The contrast on both sides of the Line of Control [LoC] that delineates Jammu and Kashmir [J&K] and Pakistan occupied J&K [PoJK] couldn’t have been more pronounced. In J&K, a slew of development activities on war footing complimented by a humongous tourist influx were good reasons for its people to celebrate New Year. On the other hand, the beleaguered people of PoJK had nothing to cheer about and Pak-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan [POGB] residents were forced to usher 2024 with the announcement of a massive protest in all districts over spiraling wheat prices.
Anger amongst the people of POGB is justified as its puppet government installed by Islamabad has through a notification dated December 26, 2023 increased the price of wheat from Rs. 20 to Rs. 36 per k.g. with effect from January 1, 2024. While this inordinate hike is shocking, the government’s ludicrous stand that the extraordinary 80 percent hike won’t have any negative impact on the people is downright absurd. That’s why it’s not at all surprising that Tehreek-e-Islami [TeI] Gilgit Baltistan has called for public protests commencing from January 2.
ANI has mentioned that TeI leader Sheikh Mirza Ali had revealed that the government’s decision to hike wheat price was arbitrary and not arrived at through consensus after consultation with all stake holders as officially claimed. He also cited “symbolic protests” held against this move in six districts as proof of public dissent. Ali summed up the prevailing situation in POGB by saying, “There is no internet, there is no electricity and there are no facilities. I wish that this administration, rather than dropping a ‘bomb of inflation’ on us, could have tried to take control of load-shedding.”
For the impoverished people of PoJK who are being denied basic amenities by Islamabad, the wheat price hike comes on the heels of a unimaginable increase in electricity tariff that has led to widespread protests with the people collectively deciding not to pay their inflated electricity bills. Besides being attacked by the “bomb of inflation”, the people of PoJK are up in arms against continuing disempowerment through denial of their fundamental right to freedom of speech.
Discontent has been simmering in PoJK since long but the world doesn’t know much about it as Pakistani media either doesn’t report it, or does so in an extremely perfunctorily manner. An example is the massive public rights movement that has been going on in PoJK since May with widespread rallies against both the POGB and Pakistan governments.
Expressing solidarity with PoJK Awami Action Committee, students from PoJK also held protests in major Pakistani cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi demanding revival of the student union, fee reduction and better hostel facilities. While these demands expose the inadequacy of educational facilities for PoJK students, their plea for creation of anti-harassment committees that include both male and female students highlights the discrimination students belonging to PoJK face within Pakistan.
Besides denying fundamental rights to the people, muzzling dissent in PoJK is also commonplace. An example is the sealing of the Central Secretariat of Gilgit Baltistan United Movement [GBUM] by the authorities in October, barely three weeks after its inauguration and arresting Shabbir Mayar who is General Secretary of Awami Action Committee and chief organiser of Gilgit Baltistan United Movement [GBUM]. Mayar rightly referred to these disturbing developments as “a blatant attempt by the state to keep non-state dissidents out of politics.” [Emphasis added]. Mayar’s arbitrary arrest has angered locals of POGB since it is obvious that it was an attempt to prevent him from speaking out against the recent targeted killing of a local teacher by assassins with backing of the establishment.
Despite growing opposition, there’s no indication that Islamabad is ready to give people of PoJK their fundamental right to freedom of speech. To make matters worse for scribes, a new bill titled ‘Azad Kashmir [PoJK] Defamation Act 2021′ was tabled in the PoJK Legislative Assembly last month. Once it becomes a law [which it invariably will], any journalist found guilty of criticizing PoJK policies, departments and institutions in the press or social media can be imprisoned, and courts have to decide on such cases within 90 days. Such a draconian law applicable in only PoJK clearly indicates how Islamabad is marginalising the Kashmiri people.
The ongoing protests in PoJK have two interesting features. One, breaking social taboos, the women of PoJK have started assuming a greater role in the ongoing protests. Two, the students are also demanding that the control of PoJK resources should be given to its people. While large scale participation of women in protests will create additional headaches for law enforcement agencies [LEAs], this path-breaking trend will surely attract international attention on the institutionalised repression of people living in PoJK, which Islamabad can ill afford. And giving right of resources in PoJK to its people is unthinkable as it would annoy Beijing which is merrily exploiting the same!
Lastly, Islamabad which keeps accusing New Delhi of committing atrocities in J&K needs to revisit its own human rights records in PoJK. Defence of Human Rights [DHR], a respected and non-partisan Pakistani non-governmental organisation has in its 2023 report revealed that during the last year, PoJK recorded 20 enforced disappearances. Out of these, while 17 individuals abducted by Pakistan Army, its intelligence operatives and LEAs were subsequently released, two persons, though traced, continue to remain in illegal confinement, while one individual has been the victim of extra judicial execution.
Pakistan needs to realise that just by naming PoJK “Azad” [free] Jammu and Kashmir it can’t fool the international community into believing that people here enjoy freedom. Conversely, PoJK residents are constitutionally debarred from questioning the legitimacy of PoJK’s alleged “accession” to Pakistan.Islamabad has always treated PoJK as a colony and though its people have grudgingly lived like second class citizens for more than three-quarters of a century, they are not prepared to do so any longer.
Islamabad hence needs to wake up and smell the coffee before it’s too late!
Tailpiece: The sorry state of affairs and poor living conditions in PoJK are not hidden from the world. In 2017, residents of Simmranpur, a small nondescript village of 800 people in Kanpur district of Uttar Pradesh in India were greatly annoyed due to lack of basic amenities like electricity and water as well an indifferent village headman who refused to acknowledge these live problems.
So, the hapless villagers decided to draw attention of the authorities to both their pathetic condition and the apathy of their headman through an appropriate parallel. Accordingly, they took the collective decision of renaming their village “Pakistan occupied Kashmir,” andvowed to continue referring to it as such till the authorities improved their living conditions. The fact that this renaming incident had nothing whatsoever to do with politics says a lot.
But is Islamabad willing to listen?