Magna Carta and the story of modern democracy

The long journey from the rights of a few to the rights of all


We have attained freedom, liberty, equality, justice and rule of law not in one single instance in our civilization, but we had several stages of progress in this regard. Magna Carta is considered one such important stage. It did not provide complete equality, freedoms and rule of law but it laid the foundation for this to progress, which expanded over the centuries into a charter, which guarantees individual liberties, equality and justice to all, irrespective of race, religion and class.

We now take our liberties and rights for granted, and the way of life it guarantees us as inherent. But what we now have came after a long process of evolution, and many a time they flowed out of something else quite unintended.

Magna Carta or great charter that is synonymous with the fundamental rights and rule of law that are the cornerstones of modern democracy. Much of the world now believes that the Magna Carta came out of an eruption of a long suppressed yearning among the common people for protection against monarch and the nobility. Rather it came out of  struggle between 40 barons and their King John, who had emptied the royal treasuries in a fruitless war with France, and the barons were no longer willing to meet his demands for higher taxes, which led to preparing a charter Magna Carta to protect the barons from the king’s demands.So, it was not for people’s protection.

But the spirit of Magna Carta was cherished by those who fought for social democracy for centuries and it is often invoked whenever and wherever people struggled against injustice and freedom. Mahatma Gandhi invoked it in South Africa when he fought for racial equality, and freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Martin Luther King invoked it when they were struggling for people against oppressive regimes.

Like those English barons in Magna Carta they too were arguing for limiting the oppressive and unjust powers of the regime, but not just for themselves but for all their people. The story of modern democracy is about the long journey from the rights of a few to the rights of all.

Idea of social democracy and the rule of law is not restricted with the Magna Carta and its acceptance. The fact is that the king rejected the Magna Carta soon after it was presented to him.The first democracies long preceded the Magna Carta of 1215. Even as early as the sixth century BC several ‘independent republics’ existed in India as Ganas. The main characteristics of these Ganas were a Raja, elected by legislature. The legislature met regularly and passed laws pertaining to finances, administration and justice.

While the Licchavis, who held sway over Nepal and a major part of northern Bihar, were governed by elected legislature Shakyas, the clan to which Gautama Buddha belonged, had assemblies/legislature open to all people, rich or poor, and noble or common.

The greatest contribution to the evolution of democracy as a philosophy was in Athens where great philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle lit up public discourse with their brilliance and original thinking. Socrates and his pupil, Plato, deliberated on the role of a citizen within a community and laid down the foundations of the political philosophy that flourished in Athens and spread to most of the world over the next 2,500 years. Aristotle, who counted among his students Alexander the Great, dwelt more on systems of government and who first qualified liberty as the fundamental principle of democracy.

Aristotle wrote in Politics: “Now a fundamental principle of the democratic form of constitution is liberty — that is what is usually asserted, implying that only under this constitution do men participate in liberty, for they assert this as the aim of every democracy.”

In the years following, more than 1400 years ago, Islam made a major influence in the world specially on the concept of equality for all,specially on gender equality. Men and women are equally created in their basic humanity. Discrimination on the basis of gender, colour, lineage, class, race, or language is strongly prohibited in Islam. Equality does not mean that all are completely alike since there is no denial about natural differences. The two genders complete and complement each other. 

Allah says in the Quran, “O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer.” (4:1)

In another verse, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted” (Quran 49:13)

Resoundingly, the Qur’an declares that “there shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256). Belief is an individual choice ― or, rather, it is a choice involving the individual and God. Therefore, forced conversions are simply unacceptable, and anyone who would use force rather than persuasion to promote religion must ignore the view of the person central to the Qur’an.

The capstone of the qur’anic case for liberty is the fact that not even the Prophet Muhammad could impose or force people to profess Islam. When people were unreceptive to the message of Islam, the Qur’an explicitly reminded him that he was never to resort to coercion: “Your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel them [to believe]” (88:21). Evidence from Islamic history suggests that this view was held not only by Prophet Muhammad but also by his political successors. In one recorded example, an elderly Christian woman came to see the caliph Umar and then refused his invitation to embrace Islam. He became anxious that she might have perceived his invitation as compulsion. “O my Lord,” he said, expressing his remorse, “I have not intended to compel her, as I know that there must be no compulsion in religion … [R]ighteousness has been explained and distinguished from misguidance.”

Later the modern world made steadfast progress towards social democracy in the light of scientific inventions made this progress speeded up specially with the exploration and settlement of new territories in the globe, specially Americas and Africa.The evils of colonialism and slavery were fought through the idea of social democracy.

This principle that “whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign” has always had to contend with the rights of the individual. In the United States, which was created after a great debate among the founding fathers as a democracy, it was by majority will that slavery flourished till the civil war. It took another century before equal rights for black people became the majority will.

This constant struggle for individual rights against the will of the collective has been the central story of the evolution of the modern democratic state.Independent India by contrast provided for all these rights and liberties from the beginning in its Constitution.To most of us citizens in democratic states, our life is also a constant struggle against the assertion of collective will to trample individual liberties or the rights of smaller groups.

So, the rise of democratic and elected parliaments in England and Scotland (torchbearer of modern social democracy) just 50 years after the Magna Carta, demanded to share power. It is from the Magna Carta that the writ of habeas corpus evolved, safeguarding individuals and their freedoms against unjust and unlawful imprisonment with the right to appeal. It is from this emergence of petitioning for the production of the body that parliaments in due course became to be increasingly used as a forum to address all the concerns and grievances of common people.

Magna Carta, greatly expanded over the centuries into a charter, which guarantees individual liberties, equality and justice to all, irrespective of race, religion and class and that struggle is still on till date to have a better social democracy. So,we have these freedoms which we enjoy have evolved in different stages and we hope this evolution should never stop.

*The writer is the Director, Centre for Objective Research and Development (CORD), a Lucknow-based organisation that works in the field of education.

Other articles by Athar Husain:

US and India must learn from MLK and Gandhi, end the politics of hate




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