Protests against inflated power bills turn violent in Muzaffarabad

Published October 1, 2023
Police officials clash with traders in Muzaffarabad during a rally on Saturday. — Dawn
Police officials clash with traders in Muzaffarabad during a rally on Saturday. — Dawn

MUZAFFARABAD: Thousands of people poured onto the streets in different cities and towns of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) on Saturday to protest against the “arbitrary arrests” of civil society activists and traders, who had been booked by the police for holding public demonstrations over the past few days against the exorbitant hike in the power tariff.

Clashes took place between the police and the protesters in Muzaffarabad when the police personnel made an attempt to forcefully open the shops which the traders had shut after reports regarding the arrests of a number of their colleagues and activists.

Hundreds of protesters in Rawalakot and Muzaffarabad had torched and thrown their electricity bills into Neelum River on Thursday. Similar protests had also been reported from several other AJK towns.

In a surprise development, it emerged on Friday that the police had lodged FIRs [First Information Reports] against dozens of prominent members of the action committees, including trader leaders and councillors, in different areas of Azad Kashmir on charges of “destroying electricity bills and provoking the public against the government”.

Police arrest 60 civil society activists, traders from various parts of AJK; lawyers set 24-hour deadline for release of detained persons

Late on Friday night, the police raided and uprooted sit-in camps in Bagh and Rawalakot, in addition to conducting raids at the residences of the activists nominated in the FIR in Muzaffarabad.

As the news about the “overnight” raids went viral on social media, traders pulled down their shutters and took to the streets along with other members of the civil society on Saturday.

In Muzaffarabad, police were seen in video clips forcing traders to keep their shops open but in vain. As a large number of people drew close to their sit-in camp along the eastern side of the press club, they were intercepted by huge contingents of the police who lobbed tear gas shells and also used batons to push them back.

The ensuing clash left one police official and many protesters bruised and injured, but eventually they managed to reach their sit-in camp where they remained until 4pm.

Elsewhere in the city, angry protesters blocked roads by placing obstacles and used tyres amid anti-government chants.

In Plate neighbourhood, the protesters also clashed with the police who could be seen in a viral video clip fleeing the area.

Talking to reporters at a sit-in camp, Shaukat Nawaz Mir, the elected president of the traders of Muzaffarabad, said they had been holding peaceful sit-ins without disturbing traffic.

“I wonder why the police registered FIRs against people and raided their houses without search warrants,” he said, adding that their peaceful sit-in would continue.

Later, in a video message, he said he had appealed to AJK Prime Minister Anwarul Haq earlier in the day to immediately and unconditionally release all the detainees, if he wanted to improve the law and order situation in the state.

“I told him [PM] that he should analyse as to who has been advising him wrong actions in succession … All problems can be addressed, if the prime minister takes the situation seriously. [But] we have observed that he is not exercising his powers himself but someone else is pulling his strings,” Mr Mir said.

He said the core committee of all action committees would meet on Monday to decide a joint charter of demands to be presented to the prime minister.

“If the government does not want to establish peace, it can go ahead with its plans and we will go by ours,” he said.

In Rawalakot, thousands of people took out a rally amid a shutter down on Saturday, chanting slogans against the government and the administration.

The demonstrators re-established the sit-in camp near Kutchery Chowk, which the police had uprooted on Friday night.

In Abbaspur, hundreds of people took out a rally and also cordoned off the building of the police station where some activists had been detained.

In Neelum Valley, hundreds of electricity bills were set on fire at the close of a rally amid shutter down strike. Local police booked some 13 nominated and 15 unknown persons for the offence.

Meanwhile, DIG Police Poonch Shehyar Sikander confirmed to Dawn that 30 people had been apprehended from Rawalakot, Hajira, Abbaspur and adjoining areas of Poonch district and three each from the neighbouring Bagh and Sudhnoti districts.

In Muzaffarabad, Divisional Commissioner Adnan Khurshid said that of the 25 detained activists, three were taken into custody overnight, seven in the morning and the rest later in the day on Saturday.

Lawyers warn government

In Mirpur, the AJK Bar Council held an emergent meeting with its Vice-Chairman Muhammad Nadeem Khan in the chair.

Expressing serious concern over the registration of cases and arrests of the peaceful members of the action committees, the bar council members 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.

Warning the government that peaceful public protests could turn into violent movements, they asked it to release the detainees within 24 hours, apart from quashing all cases against them.

It may be recalled that the people of the Poonch division had been observing a series of protests against the alleged unavailability of subsidised wheat flour since June this year. The enforcement of new power tariff in August extended the wave of anger across the state, triggering shutter-down and wheel-jam strikes and demonstrations.

The demonstrators, who later formed people’s action committees in each district headquarters, later included some other area-specific demands in their charter, such as environmental problems due to the diversion of Neelum River in Muzaffarabad and non-completion of Rathoa-Haryam Bridge and the issue of Mangla Dam upraising.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2023

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