Pakistan’s downward spiral: A risk to South Asia

Pakistani flags

Afghanistan, after the take over of the Taliban, has been rather hostile to Pakistan. Recently, Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK), what Islamabad calls “Azad Jammu and Kashmir”(AJK) witnessed violent clashes between the police and activists of a rights movement amid a wheel-jam and shutter-down strike across the territory over May 10-12, 2024. Political and human rights organizations have been protesting to highlight high wheat prices, soaring food inflation, widespread unemployment, withdrawal of wheat and flour subsidies, frequent power cuts and exploitation of PoJK’s natural resources, for several months. With Islamabad taking a high handed approach to the demonstrations of the locals, incarcerating the protestors, the leaders of the rights organisations in AJK finally called for a “shutter-down and wheel-jam” strike over the weekend. However Pakistan resorted to deploying hundreds of troops to Azad Kashmir in order to suppress peaceful demonstrations.

In the wake of the protests on May 11, reports emerged that three Pakistani Rangers battalions had entered the territory. After the Rangers detachment was sent to AJK violent clashes led to indiscriminate killings in Muzaffarabad and hundreds of locals were injured.

From across Azad Jammu and Kashmir rallies of people tried to reach Muzaffarabad under the banner of the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), but were stopped by Pakistani forces who used indiscriminate violence on the demonstrators. Authorities had placed mounds of earth on arteries leading to Muzaffarabad, apart from making more arrests, to prevent people from heading towards the state capital. Police resorted to teargas shelling and aerial firing in some neighborhoods after being pelted with stones and bottles by protesters.

The situation is so tense across Azad Kashmir especially in the Muzaffarabad area that after maintaining complete silence on the situation, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif was obligated to issue a statement on X. In his token statement Sharif has urged AJK prime minister Chaudhry Anwar-ul-Haq to pursue negotiations with the JAAC. In his X post he says, “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,” without any words of compassion for the locals who have been subjected to violent suppression by Pakistani forces.

The JAAC, which has traders at the forefront in most parts of the state, has been seeking the provision of electricity as per hydropower generation cost in AJK, subsidized wheat flour and an end to the privileges of the elite class. They called for the strike following the arrest of at least 70 of their members in raids at their residences and those of their relatives in Muzaffarabad and Mirpur divisions, on Thursday May 9. The arrests triggering serious clashes in Dadyal on May 9-10. Amid the strike on May 10, fierce clashes between police and protesters were witnessed in different areas of Muzaffarabad.

The violence that erupted in Azad Jammu and Kashmir has forced leaders to take cognizance and open their eyes to the iniquity forced upon the locals of the area. Expressing regret over the current situation in AJK, President Asif Ali Zardari has admitted that the socio-economic development of the region should be given priority including health, education, tourism and infrastructure. Zardari emphasised the need to bring remote areas at par with other areas of the country.

Former prime minister of AJK Sardar Abdul Qayyum Niazi slammed the deployment, calling it a “drama” and an attempt to score political points.

In a post on Facebook, Faizal Mumtaz Rathore wrote, “The big demand of the people, the demand for cheap electricity and the end of load shedding, falls under the jurisdiction of the Government of Pakistan.”

Reporting on the “Violent Unrest Over Economic Strife Erupts in Pakistan’s Kashmir Region” the New York Times quoted Mubashar Naqvi, a Muzaffarabad resident and a teacher at the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, “I have never seen such a large-scale uprising in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, This protest is unique because it unites people from all walks of life in demanding basic necessities.”

JAAC spokesperson Hafeez Hamdani made it clear that the action committee had nothing to do with violence. He alleged that the police had on purpose planted such elements “in the ranks of protesters to bring a bad name to a struggle that aims nothing but the legitimate rights of the people.”

JAAC leader Shaukat Nawaz Mir reiterated that the committee is a peaceful organization and willing to negotiate with the authorities to ensure the provision of cheap electricity and cheap flour. He also slammed the federal government for not cutting down spending while at the same time claiming they have no room in the budget to subsidize electricity or flour. “The government claims they can’t provide cheap electricity and flour because they have no budget, but they have the money for watches and cars,” Mir said, adding that the federal government and the prime minister should be “ashamed.”

Speaking on Geo News program “Naya Pakistan” PML-N leader Rana Sanaullah, adviser to the prime minister on political and public affairs, however had the grace to admit that Pakistan “mishandled” the situation in AJK and that the damage could have been mitigated, had both parties chosen the path of negotiation in the first place.

Sharing videos of clashes between police and protesters, the PTI posted on X that the “continuous harassment and violence against peaceful protesters in AJK is absolutely unacceptable and condemnable,” adding that “such [policies] are dangerous for Pakistan and represent a direct threat to democracy.”

PTI senior leader Omar Ayub said, “The situation in AJK is extremely serious. It has been created due to the mishandling of Shehbaz Sharif and the PML-N government.” Had Rs 3 Billion been released in time by the Federal Government for subsidies, the loss of precious lives could have been avoided.

“The electricity rates have been increased to Rs 75 to Rs 90 per unit now from Rs 16 per unit during PTIs time. Flour subsidies are not being given. Additional taxes have been imposed. In addition, the current AJK government is an imposed government and does not represent the will of the people of AJK. PM AJK is a mere puppet and has ruined the cause of Kashmir. His attitude and the actions of Shahbaz Sharif’s regime has caused deaths and casualties of innocent people and Policemen in AJK. People in Pakistan should realize that AJK is on fire.”

In a country where some people do not have a morsel of bread and some live a luxurious life at state expense, a bloody revolution is bound to occur. The sooner Pakistan’s privileged classes realize it, the better it would be for them.

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