Sarika Salil Jha
An interesting session on Magna Carta was organised today at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2017 which examined the origin and impact of Magna Carta in the middle ages and how the failed medieval treaty became the international symbol of freedom and human rights. The panel included Claire Breay, head of the medieval Manuscripts at the British Library. Claire curated a major exhibition on Magna Carta in 2015 celebrating its 800th anniversary. Richard carpenter, English historian, writer and Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London and Helena Kennedy, an expert in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues. They were in conversation with Patrick French, a British historian based in London and Delhi. Chintan Chandrachud, a judicial law expert, reflected upon the relevance and incorporation of Magna Carta in the Indian constitution.
I entered the venue with a lot of scepticism; I knew about the parchment of Magna Carta and what it meant in the modern world, especially in India where the recent attacks on civil rights have been quite disturbing, be it the use of the archaic law 66A, the ban on beef eating and attacks on dalits. The august panel only further heightened my discomfort. I looked very few faces wore that all knowing air. Most of them seemed liked my peers in ignorance, irrespective of their age. I breathed a sigh of relief. I opened my diary like a diligent student to take notes and put the phone on camera mode to take pictures.
The intelligentsia took the stage and the opening comments of Richard Carpenter breathed life back into me as he remarked that had we been born in the 13th century, most of us would either be peasants or in the king’s prison for the original ‘Magna Carta’ made no provision for the common man, especially, women. He said the British consider it their greatest gift to the world: irritated by this attitude he once called the parchment a piece of “shit” on a radio programme. He was duly warned against using such words or risk losing the programme.
Claire Breay said it was the most popular document in the world but most people including the English do not really understand the document. Thus, according to her the document has become the most flexible symbol of liberty and justice and each one interpreted it according to his or her understanding. She narrated bizarre cases where her clients wanted her to evoke ‘Magna Carta’ in cases where they were issued parking tickets. There was a thunderous laughter as Richard called it the domestication of ‘Magna Carta’. Patrick French added to the fun as he cheekily pointed to the fact that though the British are proud of this document, it was Americans who erected the first memorial of stone pillars in 1957 on the spot where King John was forced to acquiesce to the demands of his rebellious barons. The audience were amused and so were the panellists.
Helena Kennedy, jumped in and said that she was a Scot and it was the English who kept singing pean to the document. At this moment a panelist brought the house down when he said that Helena is a labour party member and rebels against her party whip in the House of Lords more frequently than any other Labour Peers. However she later admitted that like everyone else, she also used the ‘Magna Carta’ a lot. Chintan Chandrachud said that ‘Magna Carta’is a great document in its current flexible avatar. The original ‘Magna Carta’ was read several times when the Indian constitution was being formulated but it had limited impact on the Indian constitution as it did not mention the freedom of speech and religious freedom, the pillars of our constitution.
The session was enlightening and also reiterated the fact that knowing and imbibing the spirit of ‘Magna Carta’ is more important than knowing its theoretical aspect.