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           Volume 11 |Issue 14| April 06, 2012 |


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Current Affairs

Et Tu, Mr Speaker

Shakhawat Liton

Dancing to the ruling party's tunes
Speaker Abdul Hamid might have forgotten the important attributes the office of Speaker, such as the independence and impartiality of his office, when he blasted the opposition leader in the parliament last month. The way he was castigating the Opposition Leader reminded us of the controversial role of his predecessor Jamir Uddin Sircar who proved his undoubted loyalty to the then ruling BNP in his term as Speaker by putting the party before the House.

Being the Speaker of the last parliament, Sircar, by his failure to demonstrate neutrality, undermined the dignity of the office of the Speaker and that of the House as well. His discriminatory behaviour towards the then main opposition Awami League MPs was easy to notice and understand. On several occasions he got engaged in arguments with the opposition deputies in the House. He did not even hesitate to switch off the microphone of Sheikh Hasina, then the leader of the opposition. There were many such instances that proved the then Speaker's partisan role.

This time, Hamid is the Speaker. There was a growing expectation that he would not follow the footsteps of his predecessor. A seasoned parliamentarian, Hamid, who was deputy speaker at the seventh parliament and also was speaker for few months after the demise of then Speaker Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, tried to live up to the expectations by keeping the office of the Speaker out of any controversy in the last three years. To a large extent, he also proved his impartiality in running the day to day affairs of the parliament. As a result the opposition MPs had got little opportunity to question his neutrality.

However March 29 was unexpectedly different when he himself got engaged in a debate; in fact, it was a tirade against the opposition leader, launched by ruling alliance's MPs. Speaker Hamid forgot the dignity and impartiality of his office and started to launch a verbal attack on Khaleda Zia and her party MPs for being absent from the House on that day.

What was the reason behind the verbal onslaught? The BNP-led opposition MPs had returned to the parliament on March 18 after ending a year long boycott and attended the proceedings of the three consecutive sittings. But when the proceedings resumed on March 29 after a recess since March 21, they boycotted the House in protest of "objectionable" statements about BNP's Senior Vice-Chairman Tarique Rahman and alleged funding of the party by Pakistani spy agency the ISI. They demanded the statements be expunged and questioned the neutrality of the Speaker.

Amid the absence of the opposition MPs, AL lawmaker Tofail Ahmed took the floor on a point of order and piloted the verbal attack against Khaleda and her deputies. Workers Party President Rashed Khan Menon, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal lawmaker Mayeen Uddin Khan Badal followed Tofail.

They said that the opposition leader and lawmakers returned to the House to save their membership and to ensure their financial benefits.

Speaker Abdul Hamid, who was presiding over the sitting, joined the bandwagon. Immediately after the tirade launched by ruling alliance MPs, he started by strongly criticising the opposition leader Khaleda and her deputies for boycotting the parliament again.

“Which one does she accept? The constitutional amendment or the caretaker government? You should specify your demand in parliament,” the Speaker said.

Hamid, who was deputy leader of the opposition in parliament when the BNP-led alliance was in power, also sharply reacted to opposition lawmakers' questioning his neutrality.

“On the question of neutrality, I'm clear to my conscience. I've mental agony, but I can't express it. If I speak the truth, it seems I'm one-sided. It's not fair. I'm neutral. I was deputy leader of the House. I cannot forget what they did at that time [in the last parliament].

“I'm under oath to remain neutral. Since the country's independence, I'm the only Speaker to have maintained neutrality. Even many developed-democratic countries do not have the example I set by showing patience."

Following the March 29 outburst, the opposition leaders strongly questioned the Speaker's neutrality and criticised his remarks. "The Speaker overreacted. It seemed it was not the Speaker, rather an Awami League MP who was speaking," says Andaleeve Rahman Partha, chief of Bangladesh Jatiya Party, a component of BNP-led alliance.

Representing the Dignity of the House
In view of the vital and vast responsibilities that a Speaker has to fulfil, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, said: “The Speaker represents the House. He represents the dignity of the House, the freedom of the House and because the House represents the nation, in a particular way, the Speaker becomes the symbol of the nation's freedom and liberty. Therefore, it is right that should be an honoured position, a free position and should be occupied always by men of outstanding ability and impartiality.”

Pandit Nehru made the comment while unveiling a portrait of Speaker Shri Vithalbhai J Patel on March 8 of 1958. Patel was the first elected Indian Speaker in the Indian sub-continent. He was elected on August 24, 1925 as the Speaker of the Central legislative Assembly and was re-elected on January 20, 1927.

The Speaker is the custodian of the House and the MPs no matter what party they belong to. The effective functioning of a parliament largely depends on the efficiency and neutrality of the Speaker. His role always upholds the dignity of the House which ensures the accountability and transparency of the executive branch. The parliament embodies the will of the people. It is the supreme political institution through which people seek to realise their aspirations, urges and expectations.

Therefore, "The speaker has to be sensitive to the atmosphere in the House. Sometimes when there is excitement, uproar, or continuous interruption in the House, he has to employ great tact, subtle with and healthy humor to contain situation, to relieve tension, and to create conditions in which orderly and relaxed debate can proceed," writes Subhas C Kashyap, a former secretary general of Lok Sabha in India, in his book Our Parliament.

Kashyap, who was associated with parliament for over 37 years, also says: "Paradoxically, the Speaker seldom speaks today. If he speaks, he speaks for the House and not to it. He takes no part in the debate of the House; he presides over the meetings of the House."

What Kashyap wrote in his book is supported by the long evolving history of the office of the Speaker. Unfortunately, the office of the Speaker in Bangladesh could not be evolved, although it has a long legacy!

Long Legacy!
The origin of the institution of the office of the Speaker in the Indian sub-continent dates back to 1921 when the Central legislative Assembly was first constituted under Montague-Chelmsford Reforms during British rule. Sir Frederick Whyte was appointed by the Governor General as the first Speaker of the Assembly on February 3, 1921 for a period of four years.

Predecessors of Sir Frederick or Patel however had experienced very tough time when they served as Speakers of the House of Commons. The Speakership under its present title dates back to 1377. It has evolved through a long period of intense struggle in British constitutional history. In the battle between the crown and the parliament over controlling the state power, the role of the Speaker was very significant and also risky.

During the struggle, seven Speakers were executed by beheading between 1394 and 1535 while some others were either put behind the bars or repressed after being subject to anger of the King or Queen, making the role of the Speaker quite dangerous. So, none of the members of parliament wanted to assume the office of the Speaker as the job was deemed risky. A practice then had prevailed—members of parliament used to drag a newly elected Speaker to his seat.

History gives testimony of the strong role of the Speakers to uphold the dignity of the Parliament. During the civil war, for instance-- on January 4 of 1642, King Charles I entered the House of Commons to arrest five members for treason and took the speaker's chair. Having looked around in vain for the five members and commenting, "I see the birds have flown," Charles turned to Speaker William Lenthall, who stood below and demanded of him whether any of those persons were in the House, whether he saw any of them and where they were.

Lenthall fell on his knees and replied: " May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here, and I humbly beg Your Majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me."

What Lenthall said 370 years ago and whatever the few hundred years-long history of the office of the speaker and what Pandit Nehru observed 64 years ago in the days of modern democracy about the dignity of Speaker do not matter much in Bangladesh as our MPs miserably fail to give priority to national interests over their petty partisan squabbles.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.


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