Unrest in POK: Why it’s the beginning of protests in the region First Post 15 May 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Unrest in POK: Why it’s the beginning of protests in the region First Post 15 May 2024

          The boot is on the other foot. Since the dawn of terrorism in Kashmir and till a few years ago, the region witnessed protests for miniscule reasons, each gleefully backed by Pakistan. The Hurriyat de-facto controlled daily life in the valley by organizing bandhs and hartals at will, mostly on the beck and call of Islamabad. Local terrorists became poster boys, attracting more to their fold.  

Pakistan’s criticism of India handling Kashmir did receive some global attention, though many accepted the Indian view of Pak involvement. Pakistan flags flew freely, while religious leaders backed anti-India protests, encouraging merger with Pak on religious grounds. Funerals of local terrorists were spectacles and recruitment grounds for fresh blood.

          It took time for India to change the scenario. The sidelining of the Hurriyat, including stopping hawala transactions, blocked funding protests and violence. Abrogation of article 370, placing the Union Territory directly under Delhi enabled infusion of funds for development as also opening educational institutes and medical facilities. The centre encouraged investments from abroad including UAE while enforcing strongarm tactics against terrorists and their sympathizers. This brought about a change in mindset. The voting pattern in the valley in ongoing elections is an indicator of change.

Currently, encounters in the valley are few and far between, though local residents still harbour desires for an independent state. Protests, hartals and stone pelting is history. A lot has changed though more needs to be done largely to alter mindsets.

While J and K changed, POK sank deeper into the quicksand. Pakistan always broadcasted that Kashmir was an Indian army run state whereas the reality is that POK remains amongst the most suppressed and oppressed regions of the world, possibly equal to or even worse than Gaza, an openair prison.

The military presence in POK and Gilgit Baltistan (GB) has always been extremely high, population density is being forcibly altered and people are compelled to accept terrorists and their training camps in their midst. Land is being grabbed and resources exploited to satisfy the demands of Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh. The residents of POK and GB are considered third class citizens in Pak.

Simultaneously, development is zero. There are no higher educational institutes, medical facilities and even infrastructure remain primitive. The government is a puppet with the army controlling every facet of daily life. POK residents are compelled to migrate for work to Europe or Canada to sustain their families. Maximum boat casualties due to overcrowding, during attempted and failed migrations, are residents of POK.

Yet, despite cries for help, the world ignored POK. Suppression of the populace can be possible to a degree beyond which there would be a violent reaction. A small protest can boomerang into a mass movement. That is what happened in POK.

A peaceful protest by a trader’s organization, Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), resulted in a brutal crackdown with 70 its members arrested. They were protesting against rising cost of food, fuel and utilities, which has made survival in the region difficult. POK has witnessed similar protests on multiple occasions earlier, each shut down by threats and promises, none of which were ever fulfilled. On this occasion, police firing retaliation led to at least three killed and scores wounded. The region came to a complete standstill.

While current protests were sparked by rising prices, discontent had been brewing for a prolonged duration. POK has been severely impacted by fraying Indo-Pak ties. Imposition of high duty on Pak imports post Pulwama and stopping trade by Pakistan as a fallout of abrogation of article 370 has hit POK residents the hardest. Its economy and employment opportunities have taken a beating. Further, its residents are aware of the changing development in Kashmir. While opportunities open in Kashmir, they close in POK.

Desperate to subdue protests before they attract global headlines, Islamabad imposed a media blackout as also PM Shehbaz Sharif announced a special package for the region worth Pak Rupees 23 billion. He also summoned leaders of JAAC for talks. The package was an attempt to reduce costs of wheat and electricity, two major demands. Will these be implemented or remain just another promise is to be seen.

The protests did grab global interest. The New York Times stated, ‘The current unrest poses a challenge for the Pakistani military, which maintains a heavy presence in the region, and the civilian leadership in Islamabad,’ adding, ‘the Pakistani government has faced criticism for suppressing local movements seeking complete independence.’ Near similar comments were published by The Washington Post and ABC news.  

Imran Khan, in a message from jail, warned, ‘The chaos that is seen in Kashmir today is likely to spread across Pakistan as similar price rise and inflation is hurting the masses.’ These protests have come at a time when the IMF is in Pakistan to discuss a new program, embarrassing Islamabad. It also adds to Chinese concerns as the CPEC transits the region. As expected, Pakistan blamed India for fuelling the protests, which the JAAC denied.

The protestors are been demanding ‘azadi’ though currently not seeking merger of POK with India. However, Indian flags were seen fluttering alongside the protests. Pakistan flags were dismantled by the protestors. POK activist, Amjad Ayub Mirza, sought intervention by India. He mentioned, ‘The situation is getting worse by the day. India must act.’ The protests are ongoing while India is in the throes of elections.

BJP leaders have been harping in their election rhetoric that POK would itself desire to be part of India. While this is nowhere on the cards presently, but ongoing protests in POK, while peaceful voting continues in Kashmir has placed Pakistan at a diplomatic disadvantage.

Islamabad had hoped to gain an upper hand by commenting negatively on Kashmir elections, after all it believes the region is disputed. Hence it rushed in forces into POK and announced an immediate relief package. However, commenting on Kashmir elections while POK is burning will bounce back damaging Pak’s own reputation. Thus, there is silence from Islamabad or its representative in the UN on elections in Kashmir.

India’s Kashmir policy over the past few years has been a success, while Pakistan’s handling of POK and GB has been a disaster. The Pak army, which controls the region, fails to realize that protests lead to civil disobedience which then accelerate towards an uprising.

The Arab Spring was sparked by a single incident while its leaders failed to read the tea leaves. They continued believing in suppression of the masses. This is exactly what Rawalpindi is doing in POK. Once a movement commences, fuelling it will be easy, while stalling it will be nigh impossible. As Indian ministers have been stating, it may well be the Pak army which would push its own POK residents to demand merger with India.

While the protests may have been called off for now but it is not the end. The protestors have tasted blood, they have compelled the state to bend to their terms. They are aware they hold the cards. It is just a matter of time before another cause brings forth a fresh protest. Suppressing it by application of force could convert a peaceful protest into a movement, damaging Pakistan’s integrity. It is just a matter of time before the next round of protests commence.

              

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