has commuted death sentences of eight men, awarded in two separate cases of murder, to life imprisonments. In 2010 she pardoned another man on the death row.

 Now again, back in the US, the president carries out a Turkey pardon on Thanksgiving Day. While they ate ceremonial turkeys until 1989, it was President GHW Bush who started the pardon practice. On Wednesday, November 24, 2010, President Obama gave two turkeys named Apple and Cider a last-minute reprieve. The pardoned turkeys go to a petting zoo. Well it is humane and certainly the least controversial pardon that a president would grant during their term, as one can figure.

Law was created for making an otherwise not so routine life, routine and orderly. In the end it is always a case of people creating and taking law into their hands, as is always the case. Sometimes I wonder why god and scriptures were brought into it often like when you swear yourself in over a religious book. I have always wondered if people really take that part seriously. Anyway, history is replete with various legal stories, but well, for one more interested in such avenues, especially Presidential pardons; the latest John Grisham book is certainly a good read.

Note: I have little knowledge on these things and presented this event only since I found this little story amusing and wanted to share with you all that the President here is also involved with pardons that are not dealing with capital punishment.

Pics – Pres Obama from Newsone.com, Pres Patil topnews.in