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EFSAS Commentary

Massive violent protests in long-suffering Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir leave four dead amidst calls for freedom


Over the past week, Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) has been engulfed in protests, fuelled principally by the disgruntlement of the locals with the exploitative and discriminatory policies for the region that have been put in place by the government of Pakistan. Strikes and marches led by the Jammu & Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) were held in different parts of the territory, and the situation became serious on 11 May when a police officer was killed after the protests turned violent in reaction to heavy-handed treatment by the Pakistani government, which dispatched para-military troops to quell the protests. Three civilians were killed and ninety others were reportedly injured after the para-military Pakistan Rangers opened fire in the clashes that followed. Disturbingly for the Pakistani government given its rather tenuous hold over this part of J&K despite the whole of the territory of the erstwhile princely State having formally acceded to India, local media reports highlighted that calls for Azadi (freedom) were made liberally by the protestors.

The unrest began on 10 May when an activist group made up largely of traders initiated a strike in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered J&K, which soon led to violent clashes with law enforcement officers. The detention of Kashmiri activists in overnight raids had fueled the call for a strike. As analyst Tariq Naqash, writing in the Pakistani daily Dawn, reported, “After the police reportedly detained as many as 70 activists in a bid to prevent a ‘long march’ announced by the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee to press the government to comply with an agreement reached between the two in February this year, the committee spearheading the movement has announced a ‘shutter-down and wheel-jam’ strike across the region today (Friday). The public action committee has been leading a rights movement to protest ‘unjust’ taxes levied on electricity bills and observed a shutter-down strike for the same reason in August last year… Last month, the committee had announced that they would march on Muzaffarabad on May 11 to protest the ‘non-fulfilment of the commitments’ made in writing by an official reconciliation committee of cabinet members on 23 December, 2023, in pursuance of which a notification was also issued on 4 February, 2024”.

Naqash added, “In the early hours of Thursday, the police in Muzaffarabad conducted raids at the residence of Shaukat Nawaz Mir, the elected leader of traders, and several other members of the action committee. In these raids, eight committee members, including two student leaders, were detained. In Mirpur’s Dadyal tehsil, the arrest of over a dozen activists in overnight raids provoked clashes after traders held a protest at Maqbool Butt Shaheed Chowk. The teargas shells lobbed by the police also landed in a school and deteriorated the condition of several girls. The police were pelted with stones by the traders. In response to the crackdown, Nawaz Mir issued a video message from a hideout, saying that owing to the ‘brutal attitude’ of the authorities in Dadyal, the protest for May 11 had been shifted to May 10 (today)”.

Describing the protests as they gathered pace and turned violent, Naqash wrote in a sunsequent article in Dawn titled ‘Muzaffarabad grinds to halt as police, protesters clash’ that “A crippling shutterdown and wheeljam strike was observed in almost all parts of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) on Friday on the call of a people’s action committee, during which state capital Muzaffarabad witnessed violent confrontation between police and some demonstrators in different neighbourhoods till late Friday evening. The strike call was given by the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee for Friday, after several of its important leaders and activists were arrested by police in overnight raids in Muzaffarabad and Mirpur divisions. According to the committee’s earlier announcement, people from across the state were supposed to stage a long march towards Muzaffarabad on Saturday (May 11)… In three districts of Muzaffarabad division, all businesses, including banks, remained closed, and traffic and vendors off the roads on Friday. In many parts of the state capital, clashes broke out between police and demonstrators, triggered by stone pelting by the latter. In retaliation, police resorted to teargas shelling which badly affected people even in their homes and mosques. The Neelum Bridge and Bank Road wore scenes of a battleground till late evening, where video footage showed stones being thrown at the police from the western side. In return, police responded with teargas shelling and firing in the air, in addition to stone pelting”.

Writing in The New York Times, Salman Masood on 13 May reported that “Vast protests have broken out in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, driven by outrage over soaring electricity bills and flour prices in a region that has long suffered economically because of its status as a conflict zone. In an attempt to quell the growing unrest — which has led to a widespread strike and left one police officer dead and 90 injured — Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called an emergency meeting for Monday in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. As protesters planned to march this week to Muzaffarabad, the regional capital, the authorities suspended internet service in many areas and shut down schools in the city”.

Masood was of the view that the current unrest posed a challenge for the Pakistani military, which controls the region with an iron fist and maintains a heavy presence there, and the civilian leadership in Islamabad. He quoted Mubashar Naqvi, a Muzaffarabad resident and a teacher at the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as exclaiming that “I have never seen such a large-scale uprising in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This protest is unique because it unites people from all walks of life in demanding basic necessities”. Masood pointed out that the protests reflected a general feeling of dissatisfaction among the people of Pakistan-administered J&K, adding that “the Pakistani government has faced criticism for suppressing local movements seeking complete independence”. As Naqvi put it, “There’s a strong sense of anger and frustration among the Kashmiri youth, driven by political disappointment, high inflation and severe unemployment”.

Following the violent clashes over two days, the situation in Muzaffarabad seemed to calm down on 12 May, with the Rangers detachment that had been sent to Pakistan-administered J&K being withdrawn. JAAC leader Shaukat Nawaz Mir, while announcing that “The government has accepted all of our demands”, called on the protesters to return to their homes and businesses. Mir demanded the government give financial compensation to the families of the three protesters and a police official who were killed in the violence. He stressed that the JAAC was advocating for the rights of the public in Pakistan-administered J&K, “but it is the bureaucrats who do not understand the public’s needs that are doing the damage”. The JAAC was peaceful and open to negotiations, he insisted, adding that “I don’t want my forum to be controversial. We are made up of respectable politicians … the local council is standing with us”. He asserted that “Our nation is conscious now. There is no politics here, we just want our rights and identity”.

The so-called Prime Minister of Pakistan-administered J&K, Anwarul Haq Chaudhry, expressed gratitude to Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif for announcing an immediate relief package of 23 billion Pakistani Rupees for the region. Sharif, on his part, urged Anwarul Haq Chaudhry to pursue negotiations with the JAAC. Posting on X, he said, “While debate, discussion and peaceful protests are the beauties of democracy, there should be absolutely no tolerance for taking the law in one’s own hands and damaging government properties”. He added that amidst situations of chaos and dissent, “there will always be people who rush in to score political points”. Shehbaz expressed confidence that despite the efforts of “detractors”, the issue would be resolved soon.

However, Rana Sanaullah, adviser to the Prime Minister on political and public affairs and a senior leader of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, admitted that the situation in Pakistan-administered J&K had been “mishandled”, and that the damage could have been mitigated had both parties chosen the path of negotiations. Speaking on a Geo News programme, he said, “This situation was mishandled. The PM has called the JAAC to the table with respect. If this had happened earlier, it would have been better and the damage would not have been done”.

An editorial in Dawn on 14 May went a step further and highlighted what has now become a recurring problem in Pakistan. It suggested that “The centre and the government in Muzaffarabad should have addressed these long-festering issues before the people’s anger led them to the streets. Sadly, it is the norm across the country to address issues only when they have ballooned into a full-blown crisis. In Gilgit-Baltistan, only a few months ago, the local population had staged protests along similar lines”.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid in his article titled ‘Pakistan’s Not-So-Azad Kashmir’ in The Diplomat magazine also drew a comparison with Gilgit-Baltistan, which along with what Pakistan calls ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK)’ forms the Pakistan-administered sections of J&K. Shahid wrote, “Multifaceted protests have exploded in Gilgit-Baltistan, which Islamabad has long carved into a geopolitical loophole for its strategic interests. However, it is the part of Kashmir that Pakistan describes as ‘Azad,’ meaning free, where a volatile rupture with Islamabad is most palpable. A civil disobedience movement led by the Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) has been underway in AJK over the past eight months, protesting inflated electricity and wheat prices… The JAAC maintains that given AJK’s contribution to Pakistan’s power generation, the locals should be the first beneficiaries of the region’s hydroelectric projects”. Shahid added that as Shaukat Nawaz Mir had pointed out, “AJK contributes up to 3,500 MW worth of electricity to Pakistan. Our peak consumption is around 400 MW. We should be given electricity at the production cost”. The region contributes over a third of Pakistan’s total hydropower generation of around 8,000 MW. 

Interestingly, Shahid also observed that “Pakistan commemorates every February 5 as Kashmir Solidarity Day across the country, in addition to GB and AJK. Ubiquitous rallies customarily echo slogans deeming united Kashmir as Pakistan’s ‘jugular vein’, with much of the national discourse aimed at condemning India’s rule. Meanwhile, addressing the plight of the Kashmiris under Pakistan’s control isn’t a part of any such vows or deliberation”.

The regional Rising Kashmir daily on 15 May described the events in Pakistan-administered J&K over the past week as “unprecedented bloodshed, violence and human rights violation of the people by the Pakistan Rangers”. It asserted that the people of the region “have realised that after illegal occupation of the Jammu and Kashmir territories in 1947 when the princely state acceded to India, Pakistan has exploited them to the worst possible limits. It has vandalised its ecosystem and environment and subjected the political activists to severe human rights violations. Most of them are in exile”. Reminding readers that Pakistan has for several decades used Pakistan-administered J&K “as the launching pad to engineer terrorism against India in Jammu and Kashmir and indulged in genocide of innocent people”, the Rising Kashmir daily postulated that “The changing political dynamics” in the region clearly showed that Pakistan-administered J&K “is on the path to freedom from Pakistan. Its people want end of slavery imposed on them by Pakistan”.

Such views coming from within Jammu & Kashmir would suggest that even if the current round of protests has eventually been brought under relative control for now, it is evident that the issue of Pakistan’s forcible hold of J&K’s territory while subjecting its people to near-colonial exploitation will come under increasing scrutiny and pressure in times to come.