Jammu Kashmir: Victory of masses against colonial oppression and neoliberal policies

Kashmir protest

First published at Asian Marxist Review. Translated by Sanaa i’ Muhammad.

The ongoing people's rights movement in Pakistani-administered Jammu Kashmir has finally emerged victorious after a year-long struggle. In a decisive phase, the people effectively paralyzed the state’s functioning across the region for over five days, culminating in a massive procession marching towards Muzaffarabad. Facing mounting pressure, the state issued a notification accepting the demands before the rally could reach the capital.

From May 9 to May 14, Jammu Kashmir witnessed an extraordinary series of events. Once again, it became clear that no state coercion or military might prevail against the power of people. When ordinary people take to the streets, they refuse to back down in the face of any injustice. Excessive use of power renders it meaningless at one point, there is a limit to oppression and tyranny; beyond it, oppression becomes a catalyst for triumph. This principle was proven true in Jammu Kashmir, when despite a year-long campaign for peace, instead of addressing genuine grievances the state persisted in violently suppressing dissent, resulting in the following public outcry and backlash.

Formation and demands of the People's Rights Movement

After the abrogation of Article 370 (special status of Jammu Kashmir) by the Indian State on August 5, 2019, the resistance forces in this region initiated a struggle for the restoration of people’s rights, against colonial exploitation and neoliberal capitalist policies. Thus if not yet ideologically, practically, the struggle for national freedom began progressing along class lines. The primary reason for this was the rapid implementation of neoliberal policies to deal with the economic crisis brought on by COVID, which resulted in an unabated increase in energy and food prices and introduced new taxes.

The struggle initiated against this process underwent various stages, evolving into resistance against colonial exploitation and control over resources. In August 2022, the foundation of the People's Rights Movement was laid. The charter of demands included demands such as a reduction in electricity prices, provision of subsidies on wheat, and elimination of privileges for the ruling elite. The boycott of electricity bills was announced until all demands were accepted. However, this movement could not be sustained for a long period.

On May 9, 2023, the Traders Associations and Civil Society organized a sit-in to protest against the increase in flour prices. When their demands were not met, they decided to continue the sit-in based on the charter of demands presented by the People’s Rights Movement, leading to protests at several other locations. Two months later, an increase in electricity prices caused the movement to spread to other districts in the region. Consequently, the People’s Rights Movement grew, and after the establishment of the ‘Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee’ (JAAC) in Muzaffarabad on September 16, 2023, it became a statewide movement. The list of demands expanded, and the boycott campaign of electricity bills spread across the Pakistani-administered Kashmir, with participation surpassing 70%.

From prolonged negotiations to the decision of the Long March

The leadership emerging from the rapidly spreading movement was predominantly composed of traders’ leaders. A limited number of nationalist and progressive leaders were also included in JAAC. Besides shutter-down strikes and wheel jam protests, actions like burning electricity bills were also included, after which the state attempted to crush the movement through coercion by making arrests. However, the immense power of the people not only reinstated the protests but also completely paralyzed the state, leading to the state’s first-ever capitulation in front of this movement and the initiation of negotiation processes.

During this protracted and exhausting process, the government employed every tactic to quell the movement through negotiations, but to no avail. When indications of compromise by leadership emerged, the people forced them to retract their decisions. Finally, as a decisive step of this movement, on May 11, the announcement of the Long March from Bhimber to the capital, Muzaffarabad, was made.

State coercion and public resistance

In an attempt to halt the Long March, the state adopted a policy of heavy-handed suppression. Members of the Joint Awami Action Committee and active political workers in various committees were profiled, the movement was labeled as having foreign agendas and Indian conspiracies, and both the Frontier Constabulary (FC) and Punjab Constabulary (PC) were deployed to intimidate citizens.

Just two days before the march’s start, arrests began. Protests were held in various cities against the arrests of over 70 leaders in the Mirpur Division. In Dadyal, state force was used to suppress the protests. In response to violence and baton charges, protesters seized control of the city.

Throughout a year-long struggle, the state employed coercion and violence in every attempt to crush the movement, but the movement remained entirely peaceful. In response to every injustice by the state, peaceful protests were held, and not a single inch was given. However, in Dadyal, state violence provided an opportunity for the people to respond with force. In response to state violence in Dadyal, a state-wide wheel jam strike and shutter-down strike were announced, and the call to retract the Long March was also made.

Efforts to cancel the Long March were thwarted by the public’s reaction, forcing the leadership to retract its decision. Implementing Section 144 in all cities, the government attempted to thwart the strike. In Muzaffarabad, the police initiated a series of violent actions. Muzaffarabad turned into a battlefield for two days, with many arrests and numerous injuries. On May 11, in the planning to stop the Long March, the government closed roads from various locations. The police attempted to stop protesters through violence. Clashes occurred between police and protesters at multiple locations. Everywhere, protesters continued to advance, defeating the police. Faced with the protesters’ defiance against police firing, the protesters bravely advanced, pushing back the armed police officers with sticks and stones. As they entered the city, the state’s nerves were tested. Heavy reinforcements of Punjab Rangers were called for to secure the capital.

A pivotal negotiation phase

Taking note of the growing participation and momentum of the Long March, the state once again attempted to initiate negotiations. However, this was a decisive turn as the protesters were not inclined towards negotiations; the state representatives wanted to end the Long March without accepting the demands, and there was no room for any compromise on the part of the leadership. Consequently, the negotiations scheduled for May 12 in Rawalakot failed, and the convoys moved on to Dhirkot, where further talks were held. With no notification issued to accept their demands, the Long March continued towards Muzaffarabad. Contrary to state authorities’ expectations, the number of participants in the Long March continued to increase as they neared Muzaffarabad.

The patience of the participants in the Long March, comprising thousands of vehicles and motorcycles, had reached its limit. They had overcome all fears and were ready for decisive action. Prepared participants were armed with sticks for the decisive battle. Alongside various political groups, there were also individuals ready for any form of struggle. If the fearless strength of thousands had united, it could have led to significant unrest. It was a test for the leadership to lead the march to a peaceful conclusion and ensure the acceptance of demands. The state had no other choice but to accept the demands rather than risk significant bloodshed and chaos.

As the convoys of the Long March departed from Dhirkot, Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahbaz Sharif announced a special package worth 23 billion rupees. Notifications accepting the demands were issued, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan-administered Jammu Kashmir also held a press conference to announce the acceptance of demands.

Accepted demands

Through a notification, the government restructured the electricity tariff. For domestic consumers, the price of electricity was set at 3 rupees per unit for up to 100 units, 5 rupees per unit for up to 300 units, and 6 rupees per unit for over 300 units. For commercial consumers, the price of electricity was set at 10 rupees per unit for up to 300 units and 15 rupees per unit for over 300 units. According to the announcement by Shaukat Nawaz Mir, a member of the Joint Awami Action Committee playing a fundamental role in the negotiation process, no taxes or service charges will be imposed on this tariff.

The price of flour was reduced to 2,000 rupees per 40 kilograms, decreasing by 1,100 rupees per 40 kilograms. A notification was also issued to form a judicial commission to present recommendations to end the concessions for the ruling elite.

It is worth noting that during the movement, an additional 7 demands were included in the Charter of Demands, for which the government had issued a notification on the night of February 4th. However, implementation of this notification has not yet begun. The government has also assured that action will be taken on this notification.

The welcome of the Long March and the sacrifice of 3 lives

Where the enthusiasm and mutual assistance among the participants of the Long March were visible, scenes of welcome on the streets also symbolized the birth of a new society. Old and young, men and women stood on roofs of houses, mountains, and markets, welcoming the caravans of the Long March with slogans. They arranged for food, water, juices, and other refreshments at various places to welcome the participants of the Long March and opened their homes and hotels for the participants of the Long March.

Before the departure of the Long March from Dhirkot, convoys of Rangers once again attempted to enter Muzaffarabad from Abbottabad for the defense of the sensitive establishments of the state. However, the residents resisted the convoys of Rangers at Barar Kot on the entry routes of Muzaffarabad. Youth, armed with stones, forced them to return. A young man lost his life to the Rangers firing. Although some convoys of Rangers managed to enter Muzaffarabad, the residents did not provide them with any opportunity to hide anywhere.

As a practical measure to stop the Long March, internet services were suspended across the state. The flow of information had been restricted. The youth of Muzaffarabad were unaware that the participants of the Long March had been allowed to enter into the capital safely. They thought that the convoys of Rangers were coming to crush the Long March. Therefore, these youth decided to confront the armed convoys of Rangers without caring for their lives to help the participants of the Long March. During this time, two more young men were killed by bullets. From providing free fruit to the participants of the Long March by a fruit vendor to the sacrifice of lives by the youth, countless exemplary sacrifices and dedications were made for the success of this movement.

Adventurism and disappointment

The vibrant participation of the masses in the movement and the involvement of thousands of individuals in the Long March were not only indicative of the movement’s success but also of the concerted efforts aimed at achieving larger objectives through the demands outlined by this Long March. However, efforts based on factionalism and group interests to gain proximity to leadership, characterised by theoretical bankruptcy, sycophancy, opportunism, and sectarianism, often divert the movement from its main purposes. The accidental leaderships emerging from such movements with a weak theoretical command often surround themselves with flatterers and gradually become hostile towards constructive criticism. Political figures engaged in petty politics, despite being at the forefront of public movements, do not refrain from sacrificing the movements for their group interests. Hence, there is no difficulty for opportunists in winning proximity of the leadership.

However, the factional and sectarian groups, in their pursuit of achieving their sectarian objectives, often hinder the public movement from achieving its goals, for which the people are ready to fight. Consequently, deep disappointment spreads, and rebuilding the movement in the future takes decades and sometimes centuries. Even the victories of minor battles provide the morale for further battles. However, the defeat of major battles compels one to think a thousand times before jumping into another battle in the future.

Often, after a long period of stagnation, it becomes challenging to channel a self-organized mass movement towards achieving its desired results, preparing for future major battles, and cultivating revolutionary leadership. This is especially true in disputed regions like Jammu Kashmir, where the absence of movements in surrounding areas can complicate matters. In such contexts, adventure can not only lead to large-scale violence but also set a dangerous precedent for the masses in adjacent regions.

The participation of sectarian currents in the Long March and their attempts to exploit public sentiment over the deaths of three young residents of Muzaffarabad could have led to severe consequences. However, the acceptance of the movement’s demands and its peaceful resolution could open up new paths for ideological politics in the future, instill confidence in the masses for a prolonged struggle, and create opportunities for developing alternative revolutionary leadership. This potential shift posed a significant threat to the movement’s leadership. Fortunately, this threat was averted due to the incompetence of the adventurists, the wisdom of the leadership, and other contributing factors.

Has the struggle ended?

The events that have unfolded in Jammu Kashmir are extraordinary, and they mark a historic victory for the working class. They are mighty blows struck against the chains of oppressive neoliberal policies in a heavily colonized region—an accomplishment many deemed unattainable. Their impacts will not merely echo within our society; rather, they will serve as a rallying cry and a source of strength for the working class, striving against neoliberal policies from the peaks of the Himalayas throughout South Asia.

However, this is not the end of the struggle; instead, it is the beginning, which will ultimately lead to the eradication of all forms of exploitation and slavery. This is also a test for revolutionary forces to accelerate the preparation for future struggles, to solidify the struggle for freedom on class lines, to be adept at the art of establishing transitional programs, and to equip the working class and the masses with the theoretical tools that can change their destinies.