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Unrest in Pakistan : Administered Kashmir exposes underlying issues

Unrest in Pakistan : Administered Kashmir exposes underlying issues

International Desk

Violent protests in Pakistan-administered Kashmir over high inflation have left four people dead Simmering below the surface is discontent over Islamabad interfering in the region’s semi-autonomy
The Kashmir conflict remains a complex issue with profound implications for the region’s stability and welfare Protests in Pakistan-administered Kashmir over soaring food and energy costs have turned violent, exposing simmering tensions in the semi-autonomous region. On Monday, (May 19, 2024) four people, including a police officer, were killed when paramilitary forces responded to protests in the regional capital Muzaffarabad. Around 100 people were injured in the clashes.

Authorities shut down internet services and closed schools to contain the unrest. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif approved $82 million in subsidies to lower flour and electricity prices in a bid to defuse the crisis.

However, activists say the protests reflect larger grievances regarding the region’s governance and its relationship with the central government in Islamabad. Many accuse the local government of incompetence and being a ‘puppet’ beholden to Islamabad’s interference.
Tensions in Pakistan-administered Kashmir stem largely from its semi-autonomous legal status. The region, with a distinct identity and traditions, has been impacted by the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict since the 1947 partition. Both countries claim Kashmir, but each controls part of it, hindering economic investment due to its conflict zone status.

In 2019, India revoked the semi-autonomous status of its portion of Kashmir, taking direct control. Conversely, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, known as ‘Azad Jammu Kashmir’, operates under a semi-autonomous government with its own parliament and prime minister. However, many residents view this autonomy as superficial, considering the local government a ‘puppet’ of Islamabad.

This belief has intensified, with activists blaming Islamabad for the economic crisis. “These protests are a continuation of a year-long movement for the restoration of basic rights and an end to resource exploitation by Islamabad and its puppets,” said Toqeer Gilani, president of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). The recent surge in violence is unusual for the region.
ctivists accuse the federal government in Islamabad of mismanaging the region’s resources and exacerbating economic problems through bad governance and excessive taxation.

The violent protests have triggered a broader movement demanding change and accountability from Islamabad’s powerful military establishment regarding its policies in the region.
Dissatisfaction with Islamabad
The unrest began on Friday (May 17, 2024) evening when a group of traders initiated a strike in Muzaffarabad, leading to clashes with police. This followed a year of activists demanding that the regional government address soaring food and energy prices.

A key demand is to reduce electricity costs, given that the region generates power from the hydroelectric Mangla Dam. Activists noted that long-standing dissatisfaction enabled the protests to rapidly gain widespread support, particularly from those increasingly unable to afford basic necessities.

“Unbearable and illegal taxation, rising food and electricity prices, the end of flour subsidies, and the misuse of public funds by the political and bureaucratic elite have sparked this large-scale rights movement,” said activist leader Gilani.

Call for a Change in Behavior
The economic challenges in Pakistan-administered Kashmir mirror those in Pakistan, which is grappling with a financial crisis. Activists blame Islamabad’s mismanagement and interference for worsening Kashmir’s economic issues.

Gilani remarked that locals are beginning to ‘understand’ that “Islamabad is responsible for all their miseries.” The recent protests have sparked a broader movement demanding change from Pakistan’s military establishment.

“Everyone in Azad Kashmir is frustrated by the exploitation of resources by the Pakistani establishment, poor governance, inadequate infrastructure, and Islamabad’s dubious role in the 77-year-long occupation by India and Pakistan,” Gilani added.

Pakistan’s prime minister called the protests ‘worrisome’, claiming some aim to destabilize the region. “While many participants had legitimate, democratic demands, some malicious elements sought to cause destruction, loss of life, and chaos in Azad Jammu and Kashmir,” he stated during a visit.

Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistan representative to the UN, said that the protests and economic crisis highlight a larger problem for the federal government. “The cost-of-living crisis affects everyone in the region. Public anger is directed at Islamabad, which is expected to alleviate the economic hardship,”Lodhi said.

What is the Latest Situation?
As protests intensified over the past few days, the regional government deployed paramilitary forces and additional police. The Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) claims some of its leaders were preemptively arrested, prompting a general strike on May 10 and a call for protests and a long march towards Muzaffarabad on May 11.

On Saturday, (May 18, 2024) clashes erupted between protesters and police in various cities. JAAC leaders, including Aslam, urged people to join the protests and demanded the release of arrested members.

The next day, regional Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq proposed talks with the JAAC, expressing a desire to resolve issues through mutual trust. However, JAAC leader Aslam told Al Jazeera that negotiations had failed, and protesters would continue their march towards the capital.

Is There More to the Protests?
The JAAC firmly denies accusations of Indian support, stating that their demands focus solely on the welfare of the region’s residents.

“This is merely propaganda by the government. Our protest is purely for our rights, without any nationalist agenda. We seek development, fairness, and justice,” said Imtiaz Aslam, a senior leader.

Aslam, a trader from Kotli district, emphasized that the movement is self-funded and that all members must adhere to the group’s policies. “Our fight is not with the state of Pakistan but against the corrupt rule of the current government in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Whenever anyone raises their voice, the government alleges an Indian connection,” he added.

However, the issue of Jammu and Kashmir is not related to just a territorial dispute between two neighboring countries. Its spill-over effect has deeply impacted the lives of the people of the state in all its three regions – Jammu, Kashmir Valley, and Ladakh and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

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