A Polarising Tenure as Pakistan’s Chief Justice & Umar Ata Bandial’s Legacy

Published: 18 September 2023

By Imran Chowdhury BEM

London UK  – As Umar Ata Bandial prepares to bid farewell to his role as Pakistan’s 28th Chief Justice this Saturday, the nation stands divided in assessing his legacy. With nearly 20 months at the helm of the judiciary, Bandial leaves behind a complex and contentious record that has left many in favour of and against him.

Born in Lahore, Bandial took on the prestigious role of Chief Justice in February 2022, when Pakistan was mired in a deep-seated political crisis. At the epicentre of this turmoil was the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a formidable opposition coalition determined to unseat the government led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, chiefly through a vote of no confidence in the parliament.

Bandial faced a defining legal challenge just two months into his tenure. He boldly declared the decision by the then-deputy speaker of parliament to dissolve the house “unconstitutional.” Leading a five-member top court bench, Bandial ordered the reinstatement of the National Assembly, a move that set the stage for Khan’s eventual removal as the PDM alliance pressed forward with their no-confidence motion against the government.

Khan’s ouster in April of the subsequent year triggered a cascading sequence of events that continues to send ripples through Pakistani politics. Over the following 18 months, Bandial found himself at the centre of many petitions, often laden with political undertones, solidifying his image as a deeply polarising figure in the nation.

Bandial’s legacy as Chief Justice is etched with his involvement in many controversial cases and consequential decisions. His tenure bore witness to high-stakes legal battles and momentous judgements that have left an indelible mark on Pakistan’s political terrain. His detractors contend that political considerations sometimes swayed his rulings, while his supporters assert that he remained steadfast in upholding the principles of justice and the rule of law.

One of the most notable chapters in Bandial’s legacy is his pivotal role in restoring the National Assembly. By nullifying the house’s dissolution, he played a critical part in safeguarding the democratic process, ensuring the people’s duly elected representatives could carry on with their legislative duties.

However, his critics point to what they perceive as needing more consistency in his judgments. They argue that Bandial’s rulings occasionally appeared to align with the ruling party’s interests, fueling allegations of bias. This perceived partiality only deepened the chasm between his admirers and critics.

Bandial’s tenure also witnessed his stewardship over several other contentious cases, ranging from human rights issues to political accountability and constitutional interpretation. His approach to these cases frequently evoked strong reactions from various segments of society, underscoring the profound divisions that characterised his tenure as Chief Justice.

As Umar Ata Bandial readies himself to relinquish his role as Pakistan’s Chief Justice, his legacy remains a topic of intense debate and scrutiny. While some will laud him as a defender of democracy and the rule of law, others will remember his time as Chief Justice marred by controversy and allegations of partiality. Regardless of one’s perspective, it is undeniable that Bandial’s tenure has left an enduring imprint on Pakistan’s legal and political landscape, one that will continue to shape the nation’s discourse for years to come.

Pakistan’s Democracy at a Crossroads

Beyond the legacy of Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, Pakistan’s democracy finds itself at a critical juncture. While the country’s legal luminaries often engage in high-stakes legal battles, a growing chorus of voices questions whether they adequately scrutinise the nation’s democratic processes and their intricate ties to controversial and ultra-sensitive entities. Critics argue that a lack of comprehensive legal oversight has hindered Pakistan’s progress towards a robust rule of law. The intricate relationships between politics and specific opaque forces remain largely untouched, leaving many to ponder if a more rigorous examination of these dynamics by the legal community is necessary to provide the nation with a more straightforward path toward the rule of law. In a country where the intersection of politics, security concerns, and the rule of law is fraught with complexity, the role of legal stalwarts in shaping the trajectory of democracy takes on heightened significance.