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Making Sense of Recent Mass Protests in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir

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Making Sense of Recent Mass Protests in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir

In addition to rising prices, Kashmiris are angry that Islamabad has denied them political autonomy and rights over the region’s resources.

Making Sense of Recent Mass Protests in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir

Khawaja Farooq Ahmad, an opposition member of the Azad Kashmir Legislative Assembly, visits a person, who was injured in recent protests in Azad Kashmir, at the CMH and Abbas Institute, Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, May 18, 2024.

Credit: X/PTI Azad Kashmir

On May 13, violent clashes erupted in the so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) of Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir between civilians led by the AJK Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) and paramilitary Rangers. The clashes resulted in the death of one police official and three civilians. Close to a hundred people were injured.

Shaukat Nawaz Mir, a JAAC leader, described the firing on unarmed protestors as “state terrorism.” In addition to calling for punishment of those who fired on the civilian protestors, Mir demanded a judicial inquiry into the police action and the release of detained activists.

Days after the violent clashes, AJK Prime Minister Chaudhry Anwarul Haq said that his government had accepted the JAAC’s demands and that the federal government would provide relief to the masses. With the government accepting their demands, JAAC called off the protests.

Soon after, Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif flew down to Muzaffarabad for a special Cabinet meeting of the AJK government, where he asked Haq to constitute a committee to look for a permanent solution to issues raised by the people of AJK so that violent protests would not recur in the region.

Sharif said that charges for electricity would be fixed according to the cost of hydropower generation in AJK, and short-, medium- and long-term solutions would be formulated for issues raised by the Kashmiri leadership.

However, since there are serious underlying issues, protests could erupt again. The violence did not occur in a vacuum; tensions have been brewing for years.

While the immediate trigger for the protests was sky-rocketing electricity bills and wheat flour prices, the public outburst of anger in AJK is closely linked to its political structure.

Although “azad” means “free,” AJK is under the tight control of Islamabad. Its political structure bears a striking resemblance to the ruling set-up in Islamabad. Not only is it dominated by Pakistani parties but also it is controlled by the Pakistani military-bureaucratic setup. Hence, little autonomy rests with local AJK leaders and elites. This has triggered resentment among the masses in AJK.

Especially since last year, the prices of essential commodities have been soaring. With the AJK government lacking agency to decide on matters relating to flour and electricity prices, the people of AJK have been raising demands through the JAAC platform. When the federal government raised electricity tariffs, many people in AJK protested by not paying their electricity bills.

The suffering of the people of AJK is particularly severe as economic prospects in the region are bleak. Youth unemployment is very high; the unemployment rate in AJK is double that in Pakistan’s other provinces. People are also taxed heavily there and find it difficult to survive and manage basic needs.

The anti-poor policies of governments at the local and federal levels have caused deep anger among the people against those in power in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad. Many people in AJK view the region’s ruling elites as sell-outs to the highest bidder in Islamabad.

Amid mounting grievances against Islamabad, AJK’s traders and civil society groups came together on May 8 under the JAAC banner. With grassroots committees at local villages and markets, JAAC has managed to build a strong organization that is non-hierarchical and allows both men and women to work for the collective welfare of the region. It has mobilized support by creating public awareness of the role of the regional and federal governments in fueling the plight of the people.

According to estimates, AJK contributes almost 3,500 MW of electricity to Pakistan. Despite supplying a large amount of electricity to Pakistan’s power grid, AJK residents are not offered any concession, and instead, are required to pay tariffs as per the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority’s formula. Although it costs about 2 Pakistani rupees (US$0.0072 approximately) to produce one unit of electricity, AJK residents pay over 30 rupees ($0.11) per unit. Besides, they endure several hours each day without electricity.

The JAAC has been demanding that charges for electricity be fixed according to its production cost. Furthermore, it has demanded royalties from dams and other resources of the region.

In 2023, the Islamabad Electric and Supply Corporation (IESCO) took the matter to the Supreme Court, where it argued that extra charges were levied because electricity is exported from Pakistan to AJK. This argument ignores the fact that AJK is one of Pakistan’s main producers of electricity.

To strengthen its argument, IESCO cited the case of India levying similar charges on Kashmiris on its side of the Line of Control. Considering the sensitivity of the issue, the Pakistan Supreme Court recused itself from delivering a judgment on the matter and instead, directed the IESCO to take up the matter with the federal government.

Several rounds of negotiations between Muzaffarabad and Islamabad, and between JAAC and the AJK government, have failed to reach a consensus. The people of AJK argue that there was a tacit understanding between AJK leaders and representatives from Pakistan before the construction of the Mangla dam that they would have the first claims on electricity produced from the dam and that they would be supplied electricity free of charge. While there is no evidence to confirm this, based on the fact that the electricity produced in AJK is mainly consumed in Pakistan, the people of AJK have always felt that they deserve a fairer deal.

For decades, Islamabad has put the region’s welfare on the back burner and ruled it with an iron fist, denying its people autonomy. While the people of AJK have been demanding political, economic, and social rights on par with the rest of Pakistan, the military establishment has continued to deny them their rights, forcing the people of AJK to launch a civil resistance movement.

For example, when Pakistani authorities failed to contain the protests despite using strong-arm tactics and noticed that there were pro-India undercurrents among the protesters― protestors carried placards saying they would rather be with “Hindustan” (read India) than suffer without autonomy― they transferred funds to the tune of 23 billion rupees ($82 million) to meet the main demands for wheat and electricity subsidies.

Islamabad’s policies on AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan are aimed at keeping the Kashmir cause alive to gain strategic depth against India, and also Afghanistan. It reflects short-sighted vision, especially when the people of AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan are more concerned about their livelihood and safety rather than engaging with the Pakistani state in its grand design for the region.

With their recent protests, the people of AJK have sent out a strong signal to the ruling elites and policymakers in Islamabad that they must undertake people-oriented policies, provide real political autonomy to the people of AJK, and ensure that ownership of the region’s resources lies with its people.