They say names can be deceptive and there’s no better example of this than what Islamabad touts as ‘Azad [free] Kashmir’, the area of J&K under its illegal control, which is appropriately referred to as Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir [PoJK]. While Islamabad tries its best to portray the people of PoJK as a happy and contented lot, the harsh truth of the hardship and institutionalised discrimination being faced by those living in this region is a well known and established fact.
What Islamabad hasn’t been able to explain is that if the people of PoJK are indeed extremely happy being a part of Pakistan [as it so vociferously claims], then what explains inclusion of section 7  in the constitution of PoJK that reads, “No person or political party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir 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]. Such a serious impingement of fundamental rights however has let the cat out of the bag!
Yet, despite making fundamental right of expression an offence under the constitution, Islamabad still wants the world to believe that the people of PoJK are ‘azad’ and perhaps that’s why it takes so much pains to peddle its patently false narrative on this issue. And with the Government of Pakistan sponsoring the visit of controversial US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s 2022 visit to PoJK and even paying for her food and lodging, Islamabad’s sheer desperation to sell its incredulous ‘Azad Kashmir’ tale is apparent.
That those living in PoJK are treated as second class citizens is evident from the fact that acute shortage of rations and essential commodities along with frequent and prolonged power outages are forcing its residents to come out on the streets in protest. Though Pakistani media [expectedly] didn’t cover these developments, amateur videos of protests went viral on social media due to which Islamabad’s attempt to muzzle the media in a bid to keep growing unrest in PoJK under wraps came to naught.
The most conspicuous aspect in these videos is that besides the usual anti-government rant, the “kabiz fauji murdabad” [Down with the army of occupation] slogan were also raised by locals. In PoJK including Pak-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan [GB], locals are also protesting against illegal land occupation by the Pakistan army and Frontier Corps and they have prevented the security from demolishing houses and usurping land.
Due to such arbitrary actions by the Pakistan Army, denial of fundamental rights and absence of a credible system for people to redress their grievances, locals rightly feel that Pakistan treats PoJK as a colony. That’s why its residents have started threatening to join India and as a matter of right, are even demanding opening of traditional trading routes to Kashmir Valley.
Yet Islamabad contends that all’s well in PoJK and one would have surely agreed, had ground realities not suggested otherwise. On December 13, Law Minister Mian Abdul Waheed submitted a new bill titled ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir Defamation Act 2021’ in the PoJK legislative assembly which further restricts freedom of expression and the right to know.
This bizarre bill seeks to criminalise criticism of PoJK government policies, officials, departments, or institutions on print, electronic and social media and courts will have to give a verdict within 90 days. So the question that arises is- if things in PoJK are really hunky dory as Islamabad claims, where is the need for enacting this draconian law?
The answer isn’t very hard to find. Thanks to Islamabad’s abject apathy, PoJK continues to suffer immensely on all fronts. Besides severe shortage of essential commodities and recurring power failures, withdrawal of subsidies on wheat and other goods has come as a double whammy for the beleaguered people of PoJK. To add to their woes, the PoJK government seems to have little time for the people.
To make things worse, Islamabad has not only withdrawn PoJK’s electricity subsidy but also introduced a steep hike in power tariff ranging from Rs. 3 to Rs. 7.50 per unit, which the impoverished people of PoJK can ill afford. The fact that Islamabad is buying power from Mangla dam in PoJK at incredibly low rates and then charging PoJK residents more than 10 times this cost only goes to buttress the fact that Pakistan is treating PoJK as a colony and exploiting its resources without compensating the locals.
Earlier, Islamabad imposed media censorship to keep people of PoJK in the dark and used propaganda to make them believe that they were far better off than their brethren living in J&K. However, in the age of internet, people of PoJK can no longer be fooled and they are well aware of the rapid progress that J&K is making.
New Delhi’s firm determination as well as its substantial fund allocation for developmental and infrastructural improvement projects in J&K is in stark contrast to Islamabad’s discernable indifference towards PoJK. So, it is but natural that people living in PoJK not only feel cheated but also exploited by Pakistan, and hence their threat to chant anti Pakistan slogans and threats to join India are ways of expressing their deep frustration with Islamabad.
The ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] project through PoJK has added to the woes of inhabitants. While extraordinary security considerations are causing locals immense hardships, no meaningful benefit in terms of improvement in quality of life or opening up of employment avenues have come to them from CPEC. Au contraire, CPEC has been instrumental in aggravating environmental hazards in GB.
A 2018 ANI tweet mentions that “36 glacial lakes in various valleys of #Gilgit Baltistan declared dangerous due to melting, at least seven of them pose a threat to locals, says survey by a Pakistan based NGO. The region has been facing environmental issues since [the] launch of CPEC.” [Emphasis added]. Just four years later, this apprehension came true and the resultant floods caused widespread destruction and devastation in POGB.
So, with Islamabad failing the people of PoJK on all fronts but wanting to keep up appearances, its attempts to even muzzle constructive criticism is inescapable and getting the ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir Defamation Act 2021’ bill passed through the puppet PoJK government is understandable. However, whether such curbs on freedom of expression will help is doubtful, because as Abraham Lincoln had said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”