Protests in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir reflect frustration with disempowerment and interference from Islamabad

With the death toll rising and political stability at risk, the region’s deep-seated governance and economic issues come into sharp focus once again.

Published : May 27, 2024 18:50 IST - 10 MINS READ

Pakistani rangers cordon off a street during a protest by the Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) against rising electricity and flour prices, on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad on May 13.

Pakistani rangers cordon off a street during a protest by the Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) against rising electricity and flour prices, on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad on May 13. | Photo Credit: SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP

In the picturesque but politically turbulent region of Jammu and Kashmir, history seems to repeat itself with an eerie regularity. This time, however, the unrest, linked to political disillusionment and economic problems, is coming from the Pakistan-occupied parts of the divided region.

In the 1987 Assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir, which was widely criticised as rigged, the alliance of Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference and the Congress came to power. As part of a power sector reform, the government raised electricity tariffs, triggering protests in the old city of Srinagar in which four people were killed by police gunfire.

LISTEN: Recent protests in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir reflect the frustration with disempowerment and with interference from Islamabad.

The protests quickly spread and triggered the demand for azadi (freedom). This was the beginning of a protracted Pakistan-backed insurgency that has continued in the region for over three decades.

Recent events in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK, also known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir, or AJK) mirror this pattern. Faced with a hike in electricity tariffs amid soaring inflation of 17 per cent in Pakistan, residents took to the streets in protest, resulting in the death of four people. The civil rights movement, while achieving its immediate demands, highlights the ongoing problems with governance and economic instability.

India controls about 55 per cent of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir’s land area, which supports 70 per cent of the population. Pakistan controls about 30 per cent of the land area, which includes the so-called Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, and China controls the remaining 15 per cent of the land area, which includes the Aksai Chin region, the largely uninhabited Trans-Karakoram tract, and part of the Demchok sector. Pakistan has granted Gilgit-Baltistan a separate administrative arrangement and separated it from the rest of the region. On August 5, 2019, the region on the Indian side was divided into the two separate Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Also Read | ‘We have no seat in Pakistani parliament’: Justice (retd) Syed Manzoor Hussain Gillani

The areas of Neelum and Muzaffarabad in PoK border the districts of Kupwara and Baramulla in the Kashmir Valley. However, most of the area, including Bagh, Palindri, Rawalakot, Kotli, Mirpur, and Bhambar, lies on the other side of the Jammu division.

Although the Indian and Pakistani controlled regions have little in common in terms of race and language, they are linked by the boundaries drawn in the Amritsar Agreement of 1846, which still figure in official maps. Even though people across the Line of Control (LoC) remain indifferent to each other’s affairs, their political future is inextricably linked to the claims and counterclaims on their territory by the respective governments.

Historically, PoK has not been a hotbed of political unrest. The last time any major unrest occurred there was in February 1992 when the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front encouraged people to cross the LoC. The resulting conflict with the Pakistan Army was bloody and left 12 people dead and 150 injured.

Three Prime Ministers in four years

Other parallels with the “unpopular” Farooq government of 1987 are that the PoK has seen three Prime Ministers in four years since the 2021 general election. After the party of the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, won a majority that year, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Niazi was appointed head of government, but he was ousted and replaced by the businessman Tanveer Ilyas.

A year later, Chaudhry Anwar-ul-Haq, who also belonged to Khan’s party, took office with the support of Pakistan’s main political parties that were opposed to Khan. According to Justice (retd) Manzoor Gillani, a former Chief Justice of the AJK Supreme Court, this undermined public confidence in the government.

The journalist and analyst Arif Bahar argues that viewing PoK solely from a security perspective has led to a compromised leadership and festering problems. According to him, the strategy of remote-controlled leadership has failed, as evidenced by the Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) movement.

The Anwar-ul-Haq government did introduce reforms such as abolishing secret funds, awarding government contracts through electronic tenders, and cutting government spending by more than 90 per cent. Its austerity measures, such as biometric attendance checks for employees and a crackdown on tax evasion, made him unpopular among the region’s 1,27,000 civil servants.

The lack of credibility has made it difficult for the government to implement economic reforms without a public backlash. Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, a former head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI, said: “This has shown that governments without public credibility and acceptance cannot afford to implement reforms such as reducing subsidies or increasing electricity tariffs. Reforms are best carried out by regimes that enjoy the trust of the people.”

Nabila Irshad, a lawyer and leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Party, told Frontline that the unrest was not directed against the Pakistani state. However, she acknowledged that successive Pakistani governments had interfered with the tenure of the elected government to achieve certain goals, with serious consequences.

“Earlier, the weakness of the people was that they gave representation to unqualified people on the basis of caste, community, and regional affiliation. This incompetent leadership has failed to make the federal government recognise the national interest and instead focus on personal gains,” she said.

She said that the way forward was to implement true democratic principles, promote capable leadership, and ensure that the government served the people in an equitable manner.

Another politician from the region, Maria Iqbal Tarana, said the current wave of protests was a sign of change in the region and reflected the growing discontent among the people over economic hardships and perceived discrimination by the federal government in Islamabad. “The JAAC’s demands underscore a broader frustration and yearning for fundamental change,” she said.

Tarana, who is also the general secretary of the human rights wing of the Pakistan People’s Party, said that while the region had its own government on paper, led by a Prime Minister and supported by a Legislative Assembly, Islamabad had significant influence over its day-to-day affairs. “Following the abolition of Article 370 in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2019, concerns have arisen about the possible incorporation of Pakistan-administered Kashmir into Pakistan. However, the ongoing unrest is primarily due to economic grievances and local political demands rather than fears of assimilation or annexation,” she said.

Tarana said that legally PoK was neither fully integrated into Pakistan nor recognised as a sovereign state. She said the Pakistani government must heed the calls for economic relief and political fairness to restore peace in the sensitive region.

  • Violent protests erupted in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir over rising costs of food, fuel and essential utilities. There is growing discontent over the perceived discrimination by the federal government in Islamabad.
  • The PoK has seen three Prime Ministers in four years since the 2021 general election, and a lack of credibility has made it difficult for the government to implement economic reforms without a public backlash.
  • With traditional politicians on the ground not taking the lead in airing the grievances of the people, self-proclaimed nationalists are taking centre stage, supporting the creation of an independent Jammu and Kashmir state based on pre-1947 borders. 

A Prime Minister’s frustration

Long before the protests took an ugly turn, Anwar-ul-Haq himself told a meeting of the Pakistan Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Revenue that he belonged to the last generation of Kashmiris (people from PoK also call themselves Kashmiris) who still feel love and affection for Pakistan.

In the video recording of the meeting, which went viral, he can be seen explaining that the new generation is frustrated with the way the Pakistani establishment treats the regions.

In his presentation, he said that his region produced 2,600 MW of electricity, but it consumed only 350 MW. He wanted electricity at the same price as is generated at Mangla Dam in Mirpur. He said this dam produced power at Pakistani rupees 3 to 4 a unit, which is then passed on to the national grid and the power utilities, which in turn sell it to his government at Pakistani rupees 30 a unit.

A demonstration in Karachi on May 13 in support of civil rights groups protesting in Muzaffarabad.

A demonstration in Karachi on May 13 in support of civil rights groups protesting in Muzaffarabad. | Photo Credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/REUTERS

“My electricity is not available to me. First it goes to you, then to the Central Power Purchase Committee, and then to the electricity boards. Then they write losses to our account. Every year in June, they tell us that you have a deficit of 600 million rupees and that you are unable to pay this amount, and deduct it from our share in the central budget,” Haq said.

He said that every June, when his government prepared the budget and waited for funds, a huge amount was deducted at source.

He told the Pakistan Senate that when Pakistan had to build a dam, his region had given away its land and sacrificed big cities like Mirpur. He asked Pakistani politicians why they were unable to build the Kala Bagh Dam in their territory.

“Why are the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh against its construction and why do not they have the same zeal to sacrifice themselves for Pakistan as the people of AJK,” he asked.

He even warned that the successive governments of Pakistan-administered Kashmir have been pressured so much that they have stopped breathing. “I tell you that my generation will be the last one to have affection and love for Pakistan. Relations are weakening day by day. Our space is getting narrower and narrower. If we raise our voice, we will be labelled nationalists, those who are against Pakistan,” he said.

In contrast to the homogeneous population of the Kashmir Valley, the demography of PoK is complex. The region is characterised by a caste, or baradari system, which also determines voting behaviour. The predominant groups are Gujjars, Sudhans, Jats, Rajputs, Mughals, Awans, Dhunds, and a tiny group of ethnic Kashmiris. The predominant language is Pahari, which is close to Hindko and Punjabi.

The Kashmiri-speaking population, which dominates on the Indian side (52.46 per cent in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir and 86 per cent in the Kashmir Valley), accounts for only 5 per cent on the Pakistani side.

Broader frustration

Observers say the protests over specific economic grievances reflect a broader frustration with disempowerment and frequent interference from Islamabad. There are fears that Pakistan may try to integrate PoK with neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, on the pretext of ensuring law and order, and in the process dilute the region’s unique cultural and political identity and also end the people’s privilege of calling themselves Kashmiris.

Pakistan’s handling of the crisis will not only determine the future of governance in PoK but also determine the country’s diplomatic engagement and strategic posture on the world stage.

Also Read | How suspension of cross-LoC trade shattered Uri’s economy

With traditional politicians on the ground not taking the lead in airing the grievances of the people, self-proclaimed nationalists are taking centre stage. These groups gain traction by positioning themselves as opponents of both India and Pakistan and supporting the creation of an independent state of Jammu and Kashmir based on the pre-1947 borders.

Although they have little foothold in the Indian part of Jammu and Kashmir, the region is known for political accidents, twists, and turns. For this reason, the developments in PoK are being closely monitored in Srinagar and New Delhi as they are fraught with implications for stability in a region that is of critical importance to both India and Pakistan.

Iftikhar Gilani is an Indian journalist based in Ankara.

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