People’s Representatives Should Be Honest in Their Responsibility

Former Speaker Damannath Dhungana is a prominent figure revered for his advocacy of human rights, democracy, and civil liberties within Nepal. During the protracted ten-year armed conflict, Dhungana demonstrated significant leadership and mediation capabilities, playing a pivotal role under the guidance of Padmaratna Tuladhar in facilitating dialogue between the warring factions, ultimately fostering the peace process.

In a recent dialogue between Dhungana, a seasoned human rights activist, and Insec Online Editor Ramesh Prasad Timalsina, pertinent insights were shared regarding the prevailing human rights landscape in Nepal.

What characterized the state of human rights during the Panchayat regime? Could individuals truly exercise their human rights during that period?

Dhungana: A modern state is fundamentally predicated upon the assurance of human rights, and governance must inherently embody a humane disposition. Regrettably, the Panchayat system failed to exemplify this principle, as it fundamentally denied certain foundational aspects of human rights. The prohibition of essential individual liberties, including the right to establish and operate peaceful associations, was indicative of the system’s deficiency. The constitution of 1962, which governed the nation, was wholly shaped and enforced at the behest of the monarch, thereby precluding any legal avenue for dissent.

From 1960 until the significant turning point in 1990, it was glaringly apparent that the state’s principal policy was to stifle opposition, exemplified by the ongoing ban on political parties. In a modern state, the prohibition of political parties dedicated to non-violent and liberal values, excluding those aligned with terrorism, stands as a stark violation of fundamental human rights. However, the present reality has distanced us from these historical injustices. It is imperative that we remain vigilant to prevent the recurrence of such dark periods in any guise, thereby upholding the expectations of the populace in line with our current progress.

How did human rights advocates contribute to the democratic movement?

Dhungana: The period post-December 15, 1960, spanning approximately seven arduous years, witnessed the absence of rule of law and the erosion of human rights and freedoms. Individuals opposed to royal rule or deemed non-conformant to national interests were subjected to arbitrary treatment. Political parties were not only proscribed, but party leaders and workers also faced imprisonment, exile, or surrender. This marked a peak of autocracy within the kingdom. Despite such perilous circumstances, conscious individuals within the intellectual sphere, particularly educators and select journalists, endeavored to illuminate even the bleakest of environments. Additionally, movements like the independent student union from 1963 and various unregistered organizations, including Amnesty International and human rights groups, played pivotal roles in mitigating the oppressive climate. These entities vehemently opposed the existing system and its practices.

Furthermore, the independent constitution paved the way for transformative contributions, evident in the graduate elections of 1967 and 1971, which served to alleviate power apprehensions and foster a more congenial atmosphere.

Nepal embraced human rights conventions upon the advent of democracy. Did political acumen or advocacy efforts influence this development?

Dhungana: It is disheartening that the political landscape of Nepal necessitated a laborious 29-year struggle to reclaim the right to political organization (multi-party system), initially secured through the landmark political shift of 1950. These efforts culminated in the formation of an interim government led by Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a momentous juncture brimming with hope and confidence for the populace. Bhattarai himself endured immense suffering, subjected to egregious torture due to the state’s intolerance of human rights. Even during his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, he endured a decade of imprisonment devoid of charges or judicial proceedings, a stance that garnered global recognition within the human rights community. Amnesty International, in acknowledgment of his resilience, conferred upon him the “Special Prisoner’s Honor.” The combined commitment of Bhattarai, the goodwill of human rights advocates, political parties, and supporters of democratic transformation, precipitated Nepal’s attainment of signatory status to the Human Rights Convention subsequent to the democratic transition of 1990.

You assumed the role of Speaker after the 1991 election. Could you share noteworthy anecdotes from your time in the House of Representatives?

Dhungana: Certainly, there are numerous instances. Yet, amongst these, few rival the significance of the inaugural parliamentary session. Girija Prasad Koirala held the mantle of Prime Minister, while Manmohan Adhikari represented the main opposition leader in the House of Representatives, emblematic of the two primary political streams within Nepal – the Nepali Congress and the Left (Communist) faction. Simultaneously, my appointment as the first elected Speaker of the sovereign parliament as a representative emblematic of the post-1960 youth struggle harbored profound importance. Rather than deeming this facet as ‘interesting,’ it is more aptly characterized as a “promising juncture for institutionalizing democracy.”

What are the foremost responsibilities that a Speaker should uphold within the House of Representatives?

Dhungana: A Speaker must foremost refrain from projecting a partisan image through language, demeanor, or conduct, whether within or outside the assembly. While it is insufficient for the Speaker to solely endeavor towards impartiality, it is incumbent upon the Speaker, regardless of party affiliation, to transcend such boundaries. This imperative is accentuated upon assuming the formidable responsibility of presiding over the apex body of the sovereign citizenry.

Furthermore, the Speaker should possess a comprehensive understanding of the assembly’s rules, traditions, prior rulings, the constitution, and other national intricacies. Such erudition facilitates the Speaker’s adept navigation of responsibilities, akin to a proficient pilot, while fostering a sense of trust amongst all stakeholders.

The Speaker’s obligations bear a juridical essence, thereby demanding an equitable distribution of available time among ruling party members, the opposition, and other participants, to curtail opportunities for dissatisfaction. The paramount objective remains to administer the House in a manner that bolsters the populace’s confidence.

While the Speaker remains at the helm of assembly proceedings, the larger task of fostering a vibrant, cooperative environment is a collective endeavor involving various parliamentary officials, party whips, the Deputy Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Committee Chairpersons, and the Parliament Secretariat. The Speaker’s proficiency as a facilitator, coordinator, and mediator is pivotal, culminating in a robust foundation for the sovereign parliament and its commitment to safeguarding citizens’ rights.