Monday June 17, 2024

What’s happening in AJK?

By Dr Awais Bin Wasi
May 19, 2024
People attend the funeral of those killed during a protests demanding the subsidy on electricity and wheat prices in the face of rising inflation, in Muzaffarabad Azad Jammu and Kashmir on May 14, 2024. — Reuters
People attend the funeral of those killed during a protests demanding the subsidy on electricity and wheat prices in the face of rising inflation, in Muzaffarabad Azad Jammu and Kashmir on May 14, 2024. — Reuters

In Azad Jammu and Kashmir, a longstanding disconnect finally boiled over into a region-wide upheaval a few days ago, as violent protests erupted, claiming the lives of one police officer and three protesters. The protesters’ fervent march, characterized by demands for fair electricity pricing, subsidized flour and the dismantling of elite privileges, was called off on Tuesday (May 14), following the swift acceptance of their demands by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif who approved a substantial grant of Rs23 billion ($82 million).

This decision was made during a high-level meeting attended by key federal cabinet members, the president and prime minister of AJK, and representatives of the coalition government in AJK, leading to the issuance of three separate notifications about three key demands.

While the sizeable grant undoubtedly brings some respite, it is imperative to explore the underlying causes of this unrest and seek lasting solutions. This recent episode of protests traces its origins back to May 8, 2023 with a protest gathering in Rawalakot, the divisional headquarters of Poonch, voicing grievances over steep hikes in electricity tariffs and slashing in flour subsidies.

Subsequently, a series of sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations unfolded across all ten districts of AJK, spearheaded by the local action committees. The movement took a more confrontational turn on August 2, 2023, as demonstrators set ablaze 2,000 electricity bills at the judicial complex of Rawalakot.

On August 23, 2023, an estimated 7,000 electricity bills met a similar fate at Katchery Chowk, Rawalakot, followed by the symbolic act of throwing bills into River Neelam on September 30, 2023. Against this backdrop, on September 17, 2023, a 31-member Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) was constituted and put forward its 10-point charter of demand.

These demands encompassed a spectrum of issues, ranging from the provision of subsidized flour to the recalibration of electricity tariffs based on production costs from the Mangla Hydropower Project.

The other issues included the abolition of privileges accorded to the ruling class; restoring student unions; granting the Bank of Azad Kashmir the status of a scheduled bank; allocation of funds to local body representatives; reduction of property transfer taxes; activation of the AJK Accountability Bureau and an amendment to the existing act; implementation of restriction on cutting trees; enactment of legislation to revive the local industry; standardization of cellular companies operating in AJK; and improving internet services in the region.

Drawing from this broader 10-point agenda, the JAAC initiated a vigorous campaign to compel the AJK government to address these pressing issues. In the meanwhile, the committee declared a region-wide strike on February 5, a day observed every year across Pakistan as Kashmir Solidarity Day.

Amidst these developments, negotiations ensued between the JAAC and the committee of AJK cabinet members, resulting in a breakthrough agreement to resolve nine out of 10 points, with the issue of electricity tariff falling within the purview of the federal government.

A formal notification from the Services and General Administration Department (S&GAD) on February 4, 2024 heralded the resolution of these points, consequently prompting the cancellation of the planned strike.

On March 30, amidst disillusionment over perceived governmental backtracking on its commitment, the JAAC issued a clarion call for a long march to Muzaffarabad for May 11. However, tensions escalated when the AJK prime minister exacerbated the situation with incendiary and ominous remarks.

In a concerning turn of events, the AJK government requested troops from the Punjab Constabulary, Frontier Constabulary, and Rangers to quash the burgeoning protests. This aggressive stance, coupled with the threat of additional forces, only served to inflame an already incensed people, who had been simmering with frustration over the protracted delays in meeting their demands.

The AJK PM’s inflammatory rhetoric served as a catalyst, turning May 11 Long March an unprecedented moment in AJK’s political history, with people in large numbers from all three divisions taking to the streets to assert their fundamental rights, setting aside their differences and political allegiance, united in their collective quest for their rights.

The massive wave of protest in AJK reflects the deep-seated disillusionment of the people of the region. This warrants the urgent attention of the powers that be in Islamabad and the political dispensation in AJK. The 10-point charter of demand indicates the genuine grievances of people the resolution of which has the potential to alleviate the feelings of alienation and foster a stronger bond between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad.

The second issue that is extremely significant to allay the disconnect in the region is the provision of constitutional rights to the people. The 13th amendment adopted in the joint sitting of the AJK Legislative Assembly and AJK Council in 2018 was a historic development in the constitutional history of AJK.

The amendment accepted the council’s overriding administrative and financial powers and transferred it to the AJK assembly. This move aimed at empowering AJK was widely hailed throughout the region.

While there are loopholes in it because it was hurriedly enacted, any attempt to tinker and drastically revoke this amendment in favour of the Kashmir Council may further fuel alienation and disenchantment among local people. The state of governance in AJK is deeply troubling, marked by systemic inefficiencies, widespread corrupt practices, poor service provision, and unaccountable institutions. Addressing these governance challenges must take precedence if there is to be any hope of alleviating the pervasive sense of disconnect and distrust in the system.

The third critical issue is the enactment of a local government system. Nearly two years have passed since the local bodies elections were conducted in AJK, yet approximately 3,000 local government representatives find themselves operating without the necessary resources. Recently, during a protest demonstration in Rawalakot on April 30, these elected representatives issued a deadline of May 30 to grant them constitutional rights and budgetary allocation. The announcement has the potential to catalyse another wave of protests in the region.

The writer is an academic based in Islamabad. He can be reached at: