Understanding The Protest Movement In Azad Jammu & Kashmir

"The ongoing protests are being led not by mainstream political parties but by grassroots action committees functioning at the local level in villages and markets"

Understanding The Protest Movement In Azad Jammu & Kashmir

Typically viewed through the prism of the security paradigm, issues of Azad Jammu & Kashmir’s (AJK) economic development tend to struggle to garner attention from mainstream media and political parties in mainland Pakistan. Thus, when images of mass protests in AJK hit social media, a large number of people in Pakistan seem to be confused or unaware of what is going on in AJK. As a keen observer of AJK’s political economy, I try to provide a broader context to the ongoing protests in this article. 

The ever-increasing prices of food and utilities have sparked public outrage, leading to mass protests in various districts of AJK. But the inflationary environment is prevalent across Pakistan. What makes AJK's situation unique?

83% percent of AJK's population resides in rural areas. AJK's rugged mountainous terrain and inadequate road infrastructure significantly increase transportation costs, leading to substantially higher costs for retailers, which are then passed on to consumers in AJK. Consequently, it is not merely the absolute increase in prices but rather the comparatively inflated prices in AJK that have ignited public outrage, prompting protests across multiple districts of that region.

Throughout history, elites in Islamabad have predominantly viewed AJK's political landscape through the prism of the broader conflict of Jammu & Kashmir

Protests in AJK are unique because consumers and retailers, rather than farmers, are demonstrating in the streets. One, it shows that the productive capacity of AJK’s economy is underdeveloped. Two, it highlights the heightened sensitivity of people in AJK to utility prices, particularly electricity. This can be partly explained by the fact that retailers in AJK operate on thin profit margins due to relatively higher transportation costs and thin consumer markets. Therefore, the primary demand of AJK residents is the reduction of electricity tariffs. Additionally, they argue that since AJK's water resources are used for hydropower generation, residents of AJK should receive preferential access and rates.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant participation of young people in these protests, driven by the prevailing grim economic prospects in the region. In fact, AJK grapples with one of the nation's highest youth unemployment rates. For individuals born into low-income households, which constitute the vast majority of the population, leaving AJK in search of livelihood opportunities often becomes inevitable, given the conspicuous absence of employment prospects within AJK. This partly elucidates why many districts in AJK witness significantly higher per capita rates of outward migration compared to mainland Pakistan.

Remittances, the cornerstone of AJK's local economy, serve to bolster Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves at the macroeconomic level. However, their microeconomic impact at the village and town levels in AJK isn't necessarily productive in terms of generating employment. Remittances predominantly fuel a consumption-based economy, and they have been unable to generate any productive economic activity in region. Consequently, the lower echelons of society become susceptible to food insecurity amidst recurrent market shocks and inflationary pressures. Furthermore, the continuous outflow of skilled labour due to the reliance on remittances exacerbates the brain drain within AJK. 

While agriculture historically formed the backbone of livelihoods in AJK, it has failed to modernise with the changing times. For instance, ninety-two percent of cultivable land in AJK still relies solely on rainfall, contributing to low agricultural productivity. 

Elites in Muzaffarabad have mastered the art of keeping Islamabad on their side by leveraging the 'conflict' of Kashmir, enabling them to pursue their agendas in AJK unchecked

In particular, Mirpur and Bhimber, situated along the Jhelum and Poonch rivers, could have witnessed significant productivity enhancements through infrastructural investments in irrigation systems, development of storage facilities, and expansion of credit markets. However, there have not been any significant investments either from the public or private sector in these areas. In fact, cultivable farmland in AJK has steadily diminished over the years, with an estimated twenty-eight percent decline between 1951 and 2010. Among the various factors contributing to this decline, a major reason is the conversion of farmland into commercial real estate by affluent households, driven by the absence of an effective urban planning regime.

It is significant to note that the ongoing protests in AJK are led not by mainstream political parties but by grassroots action committees functioning at the local level in villages and markets. Unlike the hierarchical setups of mainstream political parties, these action committees operate on relatively non-hierarchical basis, collectively and democratically deciding their course of action. Consequently, despite the heavy-handed response from the police, ordinary individuals in AJK are actively participating in the protests, driven by a movement fuelled by their demand for ‘economic rights.’

The question remains: will this organic grassroots movement drive meaningful policy changes in AJK? Only time will tell. There is a high probability that those in power, both in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad, may react hastily and attempt to delegitimise the movement by labelling it as "sponsored." This is an age-old tactic employed by elites worldwide to undermine genuine grassroots movements and justify the use of force. Such tactics can lead to significant negative consequences. Most likely, it will further alienate people from the state structures when they are met with a heavy-handed response and labelled as "traitors" or "rioters." I hope that the state will show restraint and engage with protesters through peaceful means such as dialogue and negotiations.

It is important to note that there is not a single political force in AJK, including nationalist parties, that desires annexation with India. In fact, nationalist parties in AJK are the most vocal critics of human rights abuses in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Therefore, I argue that it is time for elites in Islamabad to reconsider their approach towards AJK. Throughout history, elites in Islamabad have predominantly viewed AJK's political landscape through the prism of the broader conflict of Jammu & Kashmir. 

The historical evolution of AJK's state structure can be divided into three broad phases. 

The period from 1947 to 1952 constitutes the first phase, during which AJK's politics was monopolised by the 'Muslim Conference'. The absence of party plurality hindered the process of democratisation, with the Muslim Conference remaining engrossed in discourse of Kashmir conflict rather than prioritising the arduous task of institution-building for indigenous/local socio-economic development.

The second phase spans from 1952 to 1970, characterised by extensive direct oversight from Islamabad through a bureaucratically controlled system devoid of popular participation. The state bureaucracy lacked the incentive to steer AJK towards economic development, as strategic territorial considerations took precedence over developmental imperatives, echoing David Harvey's notion of territorial logic superseding developmental logic. Consequently, socio-economic factors were largely neglected during AJK's initial two decades.

The third phase commenced in the 1970s, ushering in a multi-party system with adult suffrage elections. Despite inherent limitations, the electoral process in AJK provided an avenue for citizens to draw attention from political elites towards immediate socio-economic and developmental concerns such as access to basic infrastructure and public goods. While public sector investments in infrastructure and social sectors have shown relative improvements over the years, the overarching narrative in the political sphere, spanning across party lines, remains heavily focused on the Jammu & Kashmir conflict rather than indigenous socio-economic development. Thus, the conflict continues to dictate the political landscape of AJK.

I argue that AJK's true socio-economic potential has been stifled by a particular brand of politicking, wherein political and state actors in AJK have used that region’s resources for their own vested interests. Elites in Muzaffarabad have mastered the art of keeping Islamabad on their side by leveraging the 'conflict' of Kashmir, enabling them to pursue their agendas in AJK unchecked. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that elites in Muzaffarabad have shown little inclination towards their core responsibility of democratising and strengthening local institutions to foster inclusive and sustainable development for the people of AJK. This transcends political parties and ideologies in AJK.

In essence, Islamabad's reliance on existing intermediaries (the current political elites in Muzaffarabad) to govern AJK has created a significant gap between them and the ordinary residents of AJK. The ongoing protest movement serves as a de facto vote of no confidence in the existing political elites of AJK due to their political expediency and their failure to envision alternatives to neoliberal policies. Islamabad faces a simple choice: remain wedded to the political elites of Muzaffarabad or listen to the voices of ordinary people in AJK. 

Dr. Danish Khan is an Assistant Professor and Andrew W Mellon High Impact Emerging Scholar at Franklin & Marshall College. He is also a Co-Director of The Inequality, Poverty, Power and Social Justice Initiative. He tweets @khandahnish