Violent Unrest Over Economic Strife Erupts in Pakistan’s Kashmir Region

Widespread protests have erupted in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, angered by rising electricity bills and flour prices in a region that has long suffered economically due to its status as a conflict zone.

In an attempt to quell the growing unrest – which led to a widespread strike and led to the death of a police officer and the injury of 90 others – Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called an emergency meeting on Monday in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

While demonstrators planned to march this week to Muzaffarabad, the provincial capital, authorities suspended internet service in many areas and closed schools in the city.

“I have never seen such a large-scale uprising in Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” said Mubasher Naqvi, a resident of Muzaffarabad and a teacher at Azad Jammu and Kashmir University. “This protest is unique because it unites people from all walks of life in demanding basic necessities.”

The picturesque but heavily militarized Himalayan region of Kashmir, which both Pakistan and India have claimed since their independence from Britain in 1947, has been the scene of three wars between the two separate neighbours.

The current unrest poses a challenge to the Pakistani army, which maintains a heavy presence in the region, and to the civilian leadership in Islamabad. Pakistan considers Kashmir a disputed territory and its status should be resolved through a UN-mandated referendum to allow Kashmiris to choose between being part of Pakistan or India.

But the Pakistani government has faced criticism for suppressing local movements seeking full independence. Although there are no calls for independence in the current wave of unrest, residents said the protests reflect a general feeling of dissatisfaction.

“There is a strong sense of anger and frustration among Kashmiri youth, driven by political disillusionment, high inflation and severe unemployment,” Naqvi said.

The unrest began on Friday when an activist group largely made up of traders began a strike in Muzaffarabad, which quickly led to violent clashes with law enforcement officers. The arrest of Kashmiri activists in night raids increased calls for a strike.

The Kashmiri authorities urged the demonstrators not to resort to violence. Faisal Mumtaz Rathore, local government minister, said a plan to send paramilitary forces had been withdrawn as talks with protesters continued.

But he said the real solution lies with Pakistani national officials. “The huge demand from the people, the demand for cheap electricity and an end to blackouts, is within the purview of the government of Pakistan,” Mr. Rathore said.

The region relies heavily on government jobs and receives little private investment because of its status.

As the protests entered their third day, calm prevailed on the streets of Muzaffarabad on Sunday. Security forces, identified by their black bandanas, had a stark presence at checkpoints. Residents watched from behind closed windows how their daily work was disrupted and their supplies dwindled.

To ease difficulties, protest organizers said essential stores could open for three hours every evening. Aisha Bibi, 34, a resident of Muzaffarabad, expressed her sadness over her young child’s needs.

“She hasn’t had milk for two days,” Mrs Bibby said. “We can tolerate hunger, but being deprived of basic services such as electricity and affordable wheat flour is unbearable.”

Siddiq Haidari (68 years old), another resident, expressed his regret for the widespread damage caused by the clashes. “Every house here shows damage,” he said.

Jalaluddin Mughal Contributed to reports.

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