Unrest in Pakistan-administered Kashmir: What’s behind the recent protests?

Why are the residents of Pakistan-administered Kashmir out on the streets and what are their demands?

Clashes took place between police and protesters in Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir on Saturday. [Amiruddin Mughal/EPA]
Clashes took place between police and protesters in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, on Saturday [Amiruddin Mughal/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan — Protesters in Pakistan-administered Kashmir have called for shutdowns and the declaration of a “black day” on Tuesday after blaming paramilitary forces for killing three young men and injuring several others on Monday evening.

A protest convoy, led by a group called the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), has been marching towards Muzaffarabad since May 11, the capital of the autonomous region bordering India, over demands including subsidised flour and electricity.

However, on Monday evening, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif approved a 23 billion rupee ($82m) subsidy programme, drastically reducing the price of wheat and flour.

Shaukat Nawaz Mir, the chairman of the JAAC, said the group had planned to turn their protest in to a celebration after the government’s decision to meet their demands, but will now protest against the killings.

“Our protesters were completely peaceful but the government’s decision to call in rangers meant that they wanted to use force against us, and now we see that three people were killed,” he told Al Jazeera.

The regional government also issued a notification ordering the closure of government offices and all educational institutions in the region. The protests, which started over the weekend, also saw the partial suspension of mobile internet services as well in some regions.Interactive_PakistanAdministeredKashmirProtests_May142024

Pakistani government officials have hinted, on social media, at “enemy propaganda” fanning the tensions — an apparent allusion to India, with which Pakistan has fought three wars over Kashmir. But officially, Islamabad has not blamed India for the crisis it faces in Pakistan-administered Kashmir just yet.

On Sunday, Sharif expressed “deep concerns” over the situation, saying that while protest is a democratic right, no one should take the law into their own hands.

“Unfortunately, in situations of chaos and dissent, there are always some who rush in to score political points. While debate, discussion and peaceful protests are the beauties of democracy, there should be absolutely no tolerance for taking the law in one’s own hands and damaging government properties,” he wrote in a message on social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter).

 

Here is a look at what the protesters have been demanding and how the government has responded so far.

What are the protests about?

The Kashmir valley is the picturesque, but contentious Himalayan region over which Pakistan and India have fought multiple wars since gaining independence from British rule in 1947. The region is claimed in full by both, but each governs parts of it.

With a population of more than four million, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, locally known as Azad Jammu Kashmir, has a semiautonomous government with its own prime minister.

According to Imtiaz Aslam, a senior leader of the 31-member JAAC which includes labour leaders, traders, transporters and other civil society members in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, their demands go back a year to May 2023.

“Our movement began last year when there was a massive wheat crisis leading to increased prices of flour, and after that there was a major increase in electricity rates, following which we began our protests and made demands to reduce the prices,” he told Al Jazeera.

Aslam, who was speaking from the region’s Bagh district while leading a convoy of hundreds of people to the regional capital, Muzaffarabad, roughly 75km (46 miles) north, said the protesters were also urging the government to rein in spending on officials. The protesters allege that slashing the bureaucracy of Pakistan-administered Kashmir could ensure it has more resources to spend on the public.

“’Civil society people are protesting all over the world. The problem here is that as soon as you make any demands, you are accused of being an agent and silenced,” he said.

What are the protesters’ demands?

According to Aslam of the JAAC, the residents put forward 10 demands before the government, nine of which the government agreed to in February but has failed to deliver.

The demands included the provision of subsidised flour, the provision of electricity at its production cost, and improved financial integration with the rest of Pakistan, allowing the bank in the region to open branches in other parts of the country.

The JAAC says the government agreed to all of the demands except for reducing electricity prices. Protesters say the people of Pakistan-administered Kashmir should get electricity at cost since it is generated locally, through Mangla Dam, situated in the Mirpur district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Aslam, the senior leader, said three months later, the government is yet to meet any of those demands.

“On February 4, we were told by the government representatives that our demands will be met except the electricity rate and promised to deliver on them within a month. Yet here we are, when instead of fulfilling our demands, they have unleashed brutal violence on our peaceful demonstrations,” the leader said.

However, Chaudhry Shaukat Ali, commissioner of Mirpur, says under Chaudhry Anwarul Haq, the prime minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the regional administration had already reduced prices of electricity and flour. But protesters say the reductions do not go far enough.

“The protesters are only shifting goalposts, as they keep coming up with new demands,” Ali said, suggesting that the demand to lower electricity prices to production cost was new.

“This is not how it is done.”

 

Kashmiris in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi also took out rally to support the protests in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]
Kashmiris in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi rallied to support the protests in Pakistan-administered Kashmir [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]

What is the latest situation?

As tensions grew during protests over the last few days, the regional government called in paramilitary forces and deployed extra police.

The JAAC claims some of its leadership was arrested pre-emptively by law enforcement officials, prompting them to call for a general strike on May 10. That was followed by a call for protests and a long march on May 11, which was to move towards Muzaffarabad.

On Saturday, clashes took place between the protesters and police in various cities in the region. The JAAC leadership including Aslam, appealed to the people to come out, and demanded that the government release those it arrested.

A day later, Anwaar-ul-Haq, the region’s prime minister, held a news conference in which he proposed talks with the JAAC. “We want to solve problems with mutual trust,” he said on Sunday evening.

But Aslam, the JAAC leader, told Al Jazeera that the negotiations had failed, and protesters would continue their march towards the capital.

Is there more to the protests?

The JAAC has firmly denied accusations it is being supported ty India and said its demands are for the welfare of the residents of the region and there is no ulterior motive.

“This is merely propaganda against our movement by the government. Our protest is purely for our rights and it does not have any nationalist agenda. We are asking for our development, for fairness and justice,” Aslam added. 

Aslam, who himself is a trader from Kotli district, says the movement was self-funded and added that the JAAC has been very clear from the beginning that whoever joins the group, has to abide by the group’s policies instead of coming up with their own slogans.

“Our fight is not with the state of Pakistan. We are only arguing against the corrupt rule of the current government here [in Pakistan-administered Kashmir]. This is what government always does, whenever anybody tries to raise voice, they allege an Indian connection,” he said.

Ali, the commissioner of Mirpur says while most of the protesters were innocent, a small minority of miscreants brought weapons, turning the weekend demonstrations violent.

“We have been gathering evidence where we know that certain elements are being financed by enemy networks. We are still focusing on the negotiations but are collecting material on our part to compile and then take action. But before that, nobody will be tried without proof,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera