Who is the majority? Is it the majority of persons belonging to a caste or a religion? Is it the majority of a neighbourhood or a State or the whole country? The greatest threat to liberty is majoritarianism

King John ruled England from 1199 to 1216. He was, by most accounts, an incompetent king. He betrayed almost everyone he could profitably betray, but he overdid his Machiavellian stratagems, losing key allies as a consequence. He was a forgettable king.

Why do we remember him today? Because 800 years ago this month he signed a document called the Magna Carta (the “Big Charter”).
He did not sign the document out of love for liberty or equality. He signed it under duress in order to buy peace with the barons and the bishops. The barons were tyrants who treated their subjects much worse than how the king treated them. The bishops wanted power to dominate all aspects of medieval life. The Magna Carta was a religio-political project of the vested interests to grab power that led to many problems in medieval Europe but, ironically, it is remembered today as the harbinger of modern liberal democracies!

Myth and Influence
Sprinkled across the 63 clauses of the charter are promises that have enduring value. Freedom was promised to religious institutions, but the only religious institution was the Church. Protection of property rights was promised, but only a small number of barons owned land. The charter promised that “no man shall be seized or imprisoned….except by the lawful judgment of his peers”, but only knights and landowners participated in an inquest. The Magna Carta meant little for the vast majority of the people.

However, the myth and influence of the original charter persisted and it was reissued many times over the next few centuries. It is believed to have ushered in the rights-based approach to Constitutional theory. It is acknowledged as the source of the Bill of Rights (1689) that was adopted in England. Lord Denning called the Magna Carta “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”.

There is no date in history on which freedom came in a flood to all the people. It was through relentless struggle that freedom was won by many sections of the people and liberties were extended to more and more persons – sharecroppers, traders, illiterates, women, blacks, indigenous persons, soldiers on duty, prisoners, and overseas citizens.

Threat of majoritarianism
As the arc of freedom has embraced more parts of the world, regrettably, some other parts of the world have regressed into tyranny and loss of liberties. Even liberal democracies have been found to be too willing to impose “reasonable restrictions” and bend the meaning of what is “reasonable”. Liberty is a good in itself. You have the liberty to speak, to write, to eat the food you want, to wear the clothes you like, to marry the person you love, and to worship the god you believe in. How can any restriction on that liberty be “reasonable”? And who will decide what is reasonable and what is not?

If you examine the matter closely, you will find that the so-called “reasonable restrictions” reflect the will of the so-called “majority”. But who is the majority? Is it the majority of persons belonging to a caste or a religion? Is it the majority of a neighbourhood or a State or the whole country? The greatest threat to liberty is majoritarianism.

No one can be allowed to take away our liberties by a stroke of the pen. The story of the Emergency is a powerful reminder that such an attempt will fail sooner than later. Thanks to the Magna Carta, the idea of rule of law was born. The rule of law strikes at arbitrariness and enjoins those entrusted with power to use it without fear or favour, ill will or affection.

Liberty eroded by stealth
Liberties are eroded by stealth, by spreading myths, by propaganda and lies, by money power, and by muscle power. Liberties are also eroded by mischievous laws, the mischief often hidden in lofty objectives and legal jargon. Why are the property rights of small farmers (land) less important than the property rights of large corporates (intellectual property)? Why are the environmental and livelihood concerns of forest dwellers less important than the environmental and health concerns of city dwellers? Intimidation of vulnerable voters is an erosion of the hard-won right to vote. Hitler’s Germany suppressed liberties by perfecting the art of propaganda and of spreading lies. Watch the movie Selma, and you will be horrified to learn that the right to vote was denied to blacks for 100 years after the American Civil War.

The concept of liberty is expanding. Not all ideas will be universally accepted, yet each one deserves its space and needs to be expressed. Periyar E V Ramasamy broke idols and called believers fools, he acquired a large following of atheists, yet theism flourished in Tamil Nadu. Both theism and atheism found their space. Homosexuality was illegal in Ireland (largely Catholic) until 1993, yet the Irish voted this month 62 percent to 38 percent to legalize same sex marriage. People’s notions of liberty are usually very different from the official view. The answer to bad ideas is good ideas, not a ban on ideas (or beef or books or travel or cuss words in movies) that somebody considers bad.

Liberty is a good in itself and, let me recall the words of wisdom, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”.