Rising Voices of Dissent in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir

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Unrest in the “jugular vein of Pakistan” exposes a nexus of societal, political, and geopolitical risks.

Amid daunting economic struggles and escalating tensions in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the streets of Muzaffarabad, the regional capital, have become the epicenter of unrest. Led by the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), thousands of protesters gathered to demonstrate starting on May 10, demanding reduced wheat flour prices and electricity rates aligned with hydropower production costs. 

The protests escalated into violent clashes with security forces, led by the paramilitary Rangers. At least four individuals were killed, including a policeman, and over 100 were injured. The JAAC called off the protests on May 13, claiming victory as the local government agreed to reduce the prices of both wheat and electricity.

Despite the government’s announcement of an $83 million subsidy intended to address these issues, public dissatisfaction remains high, suggesting the measures are seen as insufficient.

To stem further unrest, authorities have suspended internet services and closed schools, while the local business community has independently shut down operations. As a result, daily life and economic activity are seeing significant disruptions, affecting education, livelihoods, and the overall community stability.

This ongoing crisis not only reveals significant governance shortcomings but also poses broader implications for Pakistan’s policy and stability in this strategically sensitive region. Earlier the administration of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), appears to have taken the escalating situation lightly, as highlighted by the AJK prime minister’s statement during a media press conference. This response, juxtaposed against the determined stance of the protest committee, suggests a significant underestimation of the crisis’ gravity and the government’s misalignment with public sentiment and demands. These unfolding events could critically test Pakistan’s approach to handling regional discontent and governance, with potential repercussions that extend well beyond its borders.

The clashes during the weekend reflected a severe breakdown in dialogue between the protesters and the government. The stalemate in discussions between the JAAC core committee and AJK chief secretary underscores a broader issue of distrust between the local leadership and the central authorities. JAAC leaders are now demanding an investigation into and accountability for the use of force against protesters, resulting in three deaths. The continuation of tensions, despite governmental concessions, indicates a profound disconnect and possibly a crisis of legitimacy concerning the local political machinery, which is perceived as too closely aligned with the central military and political power corridors of Pakistan.

This alignment has potentially alienated the local populace, giving rise to separatist pro-freedom parties. These groups are gaining traction and public support by positioning themselves as genuine representatives of the people’s will, in stark contrast to traditional political entities, which are perceived as extensions of the broader Pakistani military and political establishment. This shift is particularly worrying for Islamabad as it reflects a dwindling public sympathy for the military, historically a unifying and pivotal institution in Pakistan. 

The conspicuous silence of prominent local political leaders on critical issues has sparked considerable public backlash. This dynamic is poised to play a crucial role in the upcoming electoral processes. For the first time in recent history, the region has witnessed a unified public response across all districts, transcending the usual divisions based on ethnic identities. This collective voice has also paved the way for the emergence of new leadership, shaping the political future of the area.

In response, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has vowed to visit the troubled region to hold discussions. While expressing “deep grief and sorrow over the loss of lives during the protests,” according to Dawn, Sharif also emphasized AJK’s strategic importance as the “jugular vein of Pakistan.”

Indeed, the region’s strategic significance cannot be overstated, lying at the heart of the Kashmir dispute with India. The ongoing crisis exposes Pakistan to criticism not only from within but also from international actors, including India, which may use these events to highlight Pakistan’s governance issues in the region. India is keen to exploit recent events to its advantage, thereby undermining Pakistan’s human rights-focused stance on Kashmir at international forums.

These events also raise fundamental questions about the efficacy of Pakistan’s governance model in regions with distinct political and economic dynamics. The reliance on paramilitary forces to handle civil unrest, rather than addressing the root causes through robust political dialogue and comprehensive economic policies, may only serve to exacerbate the tensions. 

The unrest in Pakistan-administered Kashmir could not have come at a worse time for Islamabad, which is grappling with a financial crisis and necessary – but unpopular – economic reforms. The ongoing unrest risks exacerbating livelihood issues by severely impacting the crucial tourism season, potentially leading to significant economic losses. 

To move forward, Pakistan must reconsider its approach in AJK. A transparent, inclusive political process that respects the rights and aspirations of the local people could pave the way for lasting peace and stability in the region. This would involve genuinely engaging with the local populace and their elected representatives to address economic grievances and political disenfranchisement. 

Moreover, Pakistan’s federal and local governments must strive for transparency and accountability, distancing themselves from the overbearing influence of the military to restore public confidence in the political process. Only by fostering a sense of genuine political inclusivity and economic fairness can Pakistan hope to stabilize AJK and secure its position in the broader regional context, protecting the rights of its citizens and enhancing its geopolitical standing.

In conclusion, the situation is a critical litmus test for Pakistan’s domestic policies and its international image. How Islamabad steers this crisis will not only determine the future of governance in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, but also shape its diplomatic engagements and strategic posture on the global stage. The need for a balanced, thoughtful approach has never been more urgent.

Source: The Diplomat