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Protest By Kashmiris on Pakistani Side of LoC Puts Islamabad on the Back Foot

After a year-long protest, the government has had to agree to reduce electricity prices and provide a wheat subsidy. But not before a clash between the protestors and the police that left four dead. Protestors are now considering a strike over the deaths.
Representative image of the protest. Photo: Special arrangement

Lahore: A year-long protest, which started in May 2023, finally came to an end this week when the governments of Pakistan and ‘Azad Jammu-Kashmir (AJK)’ – the official name in Pakistan for a portion of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that is currently under Islamabad’s control – both took a step back. Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif offered a Rs 23 billion grant for ‘the people of Kashmir’, along with a drastic subsidy in both wheat and electricity. But not before four people were killed in a clash between protestors and the police.

Tensions had been brewing for months. The clash that resulted ended in four people being killed – including a policeman – while dozens were injured on both sides. The protestors have now called for a strike over the four killings, saying the government must pay compensation to their families.

The government stated that they had conceded to “most of the demands” made by the organisers of the protest, the Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC). But the leader of the organisation, Shaukat Nawaz Mir, is not satisfied. After the government promised a cut in prices and a grant to the AJK government, the committee is looking at a strike over those who have been killed.

The protestors were killed on Monday (May 13), while a policeman was shot dead on May 11. The protestors maintain that their demonstrations have been peaceful, and that it was the law enforcements agencies which opened fire on them.

The protestors had several demands: subsidised flour as in Gilgit Baltistan; reduced electricity costs based on the production cost of AJK’s own Mangla Hydropower Project; and reducing the perceived size and expense of the AJK government.

Apart from the compensation given to families, the committee has also demanded that the killings must be thoroughly investigated in a judicial probe.

Protestors also expressed frustration with increased size of the AJK government, with a small land area being ruled by an “excessive” number of government ministers and bureaucrats. The argument is that a significant portion of the budget was being consumed by the current government structure, and too little is left for crucial development projects.

The protestors’ criticism was also directed towards local lawmakers, accusing them of neglecting their constituencies after securing seats.

“One of the demands included that the government should get rid of the privileges given to elite classes,” explains Tariq Naqash, a well-known journalist from AJK.

The protests had started on May 8, 2023.

“It started off as a small sit in, in the Poonch district,” says journalist Mubasher Chaudhry. “Soon more and more people started filtering in. It was an organic movement, there was no single political party attached to it.”

By introducing two new terms – ‘protected’ and ‘unprotected’ – in electricity bills, those who consumed more than 200 units of electricity were left in trouble after receiving double the expected amount as their bills. As a result, students began a protest in Muzaffarabad against this move supported by the business community, who called for a bandh.

Chaudhry says there were people from all spheres – journalists, lawyers, the business community, transporters, workers and district councilors – who came together with their demands. The protest call hit a nerve and by August 2023, the movement had spread throughout AJK, with hundreds boycotting the payments.

Protest camps were set up in front of banks; bills were collected from the public and burnt.

Representative image of the protest. Photo: Special arrangement

“I have not seen a protest of this level in this region before,” he says. “This was in response to the government’s additional taxes which were levied on electricity bills in 2023, meant for those who had higher bills. The price of flour was also increased and this did not sit well with people either. In short, everyone who was sick and tired of having to pay through their noses came together.”

Imtiaz Aslam of the JAAC said that the government had been given 10-point demands. These included cuts in the electricity prices, provision for wheat flour (there had been a wheat crisis that year), and stopping privileges to elites from the bureaucracy. The government agreed to nine of these demands – everything except the electricity prices – in February, but did not deliver on them. Locals have argued that since power is generated locally, electricity should be cheaper for them.

“Not only have they not delivered, the government has ended up in letting our protestors die, and then are blaming us for these deaths,” says Aslam.

‘Why can’t we get cheap electricity?’

“The government has huge power projects here that generate thousands of megawatts of electricity,” complains Liaquat, who was at one of the protests. “We are the ones producing it, so why are we the ones being taxed at such high rates?” Other producers too have asked why consumers are charged prices five times the cost of production.

A report by an NGO, Life Skills Development Foundation (LSDF), highlights that the protests have been happening ever since the Neelum river was diverted from Muzaffarabad, the capital of AJK, to the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project.

“However, during the current coalition government, last year organised public protest movements were conducted in an unprecedented manner, by public action committees at the city, district, regional and central levels.
A Central Joint People’s Action Committee was formed, with representatives from all districts, empowered to conduct the movement, including negotiations with the government. The report said that this public protest movement was unique in Azad Kashmir because for the past 76 years, no public movement of this type could be started by claiming the resources of Azad Kashmir and the right of ownership over them, in which the entire Azad Kashmir was organized at the public level,” said the report.

“In the same writ petition, during cross-examination, it was revealed that the Government of Pakistan has been selling electricity to the Power Department at Rs2.59 paisa per unit since 2007, which has created a lot of anxiety in the entire Azad Kashmir region because the Power Department has been receiving the NEPRA’s decided rate of Rs40 per unit.”

Aggressive response

Those close to the movement’s centre complained that the district government soon began threatening the members of the action committee by arresting and prosecuting them as pre-emptive measures.

Between May 8 and 9, the police reportedly arrested around 70 JAAC activists after raiding their residences and those of their relatives in Muzaffarabad and Mirpur divisions. “The police raided homes in the middle of the night, searching bedrooms despite the presence of women there,” says a person close to JAAC.

Kashmiri poet and journalist Ahmed Farhad was picked up by unidentified people from his home in Islamabad on May 15. The police have told his wife that he is not in their custody, but have not filed an FIR on the matter. He has been actively supporting the protests on X, and has previously written poetry about enforced disappearances in Pakistan.

On Friday (May 10), the strike and increased deployment of police had resulted in violence which exacerbated the next day. On Saturday, May 11, clashes between the police and activists resulted in the death of a police officer and dozens others were injured.

Representative image of the protest. Photo: Special arrangement

In Islamabad, in a press conference, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Niazi, the former prime minister of AJK, stated that “the protestors had a right to protest but should remain peaceful”.

“They must not give the enemy a chance to sow discord within the territory and create infighting,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan stated that it was “deeply concerned by the ongoing violence” and demanded that the protestors’ grievances be addressed. “The reasonable and legitimate demands of the region’s people must be met and their fundamental rights respected,” said the organisation, adding that it would soon be sending a fact-finding mission to the region to investigate the situation.

Federal government softens stance

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, while saying that he would visit Muzaffarabad soon to hold consultations on the issue, termed the region the”‘jugular vein of Pakistan”. He thanked President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as other political leaders and parliamentarians, in their support in accepting the protestors’ demands.

As the mood calmed in the region, the government softened its stance and announced a 23 billion Pakistani rupee package as a truce offer.

“Pakistan’s reputation is being restored, foreign delegations are visiting the country and foreign investment is also increasing slowly,” he said, saying it was because of the new government’s policies. “Because of this, the inflation rate will also be coming down soon.”

Locals, though, say they continue to feel the pressure of the state. Internet connectivity in the area has been hard to come by for the last few days, making it difficult for them to stay in contact with each other at this tense time.

Xari Jalil is a journalist who reports from Karachi and Lahore. She is also co-founder of Voicepk.net, a non-corporate/non-profit digital platform for human rights. She tweets at @xarijalil.

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