As PoK recently found itself in the grip of violent protests, it signaled clearly that people of the region no longer want to remain silent when Pakistan is plundering their resources all the while forcing them to lead a miserable life in the country mired in deep-rooted corruption and discriminatory policies presided over by inapt political leadership
Recently, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) witnessed violent protests, with hundreds of people thronging the streets, killing four and injuring 100 others.

These protests were triggered by high electricity tariffs, rise in costs of food, fuel, and other essential items amid deepening economic crisis in Pakistan.

Initially, protests were peaceful, but Rawalpindi, desperate to hide reality from the world, arrested 70 leaders and moved in security forces to suppress them.

This led to violence. It took place at the time when the IMF (International Monetary Fund) team was visiting Islamabad to negotiate a fresh loan.

The protestors were demanding cheaper electricity as it was generated in their province. The cost of wheat had risen to levels where procuring it was beyond the means of the common citizen.

Suspension of trade with India post abrogation of article 370 had further impacted the locals, cutting off a major source of revenue.

Protests were spearheaded by the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC). The arrest of their leaders triggered anger amongst the populace, resulting in violence. In panic, Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, released Rs 23 billion as a special package for the region.

He even made a day-long visit to PoK’s capital Muzaffarabad and attempted to assuage the public. He did succeed in cooling tempers.

India reacted to the protests. Ministry of External Affairs’ spokesperson, Randhir Jaiswal said, “We have seen reports on protests in several areas of Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. We believe that it is a natural consequence of Pakistan's continued policy of systemic plundering of resources from these territories which remain under its forcible and illegal occupation.”

The residents of PoK are aware of vast differences on both sides of the LOC. While J&K flourishes, PoK sinks. While the Union Territory witnesses’ development, PoK is ignored and its residents treated as second class citizens.

While the Indian army provides security in Kashmir, the Pakistani deep state pushes terrorists and their training camps into the region, increasing insecurity. Besides, there are reports of grabbing of local lands by the Pakistan army.

Thus, anger had been steadily rising, it needed a trigger. This was provided by the brutal crackdown by Pakistan security forces on peaceful demonstrations.

With Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan already on the boil, Pakistan cannot risk an added problem in PoK. Thus, Islamabad was compelled to back down, immediately release funds and work towards cooling down tempers.

Pakistan may have suppressed the media from reporting true casualties and damage, but within Pakistan, it was an indicator of what could flow.

Imran Khan from jail said, “The chaos that is seen in PoK today is likely to spread across Pakistan as similar price rise and inflation is hurting the masses.”

While calls during protests this time were for ‘azadi,’ it would not be long before this changes to becoming a part of developing India. PoK activist, Amjad Ayub Mirza, sought intervention by India.

He said, “The situation is getting worse by the day. India must act.” Pakistan had hoped to comment negatively on elections in J&K. However, with protests in PoK, they were on the backfoot, sitting silently, aware that they were in the dock.

Pakistani leaders thought peace would prevail following quick release of funds. However, anger has not subsided. There are fears that it could snowball into a major conflagration.

Pakistani leaders have forgotten that a single incident, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi's in protest of police corruption and ill treatment in Tunisia, triggered the Arab Spring, which swept through the region. PoK is awaiting a similar incident, which may not be far.

An insurgency cycle commences with peaceful protests leading to violence and ending in an uprising. In case Islamabad has made empty promises, an Arab Spring type event can result in a full-blown revolt.

The Chinese are equally concerned as the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) passes through the region. A revolt and calls for independence will render their entire project valueless.

For Islamabad, increased protests will witness Chinese investment reduction, pouring water on Pakistan’s plans for development. 

In fact, PoK has been witnessing riots, strikes, hartals and suppression by the Pakistani army, which controls the region with an iron fist. The so-called ‘Azad’ status of PoK is nothing but an eyewash, as the region is tightly controlled by Rawalpindi.

Today, PoK is a suppressed region whose residents have no voice. Anger has been building up within the region against the oppressors for years.

On the other hand, Jammu and Kashmir has come a long way since the Pakistan sponsored militancy of the 90’s and the early 2000’s. Voting in Baramulla and Srinagar in the 2019 elections was as low as 34% and 14%. These were 39% and 26% in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Similar was the state in Anantnag.

Compare that to the present. Srinagar witnessed a polling of 38% while Baramulla recorded 59%, both of which were the highest in two decades. Anantnag has yet to vote. Stone pelting was missing, as was intimidation.

The Chief Election Commissioner, satisfied with the high turnout and peaceful conduct of polls in the valley, said, “The highly successful conduct of polls with impressive turnout in Srinagar and Baramulla gives the Election Commission the confidence to hold Assembly polls in J&K at the earliest.”

J&K has witnessed major development in terms of roads, expressways, construction of flyovers, rail connectivity, airports and power projects and setting up of prestigious educational institutions like IIT, IIIM and premier healthcare infrastructure and medical colleges at district levels.

Stone throwing has become a history. As per J&K tourism, the inflow of tourists into the state touched a record 2 crores in 2023 of which over 30 lakhs visited Kashmir. The flow continues.

*** The writer is a security and strategic affairs commentator; views expressed here are his own