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Issue No.: 573 | March 2015

800th Anniversary of the Signing of the Magna Carta

R. Srinivasan
In a sense we are all spiritual heirs of the Document that was wrested from an unwilling monarch. The Magna Carta remains a precious heritage and almost all countries have embodied similar clauses in their Constitutions.

We should remember that centuries have passed by since then and generations, who have not even heard of King John and the Great Charter, remain debtors to the great document and the philosophy contained in this. One cannot conceive of any political system even non-democratic that it does not embody this in its Constitution – the principle of legislative supremacy though it is often formal than substantial. It has reverberated through the centuries.
To go back to the genesis of the document, King John monarch of England (1199 -1216) antagonised all sections of the population. A council of 25 barons tried to enforce a charter of demands on the king. On John refusing to sign the document, a civil war broke out. Both the Church and the Barons combined in support of the demands. It became the Bible of the protesters and is generally regarded as beneficial to the future generations of the kingdom. "Today we study its history. Yesterday it was their political Bible. It became something of a myth few, yet would question that the myth has been beneficent and still is.” One of its important provisions was that "no free man should be imprisoned or deprived of his property except by the judgement of his peers or the law of the land.”

Theoretically the legislature represents the people and on important issues they need to be deliberated upon, differences of opinion sorted out and an agreed policy arrived at in which all have the satisfaction of the feeling that they have contributed to the general consensus that has emerged. It is likely that some have their doubts but they have the satisfaction of putting forward their point as well.

It should be clear that this arrangement would not have been arrived at by debates in all kingdoms everywhere; in some instance countless wars were waged and in others revolutions had been gone through. In essence it embodies the principle that the supreme executive exercises political power at the sanction of the legislature. This principle is the germ of all democracies and history over centuries has confirmed this. Historical happenings such as civil wars and political revolutions further legitimise this.

When drafting this, the section that pressurised the monarch and wrenched from an unwilling king these rights were for themselves, the nobility and not for the common man. The hoi polloi did not figure in these conflicts. There was no organised group of the lower orders and they could make no demands effectively. However subsequent history has tended to see this demand made by the common people. This understanding, or more correctly, the misunderstanding, has been wholly beneficial; for it was regarded as an ancient charter embodying the rights of the common people in popular imagination and was to act as a catalyst for action. In history often misunderstanding has its benefits too!

PROFESSOR R. SRINIVASAN is retired professor of politics, University of Mumbai and 
Associate Editor of Freedom First. 
He can be contacted at





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