Hashim Abdul Halim: Legendary Speaker

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Hashim Abdul Halim.

One unique aspect that set Hashim Abdul Halim (1935-2015) apart from his contemporaries was the universal respect he commanded cutting across political party lines.

HASHIM ABDUL HALIM of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) served as the Speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly for 29 years, from 1982 to 2011, the longest tenure ever in the history of any Legislative Assembly in the country. He was one of those rare political personalities like Jyoti Basu, who in his lifetime became a symbol of the chair he represented. On November 2, Halim passed away after a brief illness, and his death closed an important chapter in the contemporary political history of West Bengal. He was 80 years old (1935-2015).

The CPI(M) Polit Bureau, in a statement, said Halim served the party with “utmost dedication and sincerity” and was one of the “strongest pillars” in maintaining communal harmony in the State. “Comrade Halim was known for his simplicity and humble nature. In his death, the party has lost an outstanding leader and parliamentarian. The loss to the party and the movement is irreparable,” said the Polit Bureau.

Born on June 5, 1935, Halim joined the Communist movement in 1964. In 1977, when the first CPI(M)-led Left Front government under the leadership of Jyoti Basu came to power, Halim was elected to the State Legislative Assembly and served the government as Minister of Law and Judicial Affairs until 1982. Halim himself was a practising lawyer till he got elected. His tenure as Speaker of the Assembly began from 1982 and continued until 2011 when the Left Front was defeated in the elections after 34 years in power.

One unique aspect that set Halim apart from his contemporaries was the universal respect he commanded cutting across political party lines. A stickler for rules and parliamentary traditions and norms, Halim as Speaker was a strict disciplinarian and a skilled parliamentarian who could bring under control combustible situations using diplomacy and goodwill alongside authority.

In 1987, during the height of the CPI(M)’s power in the State, when the opposition failed to secure enough number of seats to enjoy the status of “Opposition” in the Assembly, Halim ensured that the rival party got “Opposition” status, and its leader in the House enjoyed ministerial rank of Leader of the Opposition. “He would conduct the Assembly through consultations with everybody, and he would pay particular importance to the opposition parties. His death is an irreparable loss at a time when democracy and tolerance are under attack,” said CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, Surjya Kanta Mishra. Halim himself is reported to have once said that the Assembly was the house for the opposition, for the government there was Writers’ Buildings (the then State Secretariat of West Bengal).

On one occasion, when Jyoti Basu was the Chief Minister, Basu for some reason could not turn up at the Assembly on the day he answered questions relating to the Chief Minister’s Office. While most Speakers would have taken advantage of the situation and allowed the session to lapse, Halim, after consulting Basu, postponed Question Hour to another day. The incident illustrates the integrity with which he conducted his duties as Speaker. Such was his reputation, both nationally and internationally, that in 2005 he was made chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—a post he held until 2008.

Halim had a tremendous sense of humour, which he often used as an effective tool while conducting the affairs of the Assembly. “He had a marvellous sense of humour and he often used his wit to defuse tension,” said senior Trinamool Congress leader and Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Partha Chatterjee. A senior journalist recalls how once Halim caught him eating vegetable chops inside the Assembly hall. Though he rebuked the journalist for this lapse in etiquette, in the years to come, whenever the two crossed paths, he would ask the journalist in mock-seriousness, “I hope you are not having vegetable chops any more.”

Halim was also a tireless crusader for the cause of secularism and never shied away from raising his voice against intolerance and prejudice. For all the criticism he faced from the opposition during his long tenure as Speaker, he never lost their respect or regard, as was evident in the manner in which tributes flowed in from all quarters. “We have lost a legendary Speaker,” said State Panchayat Minister Subrata Mukherjee—the same Subrata Mukherjee who was once suspended by Halim.