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Tense calm in PoK, unrest far from over

May 16, 2024

Srinagar: Pakistan-occupied Kashmir has experienced significant turmoil over the past weeks, with daily life severely disrupted due to the violent suppression of protests by Pakistani forces.

 The protests were among the largest and most intense in recent years, driven by widespread discontent over the Pakistani government’s policies on basic amenities, including high electricity tariffs, reduced subsidies on wheat, and a general lack of development.

The situation escalated dramatically following the pre-emptive arrests of local leaders by Pakistani police on May 11 to prevent their planned march to the regional capital, Muzaffarabad. This heavy-handed approach, coupled with pre-existing grievances, turned the demonstrations into a full-blown crisis that refocused attention on the long-standing grievances regarding the colonial and imperial policies enforced by Pakistan in the region.

Several incidents of severe use of force and alleged human rights violations marked the protests. In Muzaffarabad, the capital, police reportedly used tear gas and shelling in residential areas, resulting in injuries to innocent bystanders, including women and children. The use of such measures in densely populated zones drew widespread condemnation for their recklessness and the harm inflicted on civilians. In another disturbing event, police in the Belah Noor Shah area of Muzaffarabad fired at a transformer, causing it to explode and leaving the area without power. This act of targeting critical infrastructure highlighted the dangerous escalation of force and the resulting chaos for the local population.

One of the most distressing reports from Muzaffarabad involved police firing guns directly at protesters at Neelum Bridge, marking a troubling development in their engagement strategies. Similarly, in Bela Nur Shah, what began as a peaceful protest turned violent when a police van was smashed by demonstrators, reflecting the pent-up frustrations and anger of the public. In another particularly harrowing incident, over fifty policemen were allegedly involved in the torture of a child in Muzaffarabad. Such actions, if verified, represent severe violations of human rights and deepen the mistrust between the community and law enforcement.

Public anger reached a peak when the Assistant Commissioner of Sehnsa, Kotli, was captured by protesters in the village of Baroiana. This incident underscored the extent of public grievance and the drastic measures people were willing to take against perceived injustices by government officials. Further inflaming the situation, a provocative poster in Rawalakot declared that Kashmir had been merged with India, exacerbating regional instability. Meanwhile, the Canada-based Jammu and Kashmir community showed solidarity with the protesters outside the Genesis Centre, indicating the diaspora’s engagement and concern over the unfolding events.

In Mirpur, at Akalgarh, police firing resulted in dozens of injuries and one fatality. A protester was fatally injured by a bullet to the chest. A policeman named Adnan Qureshi was killed during an exchange of fire in Islam Garh, Mirpur, adding to the growing list of casualties. In another tragic incident, during a lathi charge in Muzaffarabad, a protester fell into the Neelum River.

Moments of public intervention also highlighted the unrest, such as the detention of police officers accused of violence against protesters in Sahansa by civilians, who then handed them over to authorities. This rare instance of civilian arrest of law enforcement officers underscored the public’s desperation for justice.

On May 12, a mobile service internet shutdown was enforced in PoK, further complicating the situation. At Sangola village on the outskirts of Rawalakot, people surrounded Frontier Corps (FC) vehicles and blocked the road from both sides. The deployment of significant forces, including 50 vehicles from the Pakistan Army and 65 from the Rangers, highlighted the government’s attempt to quell the unrest.

Negotiations between the Joint Action Committee and the government committee failed initially, leading to the senior leader of the Joint Action Committee, Sardar Umar Nazir Kashmiri, announcing a march toward Muzaffarabad. The government’s offer of a flour subsidy was deemed insufficient, and other demands were not met, prompting continued protests.

On May 13, a Pakistani Army helicopter conducted aerial surveillance over the protesters in Muzaffarabad. At the Kohala entry point, protesters removed the flag of Pakistan. In Bararkot, Rangers opened fire on protesters, who managed to repel them. The DSP, who had come to receive the Rangers, was also attacked by protesters. In the Lohar Gali area, Rangers engaged in stone pelting, which led to further violence.

In the United Kingdom, Kashmiris organized a protest in front of the Pakistan Embassy, supporting the JAAC. This international attention reflected the widespread concern over the situation in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

The protests underscored broader issues of neglect and exploitation by Islamabad towards Muzaffarabad. The region has long been ignored, exploited, and plundered by Pakistani military dictatorships and governments. It lacks basic and essential infrastructure like mobile connectivity, roads, healthcare, and education. The Pakistani government’s failure to address the basic needs of the people in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is not just a matter of poor governance but also a reflection of its colonial approach to the region.

For over a year, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir has witnessed protests demanding essential services from the indifferent Pakistani government and its local toothless clientele administration in Muzaffarabad. The unrest began in May 2023 when residents of Rawlakote in the Poonch division protested against increased electricity charges and the withdrawal of subsidies on wheat and other staples, adding to people’s misery amidst rising inflation in this severely underdeveloped region. The civil unrest spread to the whole of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, bringing to the fore the decades-long systematic oppressive policies of the Pakistani government.

The persistent protests were a response to recurrent interference by the Pakistani government and its military establishment in the governance affairs of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. There is a consensus among local stakeholders that the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir government works under the direction of a two-star military general of the Pakistan Army’s Murree-based 12 Infantry Division in Punjab.

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on PoK, the corps commander in Murree is known to summon the prime minister, president, and other government officials regularly to outline the military’s views on all political and governance issues in the territory. This was demonstrated by the Pakistan military’s overnight coup to oust the elected government of Sardar Tanvir Ilyas in April 2023 and install its puppet administration under Chaudhry Anwarul Haq in Muzaffarabad to secure its interests.

Additionally, Pakistan deputes its civil services and police officers to oversee the administration in the region to ensure the compliance of the local government. As such, this administration is seen as merely an extension of Islamabad’s control, lacking genuine concern for the region’s welfare. This has contributed to the growing resentment among the common people against the local administration.

How successive Pakistani governments have handled Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and pursued discriminatory policies relegates its residents to second-class citizens, demonstrating Islamabad’s colonial approach. This is evident in the disproportionate diversion of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’s significant resource contributions, particularly hydroelectric power, to Pakistan’s Punjab province, while locals endure extended load-shedding and inflated electricity tariffs. Had that not been so, people would not have been forced on the roads over basic life essentials for nearly a year now, with the Pakistani administration demonstrating its disdain and indignation for the people through its indifference.

The Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), constituted of members from all districts of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, had to negotiate basic services and essentials that had been denied by Islamabad to the locals over the years, in its 10-point Charter of Demands with Pakistan’s federal government. Some of the specific demands raised in the charter include subsidies on 48 daily-use products/groceries like wheat flour, 10% free electricity generated by the Pakistani government in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, transferring of ownership of all hydroelectric projects to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir government, establishment of a National Grid Station in the region to curb load-shedding, extension of 4G internet services, tax exemptions, and refurbishment of basic infrastructure damaged by Pakistan’s resource exploitation of the region.

The hydel power projects and power scarcity in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir exemplify the broader issues. Pakistan generates nearly 3500 MWs of its total 8000 MW of hydel power from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, mainly from the Mangla Dam (1000 MW) and the Neelum-Jhelum project (969 MW) power projects. Despite this, all electricity generated in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir is transferred to the National Power Grid in Punjab by Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), which runs these projects. Instead of supplying the required power to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir residents at nominal prices as a matter of right, Pakistan sells it at highly inflated rates as per the formula of its National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), even as the region suffers from extended load-shedding. While WAPDA produces electricity from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir projects at PKR 2 per unit, the same is sold to the locals at PKR 30 per unit.

This exploitation is exacerbated by the ecological price Pakistan Occupied Kashmir has paid, including displacement and environmental degradation caused by these projects, to sustain Pakistan’s national power requirements. For instance, the Mangla Dam project, commissioned in 1967, forced the displacement of hundreds of thousands of residents in the Mirpur division, with nearly 180 villages submerged and wiped out forever. In the case of the Neelum-Jhelum project, Pakistan wrought ecological disaster in Muzaffarabad by changing the course of the Neelum and Jhelum rivers, exacerbating not only the issue of clean water availability in the capital division but also affecting the limited agricultural avenues.

Moreover, the Pakistani government has not paid the agreed-upon water royalty to the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir government in the last 56 years of Mangla Dam’s functioning, effectively sitting over billions that the local government could have used to sponsor development in the region. As such, while its waters light up the whole of Pakistan, especially Punjab province, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is subjected to darkness by the colonial approach of Islamabad. The Pakistani government and its military establishment should be thankful that the JAAC’s Charter of Demands asks for a mere 10% of free electricity from the power projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which is the region’s peak demand. This is the least that the Pakistan government could return to the people to start with, given the level of resource exploitation it has engaged in the region for the last seven decades without any accountability ever.

Additionally, the Pakistani government has weaponized the supply of wheat, a staple food in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. As local wheat production is low due to the region’s topography, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir depends on external supply. A mere 40 kg wheat bag is sold at over PKR 3100, which is beyond the economic means of much of this impoverished region that has a quarter of the population reeling under multidimensional poverty. The Pakistani government has gradually withdrawn subsidies for essential foods, forcing residents to pay unaffordable prices amidst high inflation and broader economic distress.

The violent clashes and the brutal use of force by security forces have left a deep scar on the community. The brutal suppression of protests, including the firing of live ammunition, tear gas shelling, and reports of torture, highlight severe human rights violations. The tragic loss of lives, including those of Saqib from Plate, Waqar from Dara Batangi, and Azhar from Chehla Bandi, serves as a grim reminder of the high cost of this unrest.

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