Glorious days: Walkout, division at first sitting of 1991 JS

Mostafa Kamal Majumder
After the election of the 1991 Parliament on 27 February that year following nine long years of movement that toppled the rule of President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, private members belonging to the BNP, the Awami League, especially those of the smaller parties were unwilling to take oath and have a sitting with Shamsul Huda Chowdhury, speaker of the JP-led Parliament in the chair. But ultimately they not only had a sitting steered by Mr. Chowdhury but also a long debate and a division on the election of a new Speaker and a new Deputy Speaker as a move for consensus election failed.Article 74(6) of the Constitution required that the Speaker of the previous parliament conducts the business of the House until his successor enters upon the office. MPs belonging to different parties did make speculations that the Speaker of the Jatiya Party-led Parliament might make the inaugural setting run into trouble if he presided it over. But actually there was little opportunity for the Shmasul Huda Chowdhury to manipulate the proceedings if the Members of Parliament (MPs) behaved in an orderly fashion. Yet there were speculations and even proposals that the first sitting could be held under a designated representative of Mr. Chowdhury.
In the face of the controversy Speaker Shmasul Huda Chowdhury designated Chief Election Commissioner Justice MA Rouf to conduct the oath taking of MPs on March 18. Awami League MPs took oath on the following day and those of the Jatiya Party 14 days later. MPs of the JP delayed oath-taking as they wanted to do the ritual in the presence of their MPs including Hussain Muhammad Ershad who was in a Gulshan sub-jail.
Meanwhile, on the first day of oath-taking on 18-March BNP leader and Speaker of the Second Parliament elected in 1979, Mirza Golam Hafiz aired his claim to be still the legitimate Speaker because the Third Parliament elected in 1986 and the fourth formed in 1988 were not legitimate and were rejected by the people. His claim to the office however did not get winds either from his own party or those of the opposition.
In the midst of the controversy Speaker Shamsul Huda Chowdhury told this writer who then represented The Daily Star that the inaugural sitting might take only five minutes. He said he would leave as his successor enters the office after taking oath from Acting President Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed very much in the Parliament Building.
Those who disliked Shamsul Huda Chowdhury said he represented a House that was rejected by the people through a mass upsurge. And thus the normal constitutional provisions did not apply in his case. However, since the oath had been taken from a person designated by the Speaker taking cognizance of his presence, the best option for him was either to resign or designate somebody to preside over the first sitting.
Shmasul Huda Chowdhury said he did not have a choice. He said, if the House did not look functioning in an orderly manner during the first sitting, he might have to adjourn it, might be for hours, to bring back order. He argued that the changeover from the JP rule was in accordance with the Constitution and the change of the Speaker would be the last step in the process. MPs who opposed this said they would not have insisted on taking oath from somebody other than Mr. Chowdhury had they been prepared to have first sitting with him in the chair.
The tug of war ended when the BNP Parliamentary Party at a meeting on 03 April decided to hold opening sitting with Mr. Chowdhury in the chair with the first business being the election of Speaker and Deputy Speaker two days later.
When the inaugural sitting of the spontaneously elected Parliament began at 9 am on Friday the 5th of April 1991, observations made by Shamsul Huda Chowdhury proved true. The proceedings were not smooth as JP members staged a boycott protesting against the detention of three of their leaders – Hussain Muhammad Ershad, former president; Moudud Ahmed, former Vice-President and Mahmudul Hasan, a former Minister. The allies in the movement against the Ershad rule also did not take much time to show their deep rift as the names proposed by the BNP to be the New Speaker and the New Deputy Speaker were not unanimously adopted.
As Barrister Rafiqul Islam Miah’s proposal of the name of Abdur Rahman Biswas to be the speaker was seconded by Abdul Matin Chowdhury, it became obvious that the opposition Awami League also intended to name their candidate for the post and Tofail Ahmed stood up to say something. At the instance of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia Speaker Shmasul Huda Chowdhury adjourned the House to allow both the sides to come to an understanding. The patch up move for long 45 minutes however proved futile.
When the house resumed business of the first sitting Tofail Ahmed proposed the name of Salahudin Yusuf for the post of Speaker. Subsequently the names of Sheikh Razzaque Ali and Asaduzzaman were proposed from the treasury and the opposition benches for the post of Deputy Speaker. At this stage Deputy Leader of the House and Education Minister Dr. AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury sought some time from the chair for unanimous election of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker. When Shamsul Huda Chowhury placed the name of Abdur Rahman Biswas for voting, Leader of the Opposition Sheikh Hasina vehemently protested saying that they were in favour of a division. Chowdhury said there could be division even after the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ votes.
Following this a number of MPs including Abdus Samad Azad and Suranjit Sengupta spoke in the house saying that such an election would create a bad precedent because the speaker is supposed to be non-partisan in running the affairs of the House. Sheikh Hasina said she stood for a division. Chowdhury sought the opinion of the Leader of the House and Khaeda Zia in reply said unanimous election was possible if the opposition withdrew its names.
BKSAL leader Mohiuddin Ahmed, AL’s Tofail Ahmed, JSD’s Shahjahan Siraj, and Worker Party’s Rashed Khan Menon made emotional speeches calling for the need to create an example of ‘give and take’. When the house met again at 11-30 am the Speaker allowed division. Abdur Rahman Biswas and Sheikh Razzaque Ali were elected Speaker and Deputy Speaker with 187 votes in their favour and 97 votes against.
During the division MPs belonging to Jamaat, Rashed Khan Menon of WP, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury of National Democratic Party, Shahjahan Siraj of JSD and three independent MPs supported the BNP candidates.
Five MPs belonging to the CPB, four members of the BKSAL, and one National Awami Parly member supported the AL candidates. Suranjit Sengupta of Ganatantri Party, Moulana Obaidul Haque of Isami Oikya Jote and JP members abstained from voting.
Leaders of smaller parties Suranjit Sengupta, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, Shahjahan Siraj, and Rashed Khan Menon tried for a consensus but failed.