In memoriam: Subas Chandra Nembang, the sweet man at seventy

Subas Chandra Nembang's legacy is not merely etched in the annals of Nepali politics. It is a testament to the power of unwavering dedication and good cheer in the face of formidable challenges.

Tika P Dhakal

  • Read Time 4 min.

Subas Chandra Nembang was born on the 11th of March in the year 1953 in the beautiful district of Ilam, often referred to as the ‘district of the rising sun’. And he passed away on the early morning of the 12th of September 2023, leaving behind a rich legacy that will forever shine as brightly as the rising sun itself.

Subasji had a distinguished public life, which was primarily projected through the practice of his politics. However, many will have forgotten that he was equally brilliant as a Supreme Court lawyer and as an academic in his role of the lecturer of Criminal Law and Constitutional Law at the Nepal Law Campus of Tribhuvan University. He taught there for seventeen years before taking to full-time politics, with somewhat reluctance. I dare say ‘reluctance’ because I have heard accounts from senior politicians and insiders of how Subasji would go into hiding whenever he was asked to take up active political roles and how he had to be ‘convinced’ to be brought to the Upper House of Parliament.

It was in 1993 that Subasji took up his first public office as Member of the Upper House. That same year, he briefly assumed the role of Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs. One of his notable contributions as a minister was his introduction of the bill to institute an independent and autonomous National Human Rights Commission. Although, this effort did not succeed in the first attempt, he kept pushing successive governments with help of human rights defenders, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Commission a few years later. This memorial is therefore also an honor to Subasji’s profound trust and commitment for human rights.

From 1996 until his passing, Subasji represented Ilam Constituency 2 in the House of Representatives, winning four consecutive elections. This remarkable feat brought him the distinction of serving the nation as a parliamentarian for three decades, the only short interruption being the period of direct royal rule by then-king Gyanendra.

Subasji’s most significant contribution to the nation emerged during the eight full years of his tenure as the Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chair of two Successive Constituent Assemblies. In these crucial roles, he not only displayed exceptional leadership and maturity but also injected much-needed wit and humor into the often-dry parliamentary proceedings, making them engaging and appealing to all. Subasji possessed the rare ability to bridge political divides, maintain nonpartisanship, and exhibit unwavering and unending patience (which sometimes felt self-inflicting!). These qualities proved instrumental in the arduous task of drafting the Constitution in the highly polarized environment, with so many parallel and cross-cutting political and social divides.

During the constitution-making process, Nepal faced daunting challenges. On one side, there was a Maoist party, rooted in its ideology and still in possession of arms and combatants. Among other things, it advocated bringing the judiciary within the parliamentary umbrella and also ethnicity-based federalism.  There were various political forces clamoring for a single province along the entire length of Tarai plains, spanning over a thousand kilometers from east to west. Numerous armed groups were operating outside the constitutional framework. In the meantime, the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML could be considered the ‘CENTRIST’ political forces that stood for multi-party parliamentary system, much along the lines of the previous constitution of 1990, albeit with some reforms. These contradicting views most of the time did not seem reconcilable. It felt several times as if democracy itself was at stake.

Subasji’s leadership was nothing short of indispensable in navigating the country through such turbulent waters. From making relentless efforts for consensus within the larger polity to running the Parliament smoothly through the highly charged political debates, it was easy to see why he rapidly became irreplaceable to our constitution-drafting process. The Constitution that we have today is definitely a collective outcome of the maximum consensus achieved among all political parties of the Constituent Assembly. However, the captain with the handle on the rudder was Subas Chandra Nembang.  His stature grew during the constitution writing as everybody’s go-to person, the healer and mediator sought after by all sides for political problem-solving.

His most recent focus as a senior parliamentarian and one of the top leaders had been to find solution to the Transitional Justice process, which remains one of the unfulfilled promises of Nepal’s Peace Process. He was aware of its political and legal entanglement and was deeply involved till the last in finding a compromise in the amendment bill that was being negotiated (and is still so) between the political parties, with the conflict victims and rights defenders on alert.  

It will be correct to say that while having to work closely with the political leaders of all hues, his position was victim-centric, pro-human rights and solution-oriented. Subasji was equally aware of Nepal’s international human rights obligations and the high value of the Supreme Court decisions which have such power of precedence and not just within Nepal. A domestic consensus on Transitional Justice which could bring an international support was his ultimate goal, and the ultimate tribute to him will be when that is achieved.

Subasji looked on politics as a public service and in its increasingly murky arena, his own integrity never came under question. In Singha Durbar, his office of the CPN-UML parliamentary party, of which he was the Deputy Leader (and the Vice Chair of the party itself), was always full of people keen to meet him to seek counsel and provide information, knowing that he would use them well.  He was a patient listener, a rare quality among the politicians of the day.

The Constitution we have today is a collective outcome of the maximum consensus achieved among all political parties of the Constituent Assembly. But Subas Chandra Nembang was the captain with the handle on the rudder.

Away from politics and public life, Subasji absolutely loved football.  His interest in the beautiful game was really deep, which I think provided his mind with respite amidst the sound and fury of mainstream politics within which he was a player, sometimes as a defender and other times a dribbler.  

Subas Chandra Nembang’s legacy is not merely etched in the annals of Nepali politics. It is a testament to the power of unwavering dedication and good cheer in the face of formidable challenges. As we bid farewell to this extraordinary soul, who was the Sweet Man at Seventy, and who was this chaperone of the Constitution of Nepal, his light continues to shine in our hearts, much like the rising sun over the hills of Sri Antu and Fikkal of Ilam, the district he made his home.

Subasji is dearly missed, but his legacy lives on.

[The above article is a memorial address by Tika P Dhakal at the commemoration event of Subas Chandra Nembang organized by Tanka Prasad Acharya Memorial Foundation on October 6. Dhakal is Former Adviser to the President of Nepal and currently a Distinguished Fellow of Peace and Democracy at the Institute of Social Democracy and Justice.]