The Pakistan Supreme Court’s remarks against the Pakistan Army and its powerful intelligence agency, ISI, are not the first by the country’s top court along these lines. Twelve years ago, the Lawyers’ Movement began as a protest against the removal of the then chief justice by an army ruler, quickly turning into a movement against army rule. Pakistan’s apex court has revelled in its independent-mindedness since then. Sadly, however, it has not made much of a difference to who rules Pakistan, not least because the court itself has been a willing instrument in destabilising democratic rule.
Taking on politicians who are perceived as corrupt and failing on governance has made it popular, but the Supreme Court’s own functioning has underlined the systemic flaws that continue to plague Pakistan. Today, if judges are still pulling up the Army and ISI and ordering them to stay out of running the country, it is in no small measure due to the actions of the higher judiciary. Less than two years ago, the Supreme Court was perceived as playing the Army’s game when it unseated Nawaz Sharif on the basis of a little used provision in the Constitution inserted in the Zia era, and later disqualified him for life. That paved the way for Imran Khan and his party to win the 2018 elections, with the ISI openly lining up all the ducks for him. Now, the verdict in which the two-judge bench has asked the ISI and Army to stay out of politics and to operate within the “limits defined by law” has come in a case the Court had taken up suo motu on the 2017 siege of Islamabad by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an extremist Barelvi group that came up after the judicial execution of the assassin of Salman Taseer. The PML(N) was in power then under PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who replaced Sharif. The Army flatly refused a government request for its help in dispersing the sit-in, but negotiated a monetary pay-out with the leaders of the protest. Pakistan’s judiciary cannot be oblivious to the reality that its instructions to the government to act against those propagating “hate, extremism and terrorism” are meaningless unless there is co-operation from the Pakistan Army, to which such individuals and groups owe their existence.
Still, what makes this verdict noteworthy is that one of the two judges on the bench is a Pashtun from Balochistan, Pakistan’s restive province. His dislike of the present government is an open secret. He is the third most senior judge in line of succession to the post of chief justice. If and when that elevation takes place, such sentiments may be heard more frequently from the Pakistan Supreme Court. Whether they add up to anything significant is another matter.