A poster (Right) demanding for a merger with India dot the streets in PoK’s Muzaffarabad

On Saturday, protests in PoK's Muzaffarabad turned violent, leading to the death of one police personnel and causing injuries to many others.

Unrest has gripped the area of Muzaffarabad and Rawalkot in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir after violent clashes, killing one police official and injuring 100s of others, took place over the weekend. Following the violence, people in PoK are seeking India’s help, and chanting slogans of Azadi, Roshneesh Kmaneck reported

Chants of ‘Azadi’ ring out loud in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) while posters demanding for a merger with India dot the streets in the region. The area remains on edge after massive protests saw at least one police officer dying and over 100 others being injured. Normal life has been affected as businesses in PoK’s Muzaffarabad and Rawalkot remain shut owing to the widespread protests and violence in the region.

But what led to this tension in PoK? Why have protests erupted in this region? And what are authorities doing to bring back peace there?

Who Is Protesting In Pok And Why?

On Friday (10 May), the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) had called for a shutter-down and wheel-jam strike in PoK’s Muzaffarabad. The group, which represents traders of the region, had called for the strike to protest against rising inflation, and to demand tax-free electricity from the Mangla Dam. Moreover, they are calling for subsidies on wheat flour and an end to the privileges enjoyed by the elite class.

What Led To The Clashes?

Last Wednesday and Thursday, the Pakistan authorities had arrested around 70 JAAC activists during raids in Muzaffarabad. This became the catalyst for the shutdown and strike over the weekend.

On Saturday (11 May), the members and supporters of the JAAC gave a call for a long march towards Muzaffarabad. However, to stop the march from moving forward, police resorted to teargas shelling, which affected people in their homes and mosques after demonstrators pelted stones.

Videos and photos soon began circulating on social media showing police using batons on the protesters, in an attempt to disperse the crowds. Noted security analyst Sushant Sareen posted on X: “PoK is up in flames”.

Other videos and posts also showed Pakistan police using batons to beat the protesters quite violently.

PoK activist Amjad Ayub Mirza was later quoted as telling news agency ANI that Pakistani forces had shot at unarmed civilians, and at least two had been killed in the clashes.

Meanwhile, The Dawn reported that one police official had died in the clashes while another 90 had been injured. Mirpur Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Kamran Ali told the Pakistani newspaper that Sub-inspector Adnan Qureshi succumbed to a gunshot wound in the chest in the town of Islamgarh, where he was deployed to stop a rally for Muzaffarabad under the banner of the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC).

Videos online also showed protesters, however, also hitting back. Some videos showed protesters beating security personnel with sticks and chasing them away.

Stone pelting and violence instigated by Pakistan were commonplace occurrences in Kashmir back when I was the Corps Commander there.

Today Kashmir is peaceful & prospering, while POK is on the boil. See people's anger against their security personnel.

Following the clashes, the Awami Workers Party (AWP) slammed the crackdown on the protesters. A statement by the AWP, as per a report in The Dawn read: “The AWP leadership is deeply concerned about the deployment of paramilitary forces in the area and the subsequent use of repressive tactics, including the arbitrary arrest of hundreds of political activists. Such actions only serve to incite further unrest among the populace.”

It denounced the use of force against the protesters, adding, “It is distressing to see the suppression of legitimate demands, particularly those related to the unjust taxation on electricity bills and the lack of access to essential resources. Federal and state authorities have failed to meet local needs despite substantial generation of electricity from power houses in the region.”

What Next?

There’s unease in PoK on Monday after the deadly clashes with many traders opting to keep their shutters down.

PoK’s prime minister Anwarul Haq urged the protesters not to indulge in violence, and said he was ready to accept their demands. Moreover, the AP reported that President Asif Ali Zardari had convened a meeting to discuss how to calm the protests.

Pakistan prime minister Shehbaz Sharif also expressed concern over the situation in PoK. Deeply concerned about the situation in AJK.

However, PoK activist Amjad Ayub Mirza called for an intervention by the Indian government. He said in an interview with news agency ANI, “India cannot remain aloof from the current situation in Pakistan-occupied Jammu Kashmir. At the moment, our people are fighting. The whole of Pakistan-occupied Jammu Kashmir has been shut down by peaceful protesters who are being beaten up and shot at by the Pakistan police, Punjab police… India now should focus all its attention on Pakistani-occupied Jammu and Kashmir and help and facilitate the independence of this occupied territory, including Gilgit-Baltistan.”

Mirza added, “The situation is getting worse by the day. India must act. India has to act. India must not follow the footsteps of previous governments where they thought that by ignoring Pakistani-occupied Jammu and Kashmir it can be business as usual. It is not business as usual. And if today the Indian government does not step up their efforts to free PoJK and Gilgit-Baltistan then this golden chance of our freedom will wither away.”

Have Similar Protests Occurred In PoK Earlier?

These clashes in PoK resemble the ones that took place in August 2023 . At the time, the protesters had gathered in Rawalakot and torched thousands of electricity bills. Their demands were similar even then: reduce the cost of electricity and provide cheaper wheat flour.

(With Inputs From Agencies)