Pak-occupied J&K’s protest: Manifestation of Islamabad’s institutionalised exploitation

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Protest at Mirpur, POJK (Photo: News Intervention)

Now that the Joint Awami Action Committee [JAAC] spearheading the ongoing protests in Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir [PoJK] has called off its present agitation, Islamabad must have certainly heaved a sigh of great relief. However, since the situation has been normalised by dishing out a financial dole of Rs. 23 billion instead of eradicating the root causes thereof, how long will peace prevail in PoJK remains a moot point.

The PoJK government has sought to pacify the agitated locals by using the financial package to subsidise flour prices as well as reducing domestic and commercial electricity tariffs. While this would bring some short term relief to locals, PoJK Premier Chaudhary Anwarul Haq has announced that this is a “permanent arrangement” and provisions for its continuation would be made in the 2024-25 federal budget. However, in absence of any further details, from where exactly will this money come from is a million dollar question!

Given Islamabad’s burgeoning economic crisis, its ability to meet this recurring financial requirement remains highly suspect. The very fact that Islamabad vacillated for over a year before releasing the financial bailout package to PoJK clearly indicates its unhealthy financial state and suggests that it isn’t in a position to regularly spare this kind of money. So, while the problem may have been temporarily addressed, it hasn’t been resolved!    

What makes the ongoing PoJK protests unique is that it’s one of the few mass movements in Pakistan that despite being apolitical in nature still has the backing of a cross section of local political parties, rights groups and overwhelming public support. For those unaware, JAAC leadership comprises ordinary people of diverse following and professions ranging from traders, transporters, lawyers and even students, united by a common determination to put an end to skyrocketing price rise and taxes as well as exploitation of PoJK residents by Islamabad.

On its part, Islamabad has been working overtime to project PoJK residents as a happy and extremely content lot. To buttress its incredulous narrative, Islamabad has even named PoJK ‘Azad [free] Jammu and Kashmir’ even though its citizens are denied freedom of expression. Article 7 [3] of PoJK constitution that states, “No person or political party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir [PoJK] shall be permitted to propagate against, or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to, the ideology of the State’s accession to Pakistan.” [Emphasis added].

Being denied their fundamental right to freedom of speech isn’t the only woe bedevilling PoJK residents. They are also being subjected to barefaced discrimination and being treated as second class citizens. An example is the partisan way Islamabad has gone back on its assurance of supplying free electricity to the entire PoJK region and complimentary clean water to Mirpur city- a commitment made the Government of Pakistan during construction of Mangla dam in Mirpur district of PoJK.

PoJK produces a whopping 4,000 MW of electricity and the power requirement of this region is a meagre 350 MW. Hence, it’s indeed very surprising that Islamabad hasn’t been able to honour its commitment of providing this miniscule amount of free electricity to the people of POJK. To make matters worse for PoJK residents, in 2013, Islamabad unilaterally ended the subsidy on electricity in PoJK- but things don’t end here.

It is brazenly exploiting PoJK and its people and this can be gauged from Muzaffarabad based prominent political activist Zahid Mughal’s revelation that “Pakistan is buying electricity from us at the rate of Rs 1.5 per unit [and] it again sells it to us at the high rate of Rs 52 per unit.” Not only this, Mughal complains that when people of PoJK “requested Pakistan to provide the electricity at the same rate,  they started calling us traitors.”

Talking of “traitors,” it would not be out of place to mention that both Islamabad and Rawalpindi view PoJK citizens with deep suspicion. Defence of Human Rights [DHR], a reputed Pakistani non-governmental organisation has in its last year’s report revealed that during 2023, PoJK recorded 20 enforced disappearances. Out of these, while 17 individuals who were abducted by the Pakistan Army, its intelligence operatives and law enforcement agencies were subsequently released, two persons, though traced, continue to remain in illegal confinement, while one individual has been the victim of extrajudicial execution. 

It’s the official apathy of the government and administration as well strong arm tactics used by the security forces and law enforcement agencies against peaceful protesters that has fueled the more than a year long JAAC protests. Moreover, besides exorbitant electricity tariff and frequent outages it’s both the acute shortage and spiraling cost of basic food items in PoJK that have put such unbearable financial strain on the people of PoJK that while many are unable to pay their electricity bills, others have refused to do so in protest.

Application of brute force by the Pakistan Army, paramilitary forces and law enforcement agencies has definitely heightened anti-establishment sentiments amongst the masses. The horrifying manner in which mobs physically assaulted police men forcefully dispersing agitators clearly indicates the unusually high level of alienation and animosity amongst PoJK citizens that has been generated by official brutality. While physical violence by protesters cannot be condoned, neither can the government and security forces be absolved of their direct complicity in precipitating this crisis by effusing to negotiate and adopting a highhanded response instead!

The JAAC led protest that turned bloody didn’t erupt overnight as there were several indicators that if the genuine public demands were not met, things could take an ugly turn. The most significant development was the JAAC’s decision to boycott the government organised annual sham ‘Kashmir Solidarity Day’ on February 5 celebrations. JAAC’s decision to observe this day as PoJK “Peoples’ Right Day” for airing their genuine grievances and videos of government sponsored functions posted on social showing only a handful of attendees was an unmistakable sign of public resentment that should not have been ignored.

Toqeer Gilani, a political activist belonging to PoJK convincingly justified boycott of Kashmir Solidarity Day functions by saying, “On the one hand, Pakistan announces to express solidarity with Kashmir on February 5; on the other hand, the same dispensation denies the basic rights to the people under its control.” He has also called Islamabad’s bluff by adding that “we can see that the propaganda of Kashmir [PoJK] is being used rapidly this year in Pakistan to distract attention from the [JAAC led anti-Pakistan] movement that is going on here.”

Despite being under Pakistan’s illegal occupation, PoJK is very much an integral part of India and as such New Delhi’s concerns on the exploitation and physical abuse of its people is fully justified, and in fact needs to be more forcefully condemned. There’s no doubt that people of PoJK are incensed by the step-motherly treatment meted out to them ever since this region was illegally occupied by Pakistan and the deadly cocktail of exorbitant hike in electricity tariff, the burgeoning inflation and phenomenal hike in cost of essential commodities as well as suppression of individual rights has triggered the current protests.

It’s also a fact that the ongoing large scale infrastructure development, launching of several people-centric social welfare programmes and government initiatives to boost tourism and investment in J&K has made this region more prosperous, and all these developments obviously haven’t gone unnoticed in PoJK.

While yawning disparity in living conditions on both sides of the Line of Control has definitely played a major role in escalating anger and frustration levels amongst those residing in PoJK,  inhuman treatment by the Pakistan Army and law enforcement agencies has prompted some PoJK leaders and activists to make calls for merger of this region with India. However, despite airing such vicious anti-Pakistan sentiments, it would still be premature to interpret the ongoing agitation as the beginning of the end of Pakistan’s control over PoJK.  

PoJK is under the tight grip of the Pakistan Army which will ensure that it makes examples of those whom it perceives to be “traitors” and with Pakistan’s Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi stating that Islamabad has evidence of a “neighbouring country” inciting these protests, Islamabad has already set the stage for facilitating uninhibited use of force by the Army to crush dissent. So even though people of PoJK may genuinely yearn to merge with India, Rawalpindi will not allow it to happen and its spy agency Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] will use every trick in the book to stifle dissent. This is no exaggeration as there are already credible indications of the same.

On the night of May 14, Pakistani poet and journalist Ahmed Farhad Shah who hails from PoJK was abducted from outside his house in Islamabad and despite directions from Islamabad High Court [IHC] to recover him, the police failed to do so. Shah had been extremely critical of Islamabad’s role as well as the Pakistan Army’s conduct during the ongoing PoJK protests and as such it is obvious as to who has orchestrated his ‘disappearance’ from the national capital.

That’s why no one was surprised when IHC judge Justice Mohsin Akhtar Kayani on May 16, directed the Ministry of Defence Secretary “to submit a concise report seeking report from relevant quarters as well as from Military Intelligence [ISI] as to how and under what circumstances the detenue has been kidnapped and abducted . . .” [Emphasis added]. Since abductions are a common occurrence in Pakistan, one doesn’t have to be a Nostradamus to predict what the defence secretary’s reply will be and how things unfold. While ISI will outrightly deny any involvement in this disappearance, Shah will suddenly reappear one fine day [though most probably in the dead of the night], but will neither lodge a police complaint nor disclose the identity of his abductors!

Tailpiece: With news that ‘unidentified’ abductors are on the prowl, while many will avoid saying or doing things that could qualify them as “traitors”, those who don’t could go missing and run the heavy risk of remaining so forever! 

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