Dressed in a conservative suit and trademark dark glasses, Nisar became a troubleshooter for the state and the society alike.
Pakistan’s controversial ‘celebrity’ chief justice (CJ), Mian Saqib Nisar is retiring today. His two-year tenure has been defined by extravagant judicial activism, often exceeding the powers of his office.
While his stint as Chief Justice began in a relatively well measured and prudent fashion, somewhere along the way, Justice Nisar upped the ante and assumed a more assertive posture—heralding the ‘age of Justice Nisar’.
Dressed in a conservative suit and his trademark dark glasses, Nisar soon became a troubleshooter for the state and the society alike. Leaving behind the fancy white Supreme Court (SC) building and a pile of pending cases, the CJ would frequently raid hospitals, filtration plants and prisons—with media cameras following him like his shadow.
Be it taking a sip of water from a filtration plant or throwing a muddy plate away during surprise visits to the prison, Justice Nisar would issue fiery orders on the spot to fix issues of the visiting department.
During court hearings, delivering remarks that would become headlines and talking points in several dozen TV talk shows and during social media debates was another hallmark of the CJ’s career. His verbal spat with veteran journalist Hussain Naqi and Vice-Chancellor of Lahore College for Women University (LCWU) Professor Uzma Qureshi, his controversial remarks comparing the length of speeches with women mini-skirts and his decision to avoid naming Hindus during an address with lawyers in Quetta, continued to dominate debate circles for many months.
Unlike former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who challenged General Pervez Musharraf and wrestled with the establishment by taking on issues of high importance such as dismantling the National Reconciliation Order (NRO), the Missing Persons Case and the Memogate scandal, Justice Nisar preferred multiple cases of larger public interest, which put him ahead of CJs of the recent past.
Another issue that Justice Nisar tackled during his seemingly diligent career was water crisis. Unquestionably, Pakistan’s water reservoirs are depleting and studies have underscored alarm bells—unfortunately many of those have gone unnoticed. Justice Nisar not only mainstreamed the water debate through his frequent observations but also helped establish a much-needed Dam Fund. Besides urging Pakistanis to donate for the fund through a widely televised TV ad, the CJ also flew to England to attend a dinner for fund collection. Upon criticism that such issues do not fall in the judicial ambit, Justice Nisar threatened opponents with invoking Article 6 of the Constitution (high treason) against those opposing the construction of dams.
It is yet to be seen how the government will take up the dam issue but the CJ’s exertions have, at least, birthed sanguinity among masses like never before.
As much as praise surrounds Justice Nisar, critics have labelled him the celebrity judge, who would do everything to be reckoned as messiah but circumvent restructuring his own department, the judiciary. As a result, the number of pending cases in the SC increased from around 38,000 in 2017 to over 40,000 by the end of 2018.
Besides, the number of cases pending with lower courts easily runs into millions. They also argue that despite serving as CJ for over two years, he didn’t choose to reform the judiciary, instead using suo-motu feverishly considering it a remedy to all ailments.
History would remember Justice Nisar for passing different orders in some cases that had seemingly similar facts. For instance, his judgment on the regularisation of Imran Khan’s Bani Gala residence and Grand Hyatt in Islamabad is not exactly in line with the SC’s recent verdict on the retrieval of state lands from encroachers.
With his reputation as a lone ranger on a mission to fix the state and the society, the judge-cum-administrator has made it extremely difficult for his successors to follow his ‘activism’ on similar lines.
The author is a PhD scholar at Punjab University at the Center of South Asian Studies. She was former Vice President of Peoples Party Women Wing, Punjab.