The Muzaffarabad police on Saturday baton-charged protesters gathered to condemn the arrests of civil society activists protesting against inflated power bills and other issues.
A Dawn.com correspondent reported that a large number of people were heading towards their sit-in camp at the city’s Central Press Club (CPC) when police contingents intercepted and lobbed tear gas shells at them a few yards before their destination.
The police also resorted to baton-charging the demonstrators and were pelted with stones in retaliation.
In Muzaffarabad, a sit-in camp has been established by the people’s action committee since Sept 20, initially at a roundabout in front of the Press Club and later on the club premises facing the main thoroughfare, with an appeal to the people that they should not pay their electricity bills.
Participants of the sit-in, who included traders, lawyers, students and vendors, would daily attend the activity from 9am to 4pm every day, during which they would collect electricity bills from consumers visiting them from different city neighbourhoods.
Interestingly, on Monday local police had also booked a civil society activist under a sound system law introduced under the National Action Programme against terrorism for using mosque loudspeakers to persuade people not to pay their electricity bills.
For the past few days, participants of the sit-in were seen making boats and aeroplanes of electricity bills which they had announced would be thrown into Neelum River on Sept 28.
On Thursday, the administration had deployed several contingents of riot police in the surroundings of the sit-in camp in a bid to frighten the demonstrators and restrain them from dumping electricity bills in the river, but in vain.
At about 2pm, the undeterred demonstrators who were led by Shaukat Nawaz Mir, the elected president of the traders of Muzaffarabad, intensified sloganeering and headed towards the nearby Saheli Sarkar Bridge from where they threw paper boats and aeroplanes into Neelum river.
Muzaffarabad Assistant Commissioner (rural) Munir Ahmed Qureshi and tehsildar Syed Zameer Shah were served a show cause notice for failing to take all steps (including baton charge) to stop the protesters from dumping bills into the river as directed.
Similar demonstrations also took place in the Poonch and Mirpur divisions of the region, where a huge number of power bills were torched.
In a surprise development, it had emerged on Friday that police had lodged first information reports (FIRs) against dozens of trader leaders, councillors and other prominent civil society activists in different parts of the state for “destroying” electricity bills and “provoking the public against the government”.
Muzaffarabad Commissioner Adnan Khurshid told Dawn.com around 25 arrests were made since last night, most of them today
Meanwhile, Poonch Deputy Inspector General of Police Sheryar Sikander told Dawn.com that around 30 persons were taken into custody from Rawalakot city, Hajira and some other parts of the district in overnight raids while three people were each arrested in Bagh and Sudhnoti.
As the news about the overnight raids and subsequent arrests circulated on social media, traders on Saturday pulled down their shops’ shutters.
Video footage from the city showed a policeman with a baton in his hand trying to make people pull the shutters back up to reopen the shops, with a boy complying with the directives.
While the police attempted to make the traders reopen their shops, all of them refused to do so and took to the streets along with other members of civil society in different parts of AJK in condemnation.
In several city neighbourhoods, angry protesters blocked roads with obstructions, chanted slogans against the government and administration, and also clashed with the police.
The police resorted to baton-charging in Muzaffarabad and were pelted with stones in return. A Dawn.com correspondent present at the scene saw that a deputy superintendent of police, a constable and scores of protesters received injuries due to incidents of baton-charge, tear gas shelling and stone-pelting in various areas of the city.
After the police response, demonstrators retreated several yards behind the press club and chanted slogans there. Later, they succeeded in reaching their sit-in camp on the eastern side of the press club.
Speaking to the media at the sit-in camp, Mir maintained: “Ours was a completely peaceful sit-in from 10am to 4pm, during which neither the traffic was disturbed or halted, nor any other violent act was committed.
“I wonder why the police registered FIRs against people and raided their houses without search warrants,” he added.
Mir, who had escaped arrest in the overnight raid at his riverside residence, made it clear that the peaceful sit-in would continue.
He said the combined core committee of people’s action committees has convened its meeting on October 2 to decide on a collective charter of demands to be placed before AJK Prime Minister Chaudhry Anwarul Haq.
He called upon the region’s premier to immediately release all detainees so that the core committee could go ahead with its plan to hold a meeting with him.
“If you do not want to establish peace, you can go ahead with your strategy and we will go by our plans,” Mir said.
Protests in Poonch division
Meanwhile, in Poonch division’s Rawalakot, footage showed thousands of people took out a rally amid a shutter-down strike, chanting slogans against the government and the local administration.
The demonstrators re-established the sit-in camp that the police had uprooted last night.
In Abbaspur, hundreds of people cordoned off a police station after the police had allegedly resorted to violence.
In Neelum Valley, hundreds of electricity bills were set on fire at the close of a rally amid a shutter-down strike, following which local police booked some 13 nominated and 15 unknown persons in a case.
AJK Bar Council demands quashing of cases
Separately, the AJK Bar Council held an emergency meeting in the Mirpur division under vice chairman Muhammad Nadeem Khan.
Expressing serious concern over the registration of FIRs and arrests of the action committees’ members, participants of the meeting maintained that peaceful protest was the basic democratic right of the people and oppression of peaceful protesters by the state was not acceptable in any way.
Demanding that the motives of the brutality and the elements responsible for it should be exposed, the legal fraternity gave the government 24 hours to release the detainees and quash the cases against them.
“We want to make the government realise that the peaceful public protest may turn into a violent protest due to its short-sightedness and responsibility of any untoward incident will rest on its shoulders,” said a press release issued by the council.