Protests in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir expose grievances


Friday, 17 May 2024 (09:40 IST)
Activists in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir say the recent protests over soaring food and energy costs reflect larger problems involving the semi-autonomous region's local government and the central government in Islamabad.
On Monday evening, four people, including one police officer, were killed after paramilitary forces, called rangers, responded to protests in the regional capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Muzaffarabad. An estimated 100 people were injured.
Authorities also shut off internet services and closed schools in response to the unrest. 
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif approved $82 million (€75 million) worth of subsidies on Tuesday in a bid to defuse the situation by partly meeting the protesters' demands.
The head of the semi-autonomous administration, Chaudhry Anwar ul Haq, said that the funds would be used to substantially lower the price of flour and electricity.
Akhter Ali, a fruit vendor from Muzaffarabad, told DW that this week's uprising in the region had been "unprecedented."
"The soaring inflation was unbearable, so this huge people's protest was required," he said.
Shaukat Nawaz Mir, chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), a civil society group that organized a protest march, told DW that the local government was "incompetent" and had "miserably failed to serve the people."
He added that after the intervention of the federal government, the JAAC wanted also to see the Muzaffarabad government  "invest in its people."
Long history of tension in Kashmir
Many tensions in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir center on the territory's legal status as semi-autonomous. The region has a strong sense of tradition and identity separate from Pakistan.
Since the partition of India after the end of British colonial rule in 1947, life in the Kashmir valley has been shaped by ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. The region is claimed in full by both countries, but ruled in part by each. This status as a conflict zone has severely hampered investment in the economy.
Kashmir had semi-autonomous status until 2019, when New Delhi scraped guarantees enshrined in "Article 370" of India's constitution and took direct control over the territory.
Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is run by a semi-autonomous government. The territory of 4 million people has its own parliament and prime minister.
However, many people believe this semi-autonomy only exists on paper, and consider the semi-autonomous government as a "puppet" of Islamabad.
This sentiment has grown more intense recently, with activists blaming the machinations of government in Islamabad for the economic crisis.
"These protests are continuation of a year-long movement for the restoration of basic rights and an end to the exploitation of resources by Islamabad and its puppets in the occupied region," Toqeer Gilani, president of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), an activist group, told DW. 
But the level of violence seen this week is rare.
Dissatisfaction with Islamabad
The unrest began on Friday evening after a group of traders started a strike in Muzaffarabad that ended up in clashes with police forces.
It came after at least a year of activists demanding more action from the regional government to address skyrocketing food and energy prices.
One demand is the reduction of electricity costs, considering it is generated by the hydroelectric Mangla Dam which is located in the region.
Activists said it was long-running dissatisfaction that allowed the protests to quickly gain traction and gather tremendous support from all sections of society, especially from those who find themselves more and more unable to afford food and energy.
"Unbearable and illegal taxation, with growing prices of food, electricity, end of subsidies on flour and the misuse of public funds by the political and bureaucratic elite have triggered this large-scale movement for rights," said activist leader Gilani.
Call for a change in behavior
The economic woes faced in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir are also reflected in Pakistan proper, as the country deals with an ongoing financial crisis. Activists blame mismanagement and interference from Islamabad for exacerbating economic problems in Kashmir.
Gilani said that locals were beginning to "understand" that "actually it is Islamabad who is responsible for all their miseries," and added that the recent protests had triggered a larger movement calling for change in the behavior of Pakistan's [military] establishment.
"Everyone in PoK is frustrated due the looting of resources by Pakistan establishment, bad governance, poor infrastructure and Islamabad's dubious role in a 77- year-long inhumane occupation of the region by India and Pakistan," he said.
Pakistan's prime minister has dubbed the protests "worrisome," saying some people want to destabilize the region.
"Certainly, among those driving this movement were individuals who, with their legitimate demands, were fulfilling their duty in a democratic manner. However, it cannot be denied that there were some malicious elements whose sole purpose was to cause destruction, loss of human lives and create chaos in PoK," he said on Thursday during a visit to the region.
Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistan representative to the United Nations told DW that the protests and economic crisis were part of a larger problem for the federal government.  
"The cost-of-living crisis is affecting people everywhere in the region. Public anger is then directed at the government in Islamabad, which is expected to alleviate people's economic plight," Lodhi said.

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