“Despite all the hoopla about the Magna Carta, it was basically a palace affair that had nothing or very little to do with democracy, people’s rights etc., that were subsequently ascribed to this private coup d’etat. The entire exercise was the first practical demonstration of the basic skills of the English aristocracy—avoiding obliteration through careful strategies of adapting and assimilation. These attributes are also shared by their Indian elite counterparts who have a different composition but are guided by the same motives of self-aggrandisement and survival.” – Jay Bhattacharjee
The 15th of June marked the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, widely acknowledged in the English-speaking world (including these shores) as one of the most important milestones in human rights and civil liberties. On the 15th June 1215, King John of England, in order to protect his turf, signed a charter (a brainchild of the Archbishop of Canterbury) with a cabal of rebellious barons in the barren fields of Runnymede, near the royal palace of Windsor Castle.
The document, grandly labelled “Magna Carta” (The Great Charter) or sometimes even more inaccurately as “ Magna Carta Libertatum” (The Great Charter of the Liberties) was basically a holding movement, in military parlance. The hugely unpopular John was buying time from his core group of supporters, the barons and the clergy, and he did this by making a number of significant compromises. The Magna Carta assured and committed the following: (a) the barons would not be subjected to illegal imprisonment (b) the rights of the Church, including its huge properties would not be impinged upon (c) the barons would have access to swift justice, (d) there would be limitations, administered by a council of 25 barons, pertaining to their feudal payments.
In this entire soap opera, the people of the country, the ordinary citizens, were noticeably absent. And deliberately so. Despite all the hoopla about the Magna Carta, it was basically a palace affair that had nothing or very little to do with democracy, people’s rights etc., that were subsequently ascribed to this private coup d’etat. The entire exercise was the first practical demonstration of the basic skills of the English aristocracy—avoiding obliteration through careful strategies of adapting and assimilation. These attributes are also shared by their Indian elite counterparts who have a different composition but are guided by the same motives of self-aggrandisement and survival. We will return to this subject later.
Over centuries, the English establishment’s public relations machine carried on one of the most bogus campaigns in intellectual history, conning generations of scholars and politicians throughout the globe that the Magna Carta was one of the bedrocks of democracy, governance, civil rights etc. The Indian Home Rule advocates, including Gandhi for many years, fell for this English card trick, lock, stock and barrel. If the radical group had not acquired a leading role in the freedom struggle, inspired by titans like Bipin Pal, Sri Aurobindo, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Subhash Bose and the other Purna Swaraj advocates, Gandhi, Nehru and their cabal would have been perfectly content with a slightly modified version of Pax Britannica in India.
In fact, when the Congress under Nehru as its President, passed the “Purna Swaraj” resolution in its session in December 1929, declaring that the 26th January 1930 would be observed as “Purna Swaraj” day, it did not anticipate the wave of popular support and enthusiasm that would be displayed by the people of the country. Both Nehru and his mentor Gandhi were taken aback by this upsurge of national sentiment, and thereafter chose to cast their lot with this wave. The fact that Nehru conveniently overlooked the basic spirit underlying Purna Swaraj and opted for India to remain within the British Commonwealth even after becoming a sovereign Republic is an act of perfidy that our country barely realises or comprehends. I call it the Magna Carta syndrome that hovered over the colonised people of the British Empire and still does in Delhi’s Lutyens zone.
Fast forward to the 1950s when the history textbooks in independent India’s English schools still sold the original Magna Carta fable. This writer vividly remembers the scintillating presentation by Utpal Dutt to eager young schoolchildren about this myth. He dissected and demolished it completely. Sadly, outside Bengal, Utpal Dutt is remembered (albeit vaguely) as an eccentric character-actor in the semi-art films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and similar directors. However, his pedagogic genius is still imprinted in my mind and those of my contemporaries. For about 7 years or so, this thespian moulded the minds of youngsters in a new-wave Calcutta school, apart from revolutionising Bengali theatre with his Little Theatre Group. Admittedly, Utpal Dutt was a Marxist, but his decolonising mind-set was outstanding. He was almost in the league of his namesake, Michael Madhusudan Dutt many years earlier, or his contemporary Frantz Fanon, though he never got around to writing like the black Frenchman.
Returning to the Magna Carta and the impeccable marketing job done by the British aristocracy and establishment in selling it to a world audience, a few other fundamental facts should be emphasised. Even in Britain, the role of the Magna Carta in bringing about basic democratic rules and norms like universal suffrage etc. was limited. At the beginning of the 20th century, British historians started re-evaluating the entire subject. The iconic position of the document was slowly dismantled. Many historians like Maitland, Jenks and Pollard argued convincingly that the events in 1215 did not relate or pertain to the liberty and freedom of the British people at large but were confined to safeguarding the rights of the barons and the aristocracy.
For Indians and the other colonised people of the British Empire, what is of greater significance is that the British rulers did not think it fit to apply the purported benefits of the charter to those foreign people whom they ruled. A cad like Churchill who thundered forth about freedom, liberty and the evils of Hitler’s Nazi ideology (the last issue being just about the only subject where I agree with him) did not think of extending the Magna principle to the Zulus in South Africa or the Indians. And certainly not to the starving Bengalis in the Bengal famine of 1943, an act of barbaric genocide that equalled anything that Eichmann, Himmler and Hitler had done in Europe. The fact that Churchill never bothered to pay his Bangalore Club bill either, merely substantiates my thesis about the English / British aristocracy and establishment—they are unapologetic kleptomaniacs.
On the 15th June, you can bet that the British put up an impressive show to celebrate the confidence trick they played on the world for centuries. Their royalty will turn out in the style that befits the descendants of the mad German king George III who was invited by them to usurp their throne. One of the Guards regiments may march and I admit they do march nearly as well as the Indian regiments.
Galbraith, a Canadian-American, in one of his remarks about conservatives said something that is so applicable to the British establishment and aristocracy: “They (the conservatives) are engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy—the search for superior moral justification for selfishness”. Despite all the English hoopla about the Magna Carta, the U.K continues to be one of the most unequal societies in the western hemisphere. It is also a thoroughly class-ridden country, with some families having been at the top of the pecking order for centuries. Britain’s industrialists, financiers, landowning gentry, and politicians have been past masters at mutual back-scratching. Their positions have very rarely been challenged throughout history. Along with Iran, Britain it is the only country I know where clerics (the Bishops of the Church of England who sit in the House of Lords) are automatically elected to the legislature.
Anyone still rooting for the Magna Carta? – Swarajya, 15 June 2015
» Jay Bhattacharjee is a policy and corporate affairs analyst based in Delhi.
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