Magna carta @800: The struggle for freedom or liberty?

  • Manu Joseph, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 15, 2015 06:31 IST

By now, you may not have escaped the curious fact that on this day, 800 years ago, something happened on a meadow along the river Thames that may or may not have changed the world. There is a scholarly view that the event seeded the modern notion that “the state is the actuality of an ethical idea,” as conveyed by Brunello Cucinelli designer wear, or by the philosopher Hegel, depending on what you have read.

In 1215, some barons rebelled against King John, and on June 15 that year they forced the much-despised king to place his seal on a single sheet of sheepskin parchment that contained a contract in Latin, which essentially meant that the king will respect the written law of the land, and that, among other things, he will refrain from violating the rights of landowners or throwing people in prison for no legitimate reasons. The document, Magna Carta, which the British Prime Minister David Cameron did not know in 2012 is Latin for ‘great charter’ (he went to Eton), is deemed by some scholars and rejected by others, as an innovation that laid the foundation of modern democracy. Some called it Magna Charta, and one 17th century British politician called it ‘Magna Farta’.

Within a year King John got the contract annulled, but it surfaced in various forms over the years that followed, disappeared for some centuries, surfaced again and in time became an overrated origin of the modern moral state that exists to grant liberty and justice. Apart from some obscure statements that would have made sense only to the people who lived eight centuries ago in England, there are clauses in the Magna Carta that point to the fact that a moral code is merely a perception of its times.

“Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing,” the charter says. And, “No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.” And, “If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it.”

The fame of the charter lies in some of its extraordinary provisions whose moral strength is familiar to the present world. “In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it,” the charter stated. And, “Neither we nor our officials will seize any land or rent in payment of a debt, so long as the debtor has movable goods sufficient to discharge the debt.” And, “All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear…” The clause was to hold except in times of war when the fate of foreign merchants would depend on their nationality and on how English merchants were treated in those hostile countries (“If our own merchants are safe they shall be safe too”).

In the centuries that followed the 13th, the charter became so insignificant that several original copies of its various versions were lost or destroyed. But as Britain rose as a colonial power, the imperialists used the Magna Carta as a moral defence, which was that they had to civilise a world that did not have a Magna Carta. Merchants used it against the East India Company and the crown when their business ventures were impeded in the colonies. And, freedom fighters in the colonies used it to ask Britain for liberty.

The Magna Carta is an early reminder of the crucial difference between freedom and liberty. Liberty is freedom that is unique to humans, it is guaranteed by law. All animals are free, but in a system of humans total freedom is anarchy. Humans have thrived by letting a dominant authority regulate freedom. Liberty is a freedom that the authority has granted or has been persuaded to grant. For centuries, the state and the people have negotiated, peacefully and violently.

Marking seven hundreds of the Magna Carta on June 15, 1915, The New York Times devoted 65 words on Page 12 to the charter. The note included the words, ‘The struggle between two principles began then, and its seven hundredth anniversary finds the greatest — let us hope the last — battle in that struggle at its height.”

Every age overestimates its own importance. Across the world, the ‘struggle’ continues between state and people. In some regions, the negotiations have ceased. They never have in modern India, which is our greatest fortune. But there is much to be won yet.

The hundreds of thousands of undertrials in India, many of whom are in prison for years because they cannot afford lawyers, and artists whose rights are subordinate to the thugs who are easily offended, await the simple glories of liberty.

Often, a liberty that is granted in theory does not exist in practice. In a police station, for instance. The near impossibility of human rights in a typical Indian police station, where there are severe custodial beatings of suspects, is a tacit understanding between the state and the elite. In a society where the competence of the police is not very high and the judicial process is slow, a suspension of liberty for the underclass is viewed as a safeguard. It would appear that in a modern democracy, people are at once the rebel barons and the jerk kings.

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