Magna Carta: The Spirit of Justice


Claire Breay, Chintan Chandrachud, David Carpenter and Helena Kennedy in conversation with Patrick French in collaboration with British Library


Prachi Bhagwat, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


The Magna Carta is a latin document, first written in 1215 AD, Britain. It was drafted to limit the powers of King John in medieval England, yet even today, it contines to be evoked in a plethora of contexts all over the world.

David Carpenter, professor of History, quipped that while he was in Russia last year, human rights lawyers made more references to the Magna Carta than to their own constitution, in part perhaps the Russian constitution remains more of a mystery to Russians than the Magna Carta.

While Carpenter believes that the Magna Carta enjoyed immense popularity in the 13th century itself, Claire Breay, head of Medieval Manuscripts at the British Library and barrister Helena Kennedy countered that the document’s iconic status is a more recent phenomenon.

The panel collectively agreed with Carpenter that ‘the Magna Carta was an elitist document.’ While it did limit the powers of the King, it only granted rights to certain sections of society, such as the ‘free man’, knights and burgesses. The document did however contain a few near-revolutionary ideals, such as emphasis on the due process of law, and forbidding rulers from demanding ‘off with their head’ without just cause.

Lawyer Chintan Chandrachud added that the Magna Carta should be understood within the temporal context in which it was written. He substantiated his argument by citing the case of the United States Constitution (written 500 years after the Magna Carta), sections of which strike the modern reader as abhorrent, such as describing African-Americans as ‘¾ of a person’. However, it still is considered a fountainhead of liberty.

Moderator and historian, Patrick French, questioned Chandrachud about how the Magna Carta had influenced the writing of the Indian Constitution. It ‘drew from a variety of sources,’ Chandrachud noted, such that some of its critics accused it of being ‘a mere patchwork,’ to which Ambedkar famously quipped, ‘even if it is a patchwork, at least it is a beautiful patchwork.’ In his view, the influence of the Magna Carta must be understood in broader terms, such as in the realm of constitutionalism. ‘It is unique in the sense that it is an entrenched document- insulant from political vicissitude, an enforceable one in that a citizen could go to the courts claiming his or her rights,’ the said.

Kennedy warns however that one must remember that the Magna Carta was not the first ever document invoking rights: there are several others along similar lines that pre-date it. Breay supported this statement, elaborating that placing the Magna Carta on a pedestal helps Britain ‘tell the story it would like to tell the world.’ She observed that the ‘Magna Carta also served as justification for Empire,’ as it justified the British claim that they were destined to rule, since they belonged to a nobler civilisation. Yet the reality was, they were going against those very principles in the colonies.

Kennedy qualified this, saying that whilst there certainly exists complacency in the way the Magna Carta is invoked, she has found it helpful in her work as a barrister. ‘It is a useful tool’ for someone like her, who ‘fights cases against the government.’ By referring to it, one can remind the ‘government, the courts and even the tabloid press that we have a history of commitment to something much grander.’

The Magna Carta is frequently referenced in the realm of universal human rights. Is imposing its version of human rights an act imbued with western paternalism? asked French. Kennedy thinks that the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt put together the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in close collaboration with a host of jurists, legal thinkers and philosophers, including those from India, is indicative of the fact that there definitely are common values that humanity as a whole aspires to embody. ‘Rights need to be fought for. They do not exist in perpetuity,’ she concluded.


Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill



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