July 19, 2024

Vast protests have broken out in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, driven by outrage over soaring electricity bills and flour prices in a region that has long suffered economically because of its status as a conflict zone.

In an attempt to quell the growing unrest — which has led to a widespread strike and left one police officer dead and 90 injured — Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called an emergency meeting for Monday in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

As protesters planned to march this week to Muzaffarabad, the regional capital, the authorities suspended internet service in many areas and shut down schools in the city.

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

The picturesque but highly militarized Himalayan region of Kashmir, claimed by both Pakistan and India since their independence from Britain in 1947, has been the site of three wars between the estranged neighbors.

The current unrest poses a challenge for the Pakistani military, which maintains a heavy presence in the region, and the civilian leadership in Islamabad. Pakistan regards Kashmir as a disputed territory whose status should be resolved through a U.N.-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 complete independence. Although there have been no calls for independence in the current wave of unrest, residents said the protests reflected a general feeling of dissatisfaction.

“There’s a strong sense of anger and frustration among the Kashmiri youth, driven by political disappointment, high inflation and severe unemployment,” Mr. Naqvi said.

The unrest began on Friday when an activist group made up largely of traders initiated a strike in Muzaffarabad that soon led to violent clashes with law enforcement officers. The detention of Kashmiri activists in overnight raids had fueled the call for a strike.

The Kashmiri authorities have urged protesters not to resort to violence. Faisal Mumtaz Rathore, a local government minister, said that a plan to send in paramilitary troops was withdrawn as talks with the protesters continued.

But the real solution, he said, lay with national Pakistani officials. “The big demand of the people, the demand for cheap electricity and the end of power outages, falls under the jurisdiction of the government of Pakistan,” Mr. Rathore said.

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

As the protests entered their third day, the streets of Muzaffarabad were quiet on Sunday. Security forces, identified by their black bandannas, were a stark presence at checkpoints. Residents watched from behind closed windows, their daily routines disrupted and their supplies dwindling.

To ease the hardship, protest organizers said essential shops could open for three hours each evening. Ayesha Bibi, 34, a Muzaffarabad resident, expressed her distress over her young child’s needs.

“She hasn’t had milk for two days,” Ms. Bibi said. “We can bear hunger, but denying us basic services like affordable electricity and wheat flour is unbearable.”

Siddique Haidari, 68, another resident, lamented the widespread damage caused by the clashes. “Every home here shows the damage,” he said.

Jalaluddin Mughal contributed reporting.

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