Protests in PoK triggered by high power tariff, escalating flour prices, privileges for elite - Hindustan Times

Protests in PoK triggered by high power tariff, escalating flour prices, privileges for elite

May 21, 2024 09:30 AM IST

Due to Pakistan’s illegal occupation of the region and arguably, the scale of the uprising, the protests have expectedly garnered reactions from Indian leaders.

Recently, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) or as Pakistan calls it “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” (AJK) was besieged by violent protests, with thousands thronging the streets, killing 4 and injuring 100 others. They were triggered for three key reasons: inflated electricity rates not in line with the hydropower generation costs in PoK, an increase in flour prices, and the lopsided privileges conferred upon its society’s elites.

Protests erupt in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (Photo - ANI) PREMIUM
Protests erupt in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (Photo - ANI)

Last month, PoK’s Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), the group spearheading the protests, announced they would march to Muzaffarabad, the regional capital, on May 11, as the government had failed to deliver on its promises it had agreed to in December last year. On May 9 and 10, in a bid to stymie the march, the government arrested around 70 JAAC activists, going so far as conducting raids on the residence of the committee’s chairman, Shaukat Nawaz Mir. This propelled him to announce a “shutter-down and wheel-jam strike” across the region and advance the march date from 11 to 10, the Dawn reported.

How has Pakistan responded?

Initially, the government response was defined by a focus on security, deploying paramilitary forces, known as Rangers in Muzaffarabad despite the peaceful nature of the protests. Additionally, the government shut down government offices and educational institutions and partially suspended internet services in the region.

Shortly after, on May 13, Shehbaz Sharif, the country’s newly elected prime minister, unveiled a 23 billion subsidy package as a last-ditch attempt to quell the protests. Now, the rate of 40kg flour was reduced from 3,100 to 2000, and the electricity tariff was brought down to 3, 5 and 6 for 100 units, 300 units and more than 300 units respectively.

After this announcement, the Rangers were ordered to move out of the region. However, on the same day, their 19 pick-ups and five trucks, while exiting, were met with stone pelting near Shorran Da Nakka village, the Dawn reported. This prompted them to employ teargas shelling and firing, due to which three protestors were killed. Hence, the pacifying effect that the subsidy package was intended to have could not be implemented or have an impact amid the violence.

However, a day later, Nawaz Mir declared that “the government has accepted all of our demands”, and urged the protestors to revert to business as usual, while also requesting the government to financially compensate the families of three protestors and one policeman killed during the violence.

PoK’s status within Pakistan or the lack thereof

Before delving into how India has responded to the protests, PoK’s status within Pakistan merits some elaboration. Constitutionally, Pakistan has only four provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Pakistan occupied parts of Kashmir in October 1947, which now comprises the so-called AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB; referred to as “Northern Areas” till 2009). GB was a part of AJK until the signing of the Karachi Agreement in 1949, after which it was separately administered by the Pakistan government.

Article 257 of Pakistan’s Constitution, though does not mention AJK explicitly, outlines that: “When the people of the State of Jammu and Kashmir decide to accede to Pakistan, the relationship between Pakistan and the State shall be determined in accordance with the wishes of the people of that State”. Although PoK is not a part ‘of’ Pakistan per se, for all practical purposes, it is controlled by the government in Islamabad.

The Azad Jammu & Kashmir Interim Constitution Act of 1974, which is in place today, established an AJK Council that purportedly acts as a bridge between the governments in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad while having the power to legislate on 52 subjects. Given that the council is chaired by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, with headquarters in Islamabad, he acts as the final arbiter of matters related to PoK, significantly curtailing the powers of the Muzaffarabad government and excluding the people of PoK from the decision-making enclave. Moreover, under this act, the PoK government cannot make any laws pertaining to its inter alia defence and security, currency and external affairs.

India’s Take

Due to Pakistan’s illegal occupation of the region and arguably, the unprecedented scale of the uprising (at least in recent years), the protests have expectedly garnered reactions from Indian leaders. And, the high-pitch electioneering season in India that is currently underway only implies that this has come with an added touch of rhetoric by incumbent government leaders.

The external affairs ministry spokesperson, Randhir Jaiswal, said the protests were “a natural consequence of Pakistan’s continued policy of systemic plundering of resources from these territories, which remain under its forcible and illegal occupation”.

External affairs minister, S Jaishankar, made multiple comments, which are indicative of India’s positioning on PoK. For instance, on May 9, he said that following the abrogation of Article 370, people have come to understand the importance of PoK and that, every political party is committed to ensuring the return of the region to India. In another instance, while reiterating that “PoK will always be a part of India”, Jaishankar juxtaposed the development on both sides of Kashmir, saying that someone living in PoK must be comparing their situation to those living in Jammu and Kashmir.

On the other hand, Union home minister, Amit Shah, took a dig at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah (also a part of the Congress-led INDIA alliance), both of whom had alluded that because Pakistan has atom bombs, we should not exercise our rights over PoK. Shah has asserted that “the Narendra Modi government is not afraid of atom bombs, and that PoK belongs to India and we will take it back”.

The leaders’ claim to PoK has a constitutional basis. On February 22, 1994, when the militancy in Kashmir was at its peak, the Indian parliament unanimously passed a resolution. It enunciated that the state of Jammu & Kashmir has been, is and shall be an integral part of India, and called upon Pakistan to vacate the areas it had occupied through aggression. Since then, the resolution along with the 1947 Instrument of Accession, through which the ruler of the erstwhile princely state of J&K acceded to India, has served as India’s official stance on PoK.

It must be noted that, when laying claim to the occupied parts, India does not differentiate between AJK and GB; instead, it refers to them collectively as PoK.

Any differentiation by the GOI is for the sake of geographical clarity when pointing out the two parts of PoK. As V.K. Krishna Menon aptly put it at the UN in 1957: “My government uses the words ‘Azad Kashmir’ without accepting the connotation of the word ‘Azad’ means ‘free’, we do not accept the term as meaning free Kashmir forces…we have to use the language as it is given, and it should be understood that we do not regard it in its literal sense”.

Notwithstanding India’s response to the protests, some Pakistani leaders have hinted at foreign interference, a claim firmly denied by the JAAC. This shift in focus risks undermining the protestors’ cause and the grievances of the PoK’s populace, perpetuating their troubles and hampering the region’s stability.

Bantirani Patro is a research associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.


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