That the higher judiciary has become inexorably involved into the political proceedings of the day is an undeniable fact in the present day political climate. As such while it was not a participant in the proceeding Senate elections, it was certainly part of the exercise – as its ruling on the eligibility of Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) candidates had been a major factor in the polls.
Considering the ceaseless controversy the judiciary is generating across the political spectrum – and the resulting antagonism that is fueling a clash of the institutions – it was hoped that the judiciary would take a back seat and not interfere in political matters beyond what it has already done. These hopes were bolstered when the Chief justice of Pakistan (CJP), Mian Saqib Nisar, explicitly assured the nation that he will ensure that the judiciary will not interfere in politics.
Alas, it seems that that message was not effectively communicated throughout the ranks. The Lahore High Court (LHC) on Tuesday issued notices to PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) seeking replies on a petition seeking a ban on speeches by PML-N leaders. Coupled with the accountability court cases against the family and contempt cases against prominent PML-N leaders, this new case in the IHC will strengthen the notion that the judiciary is specifically targeting the ruling party to the exclusion of all others.
This impression of bias is damaging as it is, but the content of this new reference – seeking to impose a ban on Maryam Nawaz and Nawaz Sharif from speaking in public – is the most dangerous and troubling element of the episode. Of course it must be noted that the court has just taken up the reference, and that it still has to examine the evidence and give a judgment; which might ultimately not sanction such a ban. But the mere fact that the court saw enough prima facie substance in the petition to entertain it should send alarm bells ringing throughout the PML-N.
Contempt of court, and the variant that the Sharif family is being accused of – judicial contempt – is a relatively undefined section of the constitution; to the extent that the court has adopted a wide range of punishments for contempt in the past.
A blanket ban on speech – for merely criticizing the courts judgment’s no less - is a grossly disproportionate punishment to seek, and for the court to consider it makes for a powder keg that can be set alight at any minute.