Pakistan administered Kashmir faces internet shutdown amidst protests

Primary school students attending an outdoor lecture at Government Primary School Jumber, Azad Kashmir, Pakistan. Image via Wikipedia by Abdul Moueed, 2017. CC BY -SA 4.0

Primary school students attending an outdoor lecture at Government Primary School Jumber, Azad Kashmir, Pakistan. Image by Abdul Moueed via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

From May 8–14, 2024, Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir witnessed significant unrest, with daily life profoundly impacted by the violent suppression of protests by Pakistani security forces. On May 12, a mobile internet service shutdown was imposed in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) in response to a protest organized by the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), a coalition of civil rights groups, demonstrating against rising electricity prices, flour subsidies, and other issues. One police officer and three protesters were killed during clashes with the paramilitary rangers while hundreds were injured.

During the 2024 general elections in Pakistan, a mobile services ban and internet shutdown was enforced, and the subsequent ban on X (formerly known as Twitter) and VPNs persisted for an indefinite period.

As the protests intensified in May, access to the internet was restricted. People began tweeting against the shutdown in various areas on Platform X, condemning the government for silencing their voices. Azhar Ahmed, a Kashmiri, tweeted about announcements being made through the pulpits of mosques:

The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) UK Chapter tweeted about the internet being shut down for several days:

NetBlocks, an internet observatory, confirmed the internet disruption:

After five days, the internet was restored once the protests were called off.

In light of the protests and violence in AJK, Ahmed Farhad Shah, a poet and journalist from AJK residing in Islamabad, was highly critical of the government and military on social media. He mysteriously disappeared from his house, allegedly taken by Pakistan intelligence agencies. His wife has reached out to the Islamabad High Court to secure his safe return. On May 20, the court ordered the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence to explain the allegations.

What happened in AJK

Kashmir, a Himalayan region claimed in full by both Pakistan and India, has been the battleground for multiple wars between the countries since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Pakistan-administered Kashmir, locally known as Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), has a population of over 4.36 million and a semiautonomous government led by its own prime minister.

Disputed Himalayan region with territorial claims by Pakistan, India and China. Image via Wikipedia by user PlaneMad. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Disputed Himalayan region with territorial claims by Pakistan, India and China. Image by PlaneMad via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

People in AJK have been protesting since May 2023 against a massive wheat crisis, increased prices of flour, rising electricity rates and the end of “luxuries” for the elite class, among other issues. In February 2024, the Pakistan government accepted accepted nine out of ten demands, but despite assurances, they were not fulfilled, leading to the recent protests.

JAAC had announced plans to hold protests and march towards Muzaffarabad, the capital of AJK, from different parts of the state, but the government initiated a crackdown and arrested 70 activists. Clashes soon broke out between the police and the public, resulting in the death of one police officer and many injuries.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took notice of the situation and approved an immediate provision of PKR 23 billion (USD 82.5 million), but this did not pacify the protesters. While the rangers were preparing to leave AJK after the announcement, a charged crowd pelted stones and set their vehicles ablaze, leading to another round of clashes. Three people were killed, and six were injured due to the rangers’ retaliation.

AJK Prime Minister Chaudhry Anwarul Haq termed the subsidy package a “gift” from the government and alleged that neighbor India, Pakistan's arch-rival, tried to create chaos in AJK but did not succeed. The senior leadership of JAAC is still keeping all options open until they are convinced that their demands have been met.

In 2019, India raised taxes on AJK exports to 200 percent, and after the Indian cancellation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which provided special autonomy to Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, all trade was suspended by Pakistan, severely impacting the local economy.

Protests across Pakistan

AJK is not the only area in Pakistan witnessing such protests related to the economy. People in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) have been protesting since January 2024 against the decision to increase the subsidized wheat price and other grievances.

Jamil Nagri, a journalist, tweeted that the state should learn from history:

Recently, a few people from GB were protesting outside the National Press Club in the capital Islamabad against the government leasing out rest houses and guest houses to Green Tourism Company.

There is not much media coverage of these events; people are using social media platforms to raise their voices against the injustices carried out by the state.

Pakistan is facing ongoing economic crisis since 2022 and has sought renewed assistance from the International Monetary Fund amidst rising inflation.

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