This Article is From Jun 06, 2015

Gandhi, Kipling and Magna Carta

Very few people take the trouble to read Magna Carta (the 'Great Charter'), either in medieval Latin or in translation, but someone who probably did read the text, perhaps even in the Latin, was Gandhi, who was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple during his years in London. Gandhi referred to Magna Carta explicitly in a 'farewell letter' which he composed just before he left South Africa and which was published in Indian Opinion in July 1914. He said he was referring to the Indian Relief Act as 'Magna Charta' (he used a popular variant spelling) on the grounds that the Act gave the Indian community in South Africa the right 'to have our reasonable wishes respected', that it 'vindicated Passive Resistance as a lawful clean weapon', and that it confirmed 'the theory of the British Constitution that there should be no legal racial inequality between different subjects of the Crown'.

Gandhi's reference to Magna Carta in the context of racial inequality is intriguing since, as critics have pointed out in recent years, his attitudes to black South Africans left something to be desired. But his reference to the charter is also ironic, given that centuries earlier, in 1690, British merchants challenged the monopoly of the East India Company on the grounds that it was an "infringement" of Magna Carta. These merchants were not against trade with India, and their point rather was that they wanted a piece of the pie for themselves.  

Everyone invokes Magna Carta when it suits their purposes. In the speech that he delivered at the Rivonia trial in 1963-1964, Nelson Mandela mentioned Magna Carta and said that he was an admirer of British parliamentary democracy. Mandela's statement did not keep him from being convicted by the court, sadly, and he was sentenced to life in prison; it was only in 1990 that he was eventually released. Magna Carta and the rule of law were all very well, but the racist apartheid regime was nonetheless able to throw its opponents in jail when it deemed them too threatening to the national situation.

Magna Carta was first sealed in the year 1215, which means that in 2015, the document is 800 years old. It was on the 15th of June 1215 that King John consented at Runnymede, not far from Heathrow and Windsor, to have the Great Charter written down. The charter frequently met with dissent, not least from John himself, who was a reluctant "signatory" from the start. A few centuries later, Oliver Cromwell was said to have proclaimed "Magna Charta, Magna Farta!" and he was far from alone in holding the sentiment.

The truth is that Magna Carta divided its readers from an early date, though nowadays it is mainly brought up with approval as a synonym for the rule of law or democracy. As a reminder of the rule of law, Magna Carta is rightly invoked, but the text is a product of its time, and like all historical texts, reflects the circumstances of its composition. Many of the barons who forced John's hand were just as villainous and unpleasant as the king, and to suppose that they were interested in democracy is absurd. Unfree peasants, who made up the largest group in the kingdom, were not substantially favoured by the charter. Women gained some rights as the result of Magna Carta, but the charter still privileged men over women. And so on.

Rudyard Kipling was pretty clear-headed about the events leading to the creation of Magna Carta.

In 1911, while Gandhi was still in South Africa, Kipling and C. R. L. Fletcher published a school history of England, and the book is quite perceptive about the political and religious pressures negotiated by the king and the barons. In their short history, which was "written for all boys and girls who are interested in the story of Great Britain and her Empire", the authors recognised that the charter marked a pivotal moment in the political development of England and they remarked that with the sealing of Magna Carta, "The nation had grown up." It had "come of age." Kipling wrote some of his most pedestrian verses about Runnymede, for inclusion in the history, and in parts of the poem he quotes from the charter:

You mustn't sell, delay, deny,
A freeman's right or liberty.

But while the rhyming scheme is ordinary, the poem itself underlines the importance and the fragility of what was achieved in 1215. Kipling reminds his readers of the struggle involved in gaining the extraordinary rights enshrined in Magna Carta and warns both 'mob or Monarch' not to violate the Great Charter. As several commentators have observed, you might actually forget that Kipling was a reactionary on reading "The Reeds of Runnymede".

Many passages in the charter justify Kipling's enthusiasm. It is worth reading the text in translation or, if possible, in the medieval Latin in which it was composed. Chapters 39 and 40 are two sections of the charter that caught the author's eye. Chapter 39 reads: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions...except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land." And chapter 40: "To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice." These two chapters are an important assertion of the rule of law and have formed the basis of many legal texts around the world. These chapters are still on the statute book of the United Kingdom, and these, along with chapter 61, the "security clause" that imposed a limit on the power of the king, are reasons why the Great Charter still matters today.

Unfortunately, the crucial principle of Magna Carta - the rule of law - is everywhere under constant threat. David Cameron could not offer an accurate translation of the term "Magna Carta" on American television in 2012, but in 2014 he was asking for the charter to be learned by every child in Britain. Since the UK election in early May, he has sent out signals that he is interested in amending or abolishing the Human Rights Act and restricting the influence of the European convention of human rights. Such changes would make a mockery of Magna Carta in the land of its birth.

But the UK is not the only country in the world in which the rule of law is subjected to the whims of politicians and tyrants. In a recent essay, Sudipta Kaviraj has made the case for "a historical connection to be traced between Magna Carta and the story of Indian democracy". While he is careful to refer to the achievements of democracy in India, he also recalls instances in which the rule of law appears to have been strained and even disregarded. Kaviraj writes, "The principles that took shape in Magna Carta are still centrally relevant, still threatened and still in need of active defence in the environment of Indian democracy".

Well, he has a point. The message of Magna Carta is: No person is above the law. That is a rule which everyone ought to heed, at all times, and not just on the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter.

(Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of  'The Classics and Colonial India' (Oxford, 2013)

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