KARACHI, PAKISTAN — He is the first Hindu to preside over this Muslim nation's highest court. And he is now in the eye of a political hurricane engulfing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Judge Rana Bhagwandas, 64, was sworn in Saturday as acting chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court. Upon taking the oath in this southern port city, Bhagwandas was thrust into the controversy surrounding the removal of the man who had held the top job.
Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on March 9 on the basis of charges that he had abused his position. The move prompted street protests that caught the Pakistani leader off guard and triggered his most serious domestic crisis since he came to power in a coup nearly eight years ago.
Critics see Chaudhry's removal as a naked attempt to silence a judge who had embarrassed the government on several occasions, including by making a strong push to make Pakistan's powerful intelligence services subject to the rule of law. A police crackdown on lawyers and opposition politicians protesting Chaudhry's dismissal has fueled public anger at Musharraf, whose grip on power, analysts say, has been compromised as he prepares for national elections this year.
As the acting chief justice, Bhagwandas will head the panel of five senior jurists hearing the case against their colleague. Chaudhry, who was appointed by Musharraf in 2005, has called the charges a sham, and his supporters are demanding his reinstatement.
Bhagwandas, who joined the Supreme Court in 2000 after serving on the bench here in Sindh province, told reporters Saturday that the judges would "decide this case on merit, without any favor or ill will."
A member of Pakistan's tiny Hindu community, Bhagwandas has a master's degree in Islamic studies. He has been treated as something of a rock star since his return a few days ago from a visit to India. Cameras and reporters surround him wherever he goes.
He is not the first non-Muslim to preside over Pakistan's high court. In the 1960s, a Roman Catholic, A.R. Cornelius, served in the post for eight years.
But the appointment of a Hindu in a nation that was founded as a homeland for Muslims by breaking away from predominantly Hindu India, has stirred up consternation among hard-line religious parties. The Daily Times quoted an academic last week as saying Bhagwandas' elevation would be "against Islam."
Such voices appear to be in a very small minority. Many analysts and observers described Bhagwandas as an ethical judge who would act fairly.
Even a member of Chaudhry's legal defense team, which boycotted Saturday's swearing-in ceremony on the grounds that their client was still the rightful chief justice, praised Bhagwandas.
"No reasonable man can raise an objection," said attorney Tariq Mahmood. "He is a man of integrity."
No one is taking bets as to how the judges' council will rule on Chaudhry's case.
The suspended chief justice is popular among Pakistanis because of stands he has taken against powerful interests. Last year, he voided the privatization of the nation's largest steel mill, which critics said would line the already-deep pockets of a well-connected clique.
In recent months, Chaudhry has repeatedly ordered Pakistan's intelligence agencies to answer allegations that they are illegally holding dozens of people officially listed as missing.