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PoK: Unrest in an occupied land

Protesters were agitating against rising wheat flour prices and high electricity tariffs.
Last Updated : 17 May 2024, 21:12 IST
Last Updated : 17 May 2024, 21:12 IST

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Violent clashes broke out in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) on May 11, between protestors belonging to the Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) and police and Pakistan Rangers in Mirpur, Muzaffarabad, Kotli.

They were agitating against rising wheat flour prices and high electricity tariffs. A police sub-inspector, Adnan Qureshi of Islamgarh PS, Mirpur was killed and 16 other police officials, including a station house officer, were injured. Three more were killed in renewed clashes with trigger-happy Pak Rangers in Muzaffarabad on May 14.

The matter was considered serious enough for President Asif Ali Zardari to urge on May 12 all stakeholders – “political parties, state institutions, and the people” to exercise restraint and “act responsibly so that hostile elements cannot exploit the situation to their benefit”. The apprehension clearly was that the supporters of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf were instigating the JAAC. In a long tweet on May 14 jailed PTI leader Imran Khan threatened that the disturbances could spread soon to the rest of the country.

However, reacting with alacrity, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif announced on May 13 a $83 million subsidy package, providing graded electricity tariff relief and a reduction in wheat flour prices. The PoK’s ‘Prime Minister’, Chaudhry Anwar ul Haq assured its early implementation. Thereafter, the JAAC announced the withdrawal of their agitation. Shahbaz Sharif followed up this initiative with a visit to Muzaffarabad on May 16.

History and legal status

The politics and history of PoK have rested for years on paradoxically flimsy legal grounds, transiting from 'provisional’ statuses under the 1949 Karachi agreement to direct control by the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs of the government of Pakistan. The 1970 Act and the Interim Constitution, of 1974, provided inadequate 'fig leaves’ to regularize Pakistan’s adverse possession. An 11-member 'Azad Jammu & Kashmir Council’ with six representatives of the government of Pakistan controlled administrative affairs.

Political evolution

A semblance of democratic functioning was introduced under the 1974 Act, although viable independent political parties were never allowed to grow. PoK has seen governments propped up by whichever civilian political party is in power in Pakistan. Whenever there is a change inside Pakistan, concomitant shifts in power are affected in PoK.

As of now, the PoK legislative assembly has 53 members, 45 of whom are directly elected, while five women, a Ulema, a technocrat, and an overseas member are nominated. The prime minister is the chief executive, and the president is indirectly elected. Elections to the legislative assembly were last held in July 2021 for a five-year term, bringing in a motley coalition government under Chaudhry Anwar ul Haq. Originally affiliated with the PTI, Haq recently switched loyalty to the Ishteqam e Pakistan Party (IPP). Ruling benches have the support of 43 members, which includes a PTI 'Forward Bloc’ of 21, 13 from the People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) and 8 from Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), against 10 from the Opposition, including nine original PTI members.

Barrister Sultan Mehmood Chaudhry, a veteran politician who has frequently changed sides, is the president. Currently, he is still affiliated with the PTI.

Economy

PoK’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and also relies on remittances sent by the large Mirpuri diaspora, mostly based in Luton and Birmingham in the United Kingdom. In 2022, its GDP was estimated to be US $6.6 billion, with a per capita income of $1512. Nearly 29 per cent of the population is estimated to be undernourished, higher than the national average of 19.9 per cent. Food insecurity extends to 57.1per cent of people, affecting 25.9 per cent moderately and 5.7 per cent severely. About 94 per cent population has access to power though only 7 per cent of the villages and towns have been electrified. The Mangla Dam, located in Mirpur district, was built in the early 1950s with British and American assistance. After a project to raise its reservoir wall heights was taken up in 2004, its storage capacity has been recently enhanced to 7.39-million-acre feet, generating 1150 MW of power.

China in PoK

Chinese help has been majorly enlisted in developing infrastructure in recent years. The Azad Pattan hydroelectric power project in Sudhnoti district is likely to generate 700 MW while the Kohala project, also on the Jhelum, near Muzaffarabad will provide 1120 MW. The Neelum-Jhelum project, 42 km south of Muzaffarabad and nearest to the Line of Control (LOC), opposite India’s own run-of-the-river Kishanganga project, was already completed in 2018, generating 1040 MW. It was built by a Chinese consortium comprising the Gezhouba Industries Group and the Chinese Machine Engineering Corporation (CNMIEC). Road projects are also on the anvil under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), notably the 200 km long Mirpur-Muzaffarabad-Mansehra road, intended to provide direct connectivity to the Hazara motorway in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). These have encountered delays in implementation.

Military’s stakes and nuclear option

Pakistan’s military establishment has always fortified PoK’s defence. The army’s premier attack corps, 1 Corps, is headquartered at Mangla. Two Infantry Divisions (17 & 37) are based in Kharian, while the 6 Armoured Division can come up from Gujranwala. Independent armoured, artillery, and infantry brigades buttress it. Recently, the professionally highly rated Lt. Gen Nauman Zakaria was posted as its new Corps Commander. He was Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) earlier (2019-2022), in which capacity he would have interacted with his Indian Army counterparts during negotiations to conclude the March 2021 LOC ceasefire, which has held since.

In February 1994, the Indian Parliament passed a resolution demanding vacation of unauthorized occupied areas of PoK. Recent political rhetoric, some undoubtedly catering to electioneering agendas, avows intention to recapture these territories. These reckon without Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence capability and declared policy of using deployed tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), like Nasr@ Hatf-9, Abdali/Hatf –II, Ghaznavi /Hatf-3, which have ranges varying from 60-200 km.

As noted in Ashley Tellis’s Carnegie endowment report (2022): `Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear transitions in South Asia’, Pakistan’s `nuclear czar’, Lt Gen (retd) Khalid Kidwai, has talked of using low yield (1 kiloton) TNWs on Indian military targets, on its own soil to begin with, in the event of major incursions from this side. Specific military exercises have been carried out by the Pakistan Army on deeper conventional-nuclear integration, focusing on experiments in command-and-control procedures, between the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and field commands (1 Corps, in this instance).

Even though major infrastructural/ technological advances may have significantly enhanced India’s conventional military strength, these inputs should serve as sobering reminders in any serious advice that is given by India’s military leaders to its political masters.

Hardships for the common masses will only intensify, not only in PoK but also across Pakistan as the conditionalities attached to the International Monetary Fund’s bailout packages kick in. This however should not lead to unrealistic illusions about PoK being a ripe apple, ready to be plucked from Pakistan’s deepening basket of discontent.

(The writer retired as Special Secretary at the Cabinet Secretariat of the Government of India.)

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Published 17 May 2024, 21:12 IST

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