Making fun of the contempt of court notices issued to him and four other PPP leaders by the Supreme Court, Babar Awan dismissed them as being of no consequence. He suggested that he had been served the notice as a punishment for pursuing the Z.A. Bhutto presidential reference. Due to these contemptuous utterings, he has been served another notice by the court asking him why his licence should not be cancelled for his behaviour that was obviously unbecoming of a lawyer. It is being argued by some that the situation should be defused in order to avoid a confrontation between the judiciary and the government. Essentially, what they are saying is that the honourable judges should not press the matter and allow puppets of the government to ridicule and mock the judiciary. This is unacceptable. The line must be drawn somewhere.

The animosity of the government towards the independent judiciary is no secret. From its wily foot-dragging on the restoration of judiciary to its never-ending defiance of court orders, this is obvious. The intemperate and contemptuous remarks and insinuation of the PPP leaders has been far more consistent and louder than the weak and hollow mantra of respect for the judiciary that is thrown in occasionally for face-saving. Last week's developments show that the belligerence and defiance on part of the government is reaching a crescendo. The PPP core committee decided that it will not write the letter to Swiss authorities for reopening the cases against President Asif Zardari, despite the approaching deadline given by the apex court. Interestingly, the clause of presidential immunity that it would like to hide behind has never been presented before the court as a reason for not writing the letter.

Ironically, the proponents of avoiding a confrontation between the government and judiciary would like the honourable judges to swallow all the bitter pills and they have no words of caution or advice for the PPP government. They would like the judiciary to step back from fulfilling its constitutional obligations and they seem to be blind when it comes to the unconstitutional behaviour of the government. Obviously, avoiding a confrontation cannot be the sole responsibility of the judiciary, especially when the only way for it to avoid that confrontation means becoming subservient to the government. If the courts were to do only what the government of the day pleases, could they be called independent? What was the point of the long mass struggle of Pakistani citizens, who fought Musharraf and Zardari to restore an independent judiciary?

Clearly, this is not a confrontation between two institutions of the State fighting for their constitutional space. The independent judiciary represents the awakened public consciousness of Pakistani citizens, a consciousness that views the rule of law as the cornerstone of governance. On the other hand, stands the government that would like to drag us back to the days when those in power were accepted to be above the law and the courts did whatever they desired. The rule-of-law movement envisioned a new just order, whereas the PPP government pines for the re-establishment of the unconstitutional status quo that was shaken by the rule-of-law movement. Those fighting for the sacked judiciary demanded to be treated as citizens with rights under the Constitution, while the present so-called democratic government would like them to accept their place in the scheme of things as subjects and serfs.

Unfortunately, instead of exercising its constitutional powers to work for the welfare of the people, the government seems to be focussed on grabbing an unconstitutional monopoly on power that fits in with a dictatorial regime. Surely, if a party manages to muster up the required number in the National Assembly to form the government, it doesn't give it the right to trample upon the Constitution and other institutions of the State. The government keeps harping on all institutions of the State conducting themselves within the ambit of the Constitution, but obviously its good advice is meant for all institutions of the State except the government itself. If the government is really so concerned about the continuation of the democratic system, it will have to start respecting the Constitution that is the basis of that system, rather than subverting it for its short-term partisan goals.

The government, however, seems to be hurtling in the opposite direction. Ever since it was forced to restore the independent judiciary in face of massive public pressure, it has tried every dirty trick in the book to make it controversial and to weaken its moral authority and popular support. The examples are too many to recount. Sometimes it pulls out the Sindh card to malign it, and sometimes it tries to paint it as partisan and biased against the PPP government. Sometimes it uses a misconceived notion of parliamentary supremacy and sometimes an equally misconceived notion of executive authority to accuse the honourable judges of encroaching upon its turf. Sometimes it sends Babar Awan with suitcases of money to bribe the bars and influence their elections, and sometimes it holds press conferences to throw around wild and vague charges against the judiciary.

In his recent address at Naudero, President Zardari addressed the Chief Justice by name and accused him of being biased for taking up only those cases that targeted the government, while ignoring, among others, the Z.A. Bhutto reference sent by him. This was clearly malicious. Anyone who has been following the court proceedings in the reference would vouch for the court's efforts to arrive at the best constitutional way of addressing the miscarriage of justice in Bhutto's murder trial. Interestingly, the proceedings were disturbed by the fallout of the contemptuous remarks made by the federation's counsel, Babar Awan. Whatever the government's reasons for such devious antics, and whatever the reasons for those arguing for defusing the situation, Babar Awan must not get away with such unacceptable behaviour this time.

The writer is an independent columnist.