SQUABBLING and occasional brinksmanship may be in the nature of Pakistani politics and the new era of relations between the superior judiciary and politicians, but it is perhaps a welcome sign that at least on the political side, more mature responses than in years past are becoming evident. The call for restraint by MQM chief, Altaf Hussain, ahead of the Jan 7 contempt hearing by the Supreme Court against Mr Hussain should help calm the worrying escalation in accusations and recriminations between the court and the political party that dominates Karachi. Whatever the concerns, legitimate or otherwise, about the court’s foray into Karachi’s electoral and political problems, the response by the MQM until Mr Hussain’s intervention on Tuesday had drifted far from the norms and decorum of constitutional politics and institutional independence. Given the history — and the attack by members of the PML-N on the Supreme Court in 1997 in particular comes to mind here — the call for MQM workers to descend on Islamabad and protest the Supreme Court’s move against the MQM chief could easily have escalated into another shameful chapter in politician-judiciary relations in Pakistan’s history. That the possibility of a dangerous clash appears to have been averted is a testament to the good sense prevailing in a fraught environment.
Rightly, then, the focus should now switch to the Supreme Court’s increasingly liberal use of its contempt powers to stem the tide of criticism of the superior judiciary. The media has found itself in the cross-hairs as have certain politicians — the PPP senator Faisal Raza Abidi is a notable example — and it is becoming clear that some serious debate is needed on where to draw the line between unacceptable criticism that undermines the institution of the judiciary and critiques of the court’s actions that legitimately seek to inform the public and alert the court to differences of opinion rooted in reasoned argument. Robust criticism that questions the court’s actions is part of the process of strengthening the institution of the judiciary and should not automatically be seen as attacks on the judiciary’s independence or as attempts to influence it. The barring of legitimate critique and criticism will only lead to other forms of speculation and rumour. More directly, the court needs to flesh out the proper and acceptable use of contempt powers and apply them evenly. Perhaps Jan 7 can be an occasion for more complete answers.