Constitution protected from untimely amendments

Panel: At a time when some quarters of the population feel that Parliament may be enacting more laws than required, Speaker Jigme Zangpo has said the country should not have “too many” laws, while speaking as panelist at a discussion organised by the Nehru-Wangchuck Cultural Centre, last week.

The panel discussion was a part of the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of Dr BR Ambedkar, the chairman of India’s constitution drafting committee.

Speaker Jigme Zangpo said: “Former chief justice Sonam Tobgay used to guide judges and drafters of laws, saying that having too many laws is not good for (political) stability and maturity, as they will create instability. This was confirmed during an audience with His Majesty.”

He added: “His Majesty commanded that laws should be harmonised.”

Speaking on the salient features of the Constitution, the Speaker highlighted the importance of monarchy in Bhutan. “The institution of monarchy is the symbol of unity of the Kingdom and the people of Bhutan,” he said.

Another panelist, former chief justice Sonam Tobgay, said Bhutan wanted a rigid Constitution that would withstand untimely amendments. The idea behind it was to prevent what he called “legalistic dictatorship” from getting into the democratic system.

The former chief justice, who was also the chairman of the drafting committee, said His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo recognised the possibility of frequent amendments as a potential threat to the Constitution’s apex role.

As a result, he said Bhutan developed rigid constitutional structures that are protected from the vagaries of political prejudice and interest.

“It is important to keep in mind there may be a possibility that political parties would try to amend the Constitution in their own favour,” he quoted The Fourth Druk Gyalpo as saying.  He also said The Fourth Druk Gyalpo Commanded: “The domain of the political sovereignty and the sovereignty of people is the principle of the Constitution of Bhutan.”

The Constitution could be amended after “50 to 100 years”, but the chairperson of the drafting committee said its fundamental structures should be protected. He cautioned that any changes in the fundamental structures over a period of time would make the document “unconstitutional constitutional law”.

The Constitution has passed the first cycle and survived a decade without an amendment.

Bhutan’s Constitution contains 35 Articles and four Schedules. It is one of the shortest in the world, while India’s is the lengthiest.

Speaker Jigme Zangpo, who also spoke on the roles of elected representatives, said Parliament must enact quality laws, drawing ideas and principles from the Constitution for political stability and maturity.

The Speaker highlighted the need to respect the rule of law for the wellbeing of the present and future generations of Bhutan. And to avoid encroachment of power by constitutional bodies, he said the doctrine of separation of power was enshrined in the Constitution.

Whenever necessary, he also added Parliament should not only guide the actions of the executive body but also hold it accountable.

Panelist Jigme Zangpo said it was a matter of pride for the Bhutanese people to have Gross National Happiness (GNH) enshrined in the Constitution. “Happiness now has become a global agenda,” he said.

Within 34 years of nurturing GNH, he said Bhutan was able to take the concept of GNH to the UN, which has adopted it as one of the human development goals.

The panel discussion was moderated by Indian ambassador Jaideep Sarkar, who spoke on the salient features of India’s Constitution. He said the Indian people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds find their own expression and identity under the umbrella of the Indian Constitution.

He described Dr Ambedkar as one of India’s “greatest sons”.

Panelist Dasho Karma Tshiteem, the chairman of the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC), said many articles in the Bhutanese Constitution are inspired by Dr Ambedkar’s wisdom.

Dasho said the RCSC was established as an independent body under Article 26. He said the RCSC is similar to the public service commission in India. “In both our countries the commission is entrusted with similar responsibilities, the foremost being conducting the examinations for fair and meritocratic appointments,” he said.

“Indeed, I found from literature that Dr Ambedkar often highlighted in Parliament the importance all India civil service to man all important posts and help maintain acceptable standards of administration. We do the same in Bhutan,” he said.

In India, he said the public service commission seems to have only more of an advisory role in the matters other than recruitment. In all these functions, he however said the RCSC enjoys greater independence and authority.

A strong civil service is critical in Bhutan. “Because the RCSC is not only the main force for a strong state administration, but it also facilitates the rule of law and free and fair elections,” he said.

“This is simply because of the fact that in terms of implementation, civil servants are invariably involved in all these three areas that constitute a strong nation,” he said. Moreover, he added that as a permanent entity, the RCSC helps to provide continuity and stability in policies and programmes. “But to accrue these benefits, the commission should be strong,” he said.

Dasho also pointed out that the RCSC should provide apolitical or impartial and professional advice to elected leaders. The civil service in Bhutan is recognised as the backbone of good governance.

Panelist MP Ritu Raj Chhetri described the Constitution as a “people’s Constitution”.

The panelist said although the Bhutanese Constitution is one of the shortest in the world, it has been able to capture most of the provisions that are required for a sound democratic institution. He said one of the salient features of the Constitution is the qualification criterion for candidates contesting for the post of MP. “This is uniquely Bhutanese,” he said.

He said in the US Constitution, one has to be a millionaire to contest elections. “In Bhutan democracy was imposed upon us by a reigning monarch. Nowhere in the history such a thing has ever happened,” he said.

He said the Bhutanese democracy was similar to that of the UK, but Bhutan has further gone on to define its system as Democratic Constitutional Monarchy and that that the emphasis of the word democracy in the Bhutanese Constitution is prominent.

The discussion was graced by Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck.

Her Royal Highness gave away prizes for the winners of an essay competition  organised by the Indian embassy.

MB Subba

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