800 years of Magna Carta and essence of Right to Information Act

When the right to petition was first considered, human rights as an idea or a provision of law was not known.

This year, in the month of June, we celebrated eight hundred years of Magna Carta, looking at the humanity from the rights angle i.e., an individual’s right to something against the powers-that-be.

What is important in social living? Is it right to life? Do we get it without asking for it? How do we ask without any guaranteed right to ask? Right to ask is basic; right to petition is a basic need. If that is given as a right, an individual can ask for life and for everything he needs. Petitioning was equated with questioning, or challenging the authority of Emperor. Kings considered it as seditious libel. It’s a complaint against the royal rule.
They looked down upon the seeker of something. The people should take whatever is given, should not ask – that was the refrain. The right to demand was unimaginable in dictatorship regimes the world over. The right to petition is the first ever human right perhaps recognised by Magna Carta. It was won after bitter fights and bloody revolutions.


The right to petition reaches back at least to the Magna Carta in 1215. The English Declaration of Rights in 1689 confirmed that subjects were entitled to petition the king without fear of prosecution.
The Petition Clause finds its roots in Article 61 of the Magna Carta. The Article 61 provided for the presentation of grievances to the king, and required the king to redress grievances within 40 days or risk rebellion. The Magna Carta’s Right to Petition includes, if the right is abridged, the right to wage whatever war against the government needed to get just redress. The Magna Carta’s Petition Right included a Right to Rebel in the event that the Right to Petition were abridged. Right to rebel? It’s unimaginable.


The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights (United States of America) addresses five rights. The limits on government interference with religion, speech and the press took shape of first amendment rights. The right to peaceable assembly was a needed protection to exercise these first three. The Right to Petition was central to constitutional law and politics in the early United States: “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people … to petition the Government for a redressal of grievances.” The right to petition the government for redressal of grievances is the right to make a complaint to, or seek the assistance of one’s government, without fear of punishment or reprisals. The Article 44 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union ensures the right to petition to the European Parliament. The right can be traced back to the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, the Bill of Rights 1689, the Petition of Right (1628), and the Magna Carta (1215), the UNDHR in 1948 followed by the listed Fundamental Rights in Indian Constitution.


Recently in January 2007, the US Senate considered a provision as Section 1, an omnibus “ethics reform” bill. This bill included a provision (Section 220) to establish federal regulation, for the first time, of certain efforts to encourage “grassroots lobbying”. The bill said that “‘grassroots lobbying’ means the voluntary efforts of members of the general public to communicate their own views on an issue to Federal offcials or to encourage other members of the general public to do the same”.


RTI an added value to right to petition Right to petition is important even today during these modern days of democratic rule of law. Most appropriately, the right to information is an added value to that eight hundred-year-old right to petition. A just born child cries to say something. It might contain a demand, perhaps. Mother, father or doctor or somebody around has a duty and need to respond to that cry. Cry of the society of the day is right to information. Right to information is a human right. It means right to empower oneself. In the days of no governance or bad governance, information is an important tool for a citizen. Informed citizen alone could be a vibrant citizen, without whom there cannot be any purposeful democracy.


What happened to such a crucial right to petition in these 800 years since? Right to petition to get redressal of grievances is yet to be granted in a comprehensive manner. This became substantive right to good governance including ‘development.’ This is the new human right the universe is languishing for. The Citizen Charters are supposed to be declarations of public authority to serve the tax-paying citizen. The governors owe a duty to serve them. Something like issuing caste certificate or certifying income or giving permission to build a house as per building bylaws, etc. Charter should declare time-bound delivery of services to the citizen. It should have been done without somebody making a law about it. But as it is not being done, the law is needed. Some of the States gave citizens an entitlement to service as a right through a service legislation. Some limited it with mere charters. So far no State guaranteed the remedies for non-compliance of the ‘charter’ promised to citizen.


Without any system of redressal of  grievances, either of employees or of the citizens, the State cannot boast of governance, let alone ‘good governance.’ The political leadership and the bureaucracy under the guidance of political governors have almost forgotten the obligation of offering governance to the people who are paying taxes and cast their votes to rule them.


Administrative ethics Administrative ethics and law demand accountable administration. Accountability is possible only through transparency. Transparency is for the first time provided by Section 4 of Right to Information Act 2005. It’s in fact a revolution in governance. But the weakness of the law is that it remained a recommendation, not mandatory at all. The law does not even prescribe consequences for ignoring this ‘recommendation’ in suo moto disclosure clause. However, there is an alternative.


If a citizen seeks the information under Sections 3, 6 and 7 as a matter of right, it should be delivered unless hit by any of exception under Sections 8 and 9. If information requested is that which the public authority has to disclose on its own, it becomes mandatory and denial shall lead to penal proceedings. Hence, we cannot say that Section 4 is not enforceable at all. The information to be disclosed has to be shared when demanded, without even asking for identity of seeker, his address or the purpose.


The bureaucrats and arrogant administrators say the RTI should not be used for redressal of grievance. They even say it’s misuse. But the social activists rightly observe the usage of RTI for solving their complaints or seeking action on their representations is a creative use. The right to petition, recognised eight hundred years ago, has a new enforceable additional force – the Right to Information. File a petition, give reasonable gap and ask for action taken report under the RTI. The authorities are under obligation to inform the action taken or not taken within 30 days. Magna Carta’s Right to petition is strengthened.


Source: Thank you Madabhusi Sridhar for the wonderful article written in the Hans India.




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  • Aspirant

    thank you