The Magnificence Of Magna Carta

Professor Satendra Nandan’s book, Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond, is being published this month to be launched at an international conference on Literature in Germany on 27 July.   June
15 Jun 2015 17:04
The Magnificence Of Magna Carta

Professor Satendra Nandan’s book, Brief Encounters: Literature and Beyond, is being published this month to be launched at an international conference on Literature in Germany on 27 July.


June 15, is the octocentenary of one of the world’s most celebrated founding documents of freedom, human rights and governance.

Magna Carta was signed on June 15, 1215, between King John of England and his rebellious barons.

This piece of paper, the Great Charter, negotiated in a meadow on the banks of River Thames 800 years ago between the divine king and his dissident subjects, changed the course of human freedom and the rule of law over the turbulent past eight centuries.

It further defined the relationship between governments and the governed and strengthened the ideas of justice, access to the courts of law and trial by one’s peers, the beginning of the jury system and other rights of individual citizens that we now take for granted in a decent, democratic society.

Magna Carta’s overarching concern was that the power of governments was subject to the law of the land and the will of the subjects. One can now see how the seeds of some of the most fundamental ideas of a democratic system were sown on the banks of the River Thames.

Both the king and the barons were sworn “that all this shall be observed in good faith and without deceit…Given this by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines on the 15 of June….”

It had 63 provisions. Needless to say soon after the document was signed, it was broken like the current treaties in Ukraine and the Middle East. The infallible Pope Innocent III, annulled it within three months of the signing.

Magna Carta was designed to protect the feudal barons against the arbitrary powers of the feudal king and religious interests. Its initial impulse was mainly for tax reasons like the Boston Tea Party (1773) in the American colonies, but, like all rebellions and revolutions its after effects have had far-reaching consequences for the ordinary mortals in islets and islands, continents and subcontinents.

The Great Charter was negotiated in five days. A political ceasefire had been established only to flare up subsequently into a civil war.

People in power and privilege don’t give up easily: whether it’s race or religion, caste or creed. And greed and fear in various disguises are the supreme vices everywhere.

The American and French Revolutions were inspired in the late 18th Century by ideas embedded in this document.

It was invoked during the darkness invading Europe in the guise of the Nazis. Even the Declaration of Human Rights has echoes of Magna Carta in its passages. Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking before the General Assembly of the United Nations in support of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, declared: “We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men (and women) everywhere.”

That was in 1948; another architect of that document was Australia’s Doc H Evatt.

The Great Charter had the seal of the then king: and it sealed the fate of many English kings, including the beheading of Charles 1 to prove a point: that the king had not been divinely endowed with divine rights.

Therein of course lies the great human journey of freedom and democracy. History tells us that soon after the signing of the document the king’s men waged a battle with the rebellious barons. Magna Carta itself was annulled by a pope when popes had infallible power. All that changed with the Reformation and many religious wars, some shamelessly continuing even today.

There are barely four copies of the original document extant now. Australian Parliament has one later edition (1297 version) purchased by Robert Menzies’ Govermnment in 1952 at a cost of around AU$25,000. Another copy was bought by an American in 2007 for around US$ 24million. Such is the priceless document’s inherent value.

In the present climate, Magna Carta acquires increasing significances: human rights of individuals is paramount; the arbitrary authority of governments and power must have checks and balances. Among its clauses are :

“No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or exiled or in any way destroyed… except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the laws of the land.”

Needless to say that none of this prevented subjugation of women, genocide, slavery, or conquests of the worst kind in other lands across the globe by European powers including Great Britain.

The horror of that history and human scars continue even today in our treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants and violence against the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

In Australia of all places these have become profoundly perpelexing issues: the leading politicians in power have continued to attack Professor Gillian Triggs and her independent role as the Human Rights Commissioner. And this for doing her work with the deepest integrity supported by other commissioners. That she hasn’t resigned from this important position is to be admired and applauded.

Another vital question now is the deprivation of Australian citizenship to those who participate in ‘terrorist activities’ and may hold dual nationality.

The current crisis in the Middle East is the immediate focus of these provisions towards legislation. This is going to be a complex issue—societies which go for exclusive security can lose their inclusive liberty for which generations have fought in foreign lands. It may even be unconstitutional.

The central question is that if Australian citizens fight for causes elsewhere, the Australian government should take full responsibility and subject these citizens to the due processes of law of the land to be decided by the courts.

One of Magna Carta’s enduring ideas was to subject everything to the due process and not to the arbitrary powers and whims of a king, a baron or, in our parlance, a minister sacred or secular.

It’s not surprising that in Europe, the US and Australasia, the fate and fortune of asylum-seekers and refugees have gained momentum. This will increasingly be a major thorn in the flesh of the Lucky Country. The price of freedom is great; the price of fear is always greater.

The prominent historian Barry York at the Museum of Australian Democracy at the Old Parliament House, Canberra, where Gough Whitlam was dismissed, in a magazine wrote recently, ‘The rebellious barons, who had seized London to force the king’s hand, had no idea that they were unleashing a document and a principle, and ultimately, a myth and a symbol, that would remain relevant and inspirational, and the measure of all laws, eight centuries later.’

On Friday night, the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten said that two important features need to be incorporated in the Australian Constitution: that the Aboriginal people are the traditional owners of this ancient island continent; and that Australia should be declared a Republic. He could have added the equality of marriage to his list as he has already proposed a Bill to the current Parliament.

Years ago in 1989, I’d the privilege of speaking in the precincts of the House of Commons, at the invitation of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association with its headquarters in London. Earlier in September 1970 as a Commonwealth Fellow, I’d spent a day, with other scholars, visiting the House of Commons and taken around by an MP named Harold Wilson.

Perhaps it was this unforgettable pilgrimage that made me participate in Fiji’s parliamentary democracy in the 1980s. Sadly within a decade we lost our Parliament.

It has taken us four constitutional documents to reach some closure and move forward to a better and freer future.

The Parliament is a great gift to a free people.













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