After 18 Months Of Humiliation, Trauma In Jail, J&K’s Waheed Parra Is Still A Unionist & A Candidate For Parliament

13 May 2024 21 min read  Share

Eager, effervescent and educated, Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra, 36, was a regular on Indian television debates. He was articulate, and his position was pro-India, a rarity in Kashmir. He believed—and still does—in the Indian Constitution and democracy, even though he was imprisoned for 18 months on terrorism allegations, after Jammu and Kashmir lost its statehood in 2019. As a candidate for a party that faced stifling restrictions despite supporting the Indian position on J&K and standing in a constituency where the majority have boycotted elections for decades, Parra tells us why he chooses to participate in Parliamentary elections.

Peoples Democratic Party candidate for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat, Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra, addresses supporters at a campaign rally in April 2024/ ZAID BIN SHABIR

Srinagar: In the restive, sullen valley of Kashmir, Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra was known for his eloquent participation in television debates and denounced for his pro-Indian views. 

Many like him—eager, effervescent, and educated—surfaced in studios between 2008 and 2010, when the Kashmir street was exploding with anger against the establishment. Parra, 36, a postgraduate in International Relations—Peace and Conflict studies, who is now 36, had limited street cred because he was dismissed as a voice sponsored by the union government in New Delhi. 

This perception wasn't entirely misplaced. When the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) allied with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, Parra, as the president of PDP’s youth wing and close confidant of then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, became the go-to man for many in the alliance. 

Parra, from south Kashmir’s volatile Pulwama district, always said he believed in India’s constitution, stood up for the idea of India in Kashmir and soon became a torch bearer for democracy in the strife-torn Valley. On 7 June 2018, when Parra organised a sports conclave with about 3,000 young people in Srinagar, defence minister Rajnath Singh praised Parra for striving to change youth attitudes through sport.

“I have visited Kashmir many times and I am witnessing this scene for the very first time,” said Singh. “After seeing the enthusiasm and excitement of all these youngsters I can vouch that they will not only change the future course of Kashmir but of the entire country as well.”  

But even a “unionist”—as those who advocate integration with India are called—like Parra was not spared in the sweeping security crackdown when thousands were arrested and jailed after the union government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ended the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in August 2019 and downgraded what was then a state into a union territory.

Even after the downgrade, Parra believed in the Indian Constitution, and in November 2020, he filed his nomination for district development council (DDC) elections in Jammu & Kashmir. A few days later on 25 November, he was arrested by the National Investigation Agency(NIA) and accused of involvement in “terrorism” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967.

DDC elections, envisioned as a third tier of governance in Jammu & Kashmir, were the first direct election held in the erstwhile state after the 2019 abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, which paved the way for the former kingdom to join India. 

While still in detention, in December 2020, Parra won the DDC elections from his home turf, Pulwama. He was never allowed to take oath and serve his constituency, despite a March 2023 J&K High Court order to administer the oath. 

On 9 January, 2021, a special court granted bail to Parra in the NIA case. On the same day, in a now-familiar pattern, he was picked up by Counter Intelligence Kashmir (CIK)—the anti-militancy intelligence wing of J&K Police’s criminal investigation Department (CID). Two days later, on 10 January, he was arrested on almost identical allegations: links to militant groups and financing terrorist activities.

After 18 months, Parra finally stepped out of jail on 25 May 2022. 

In an interview to Article 14, Parra recalled the “trauma” of imprisonment, of being kept in darkened isolation, stripped of his clothes, “tortured” and “being treated like cattle”. 

Yet, he has not backed down from being a unionist.

Almost two years after his release, the PDP—the party to which he has been steadfastly loyal—announced that Parra would be their candidate for the Srinagar Parliamentary constituency. Unionists like Parra still exist despite the union government’s clampdown in Kashmir. Abdul Rashid Sheikh, popularly called “Engineer” Rashid, is contesting Parliamentary elections from Delhi’s Tihar jail, where he is imprisoned, as Parra was, on terrorism charges.

Parra is no longer a pariah in Srinagar. His rural roots, combined with his urban following and the backing of the PDP make him a strong candidate in a constituency where the majority of eligible voters boycott elections: the highest voter turnout was 40.9% in 1996.

Parra said he recalled to his constituents his painful days in prison, and in so doing empathising with the families of hundreds of Kashmiri youth imprisoned in jails nationwide.

 “When you're innocent and charged with the UAPA [sections] back to back, then you see how much the process… becomes a punishment,” said Parra.

On the campaign trail, Parra promised to end the Valley’s “prison pain” and said Kashmiris, particularly the youth, should treat the election as a referendum. On 9 May 2024, he was issued a notice by the Election Commission for violating the model code of conduct, a set of guidelines that all political parties have agreed to.

"Your vote should be your referendum, and a message needs to be conveyed to New Delhi that people's silence here should not be construed as their contentment,” Parra said at a press conference, according to election officials. 

“The future of youth is uncertain, people are scared, uncertain about their security. The youth of Srinagar are trend setters and anything they decide becomes a trend in the Valley,” Parra was quoted as saying. 

“We have lost thousands of people particularly youth, many are in jail, many others lost, generations have been lost, [an] entire generation is slipping away from us, children caught in drug addiction, educated are under depression and the future generation is in danger, and to save this, we want people to [treat] this election [as] not less than a referendum and send a message to New Delhi that people are not happy with them and they want to be heard, they want their issues and fears to be addressed by the Parliament of India.”

The PDP and its rival, the National Conference (NC), J&K’s oldest political party, complained of police harassment and detentions of workers during the campaign. Parra, too complained, warning against bringing back the “dark days” of 1987, when allegedly rigged elections sparked an armed rebellion in Kashmir.

Among the prominent faces fighting elections from Srinagar, Parra faces a strong challenge from the NC and its fiery candidate, Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi. A Shia Muslim from central Kashmir’s Budgam district, Mehdi holds sway over Srinagar’s urban areas. 

But Parra was unfazed when we spoke to him, arguing that his personal and his party’s sacrifices would boost his campaign. 

“I believe I've made it (parliamentary elections) a personal cause,” said Parra. “I want to prove my innocence, and that I was harmed.”

Despite his 18-month incarceration, Parra said he saw hope from India’s political process. “I want to use [elections] as an opportunity to become a solution for others who are suffering,” said Parra. “It's not just about me. It's the story of many Kashmiris who are facing the same trauma, torture, and processes.”

“For every young Kashmiri who wants a normal life or engages in politics, there’s a huge circumstantial (sic) issue,” Parra said. “They (youth) are made anti-nationals, they don’t become [anti-nationals] themselves.”

Using force is an acceptance of failure, and the basic problem of the Modi government’s approach to Kashmir, said Parra, is the lack of compassion. 

Edited excerpts from the interview:

You spent 546 days in Jail, what were your experiences?

It was painful. In a way, it helped me understand how politics is personal in Kashmir. I went through a lot of trauma, as I was not prepared for jail. For 30 days, I was kept in an isolated, dark, and tight cell in Delhi. I was being questioned repeatedly, harassed, and tortured also. Even my clothes were taken off. Then I was shifted to Srinagar and kept in another such cell for almost one month.

Psychologically, it disturbs you as a person. You experience nightmares, depression, and anxiety because living in a jail is incredibly challenging. You're confined to a small space, often sharing a room with 30 people, which feels suffocating and dehumanising. It’s like being treated as cattle. The lack of liberty and freedom shakes your faith at times, but you have to be patient.

When you're innocent and charged with all 10 terror UAPA [sections] back to back, then you see how the process is consuming, and how it becomes a punishment. By the time you're out, you already served more than what you can get convicted for. It's a very dangerous, painful phenomenon. Your family suffers indignity, their clothes are removed when they come to meet you. There's a huge humiliation when you're handcuffed and taken to a hospital.

So, you undergo a lot of processes. It was very painful and very traumatic to live in those small cells, to live alone in solitary confinement, but it brings you closer to realities. I would see quotes and names of people [from Kashmir] on these cell walls. So, it gave me a feeling that we are all receiving the same treatment and that this has happened with lots of people. You cannot understand Kashmir and the trauma that people are going through unless you've been in jail.

How did you end up as a candidate in the parliamentary elections?

There's a need for a voice, and there’s a need for Kashmiris to be represented at a larger level: in the Parliament of India. I feel there’s a lot of suffocation and silence about Kashmir, where people feel disregarded, disempowered, and unheard. I’m committed to creating a space that ends this suffocating silence and empowers the voices of Kashmiris. There has to be a political presence in the Parliament that articulates Kashmir's sense of neglect over the past five years.

I’m more worried about the human suffering of this place and how to address them. I want to represent those voices who are in trauma and who are in pain. For the last 30 years, we've been suffering. I met people in jail who are as young as me and who have been in jail for five, six and even 10 years. 

I think there's a huge ignorance about how people are suffering, and I think they need representation and they need help. All of us need help and we need to heal one another. There's a lot that can be done politically. At least, I want to use it as an opportunity to become a solution for others who are suffering. 

I believe I've made it a personal cause. I want to prove my innocence and that I was harmed. It also sends a message [to the government] that if you send our youth to jail, book them under UAPA, use the NIA or the SIA (tate Investigation Agency) against us, we will not accept those charges.

This is a message to the system and to the people ruling us about how we want our youth to be treated. It's not just about me; it's the story of many Kashmiris who are facing the same trauma, torture, and processes. Maybe, if this changes and becomes a success story, it will motivate people and give them hope for the future. I believe PDP, through my candidature, wants to send out a clear message: we trust and support you, even if the government doesn't and we are there for you even in tough times.

From a flag bearer of democracy to being booked under UAPA, do you still believe in the democratic process?

I do. This is a story of every Kashmiri who strives to embrace Indian identity, who seeks to be a part of the mainstream, who tries to believe in the constitution—yet faces the same fate as I do. It began in 1987 and continues unchanged. So, I believe none of us are born anti-India, anti-national, terrorists, OGWs (over-ground workers), or militants—all these tags are given to us by circumstances.

This is a test of our patience as well. We are very clear that whatever issues we want to resolve must be done democratically and within the ambit of the Constitution, but it has to restore the dignity of the people of Jammu & Kashmir. This is not something that can be achieved through violence in a single day. It's a process that will take a lot of time: creating conversation, awareness, and convincing people in India that Kashmir is a human cause and a human issue. It's not about land, territory, or winning people over through violence and death.

(The alleged rigging of the 1987 assembly polls is widely considered as the trigger for armed militancy in the Valley)

You were booked under terrorism charges. Do you believe this was related to a larger political witch-hunt against you and PDP?

Yes, it was.

I was someone who opted for mainstream Indian politics with a lot of conviction mainly because Mufti sahab (PDP patron and former J&K chief minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed) was a part of it.

However, almost all those who were crowd pullers or connected to the ground in PDP, left the party. Among the young people, I was very visible because I was heading the youth wing and was seen very closely with Mehboobaji. So, there were some pressures.

Also, I’m from Pulwama. That was also in focus. They wanted to suppress Pulwama more. I believe it (arrest) was a message to the people here, especially the youth, as well as within the party. There was pressure on everyone [within the party]. 

So, it was incredibly painful and traumatic. However, I believe that patience is crucial in such circumstances, rather than giving up. I lost my family members—I lost my father and nephew in this process. Unfortunately, I couldn't mourn them because I wasn't allowed to travel.

Lots of people from the PDP were harassed. Many leaders faced immense pressure. There are 40 people who left PDP (after 5 August 2019). The party was completely broken. There was a crackdown on us, and I was also targeted. Perhaps it was because I was young and stayed consistent in many ways. But young people are often sincere to their work and cause.

How do you propose to rally for rights of people in Kashmir given the constitutional changes after 2019?

We're trying to show solidarity with people, and that's the best thing we can do. In a toxic, choked, and suppressed atmosphere, we have to show people that we are with them, and that's what we're trying to do. Even in this election, we're going and listening to people. We're not holding big rallies, we're not making grand claims, but we just want to let them know we're with them. That's what keeps it going. When I was in jail, and somebody would speak for me, it would give me a lot of hope. So, I think all of us need to give hope to each other, show solidarity, and be there for each other until this phase passes

After 2019, violence, including civilian casualties has come down. Are you content with such an arrangement by New Delhi?

The entire case is about consent. The whole fight is about dignity. Are we on board? Are we even being asked anything? We feel excluded from all discussions. Everything is decided about us without us, and that's where the whole problem lies. People don't feel that they're being involved and considered as stakeholders. These are our major concerns with Delhi's arrangements.

What is your plan for peace in Kashmir?

Our approach is that the dialogue is core to the whole problem. Using force is also an acceptance of failure. Young people who joined the militancy, volunteered for death, would see a lot of dignity in death. 

There has to be dignity in democracy, and we need to make it possible. We should not repeat 1987. We should let young people be part of the success story. That’s the whole beauty of democracy. 

The truth is that there are no young people coming and joining this process, except a few in PDP. People in Kashmir have been hurt for many decades and to heal that, a huge compassionate approach is needed. Maybe, governments are not compassionate, but if Delhi and Kashmiri leadership wants people to recover, they need compassion. That's the core of the Kashmir problem. 

I think a lot of compassion is missing. There is more concession given to us but less compassion. Even if they build roads, do development, give money and jobs to everyone, if it's done without compassion, I don't think it serves the idea of winning over people.

Using force, jails, and coercive measures against youth cannot be justified in a democracy. I see this as a personal case study on how to bring about change. For every young Kashmiri who wants to be a part of a normal life or engage in politics, there’s a huge circumstantial (sic) issue. They [youth] are made anti-nationals, they don’t become themselves.

Maybe, these things happened in our time also but we need to bring it to an end. I think you (the government) cannot win people through UAPA,  jail, PSA (the Public Safety Act) and such measures. We are trying to understand what it is that addresses the dignity of youth in J&K. And we'll try our best to work on it. I won't claim that we will succeed easily, but we will definitely be in search of hope.

What do you hope by contesting?

I think what we want to revive in Jammu & Kashmir right now is the belief that we can fight with dignity and for dignity. Young people don't need to be violent or depressed; we can do it. Even if we’re jailed, booked under UAPA, kept in a cell, tortured, harassed, or labelled as terrorists and militants, we have to fight it. We have to be brave, stay consistent, and try our level best to remain non-violent and uphold our values.

Our youth should not give up. This is a political issue and we should fight it politically. Constitutionally, there's much we can achieve. Young people need to be more practical now, more careful and sensitive about their aspirations, and channel their energy wisely. Our youth should live for this place, not for jails. We must ensure they don't waste their youth. They should live for democracy, not for jails. We must fight democratically so that we don’t lose another generation to guns.

I believe this election is more than just an expression of protest; it's also a statement. People need to show wisdom on election day by turning up at the polling booths and surprising everyone, just as they did on 5 August (by staying away from violence). All of us are concerned about the future, and for the next generation. Most of us love our homeland and seek respect for the youth of Kashmir.

What are the issues for a parliamentary election in a region where there is clearly a sullen peace? 

The core issue at present is giving a voice and ending the suffocation of people of Kashmir. Also, creating space for truth is crucial. Truth is the greatest casualty in Kashmir. Even if people disagree with me or oppose me, they should be allowed to speak. I cannot take people's silence as acceptance. Kashmir needs honest conversations, space, and a voice. This is exactly what the PDP aims to achieve—giving everyone a voice. 

We're a 5,000-year-old civilization. We were not born on 5 August [2019], or 1947, or 1957. This is about saving culture, language, our living, our resources, our land, and above all, it's about saving our home. We want to protect it, we want to live in a certain way, and we feel like our home is being destroyed in the name of tourism, pilgrimage tourism, industries, and development. They (the government) are bringing so much rapid development that it will eventually lead to ecological disasters. 

This [riverbed] mining will come at a cost. We've preserved these waters, these canals, and now they're being plundered. This will adversely affect the water level and water table. Our springs will dry up, our tube wells will run dry, and our irrigation will suffer. We'll likely see more floods and face an irrigation crisis.

It's an ecological disaster taking place in the name of tourism. So, we want to stop that. We're a fragile ecology. We just want things to be done in a more inclusive manner, not in an enforced way. 

What reactions have you encountered from the public?

I'm surprised by the minimal backlash against the PDP on the ground. There's a lot of reception to Mehbooba Mufti's stance on ground. There's a ripple effect from what she has said in the last few years, which I wasn't expecting. It’s a huge shift. People are showing a lot of respect for her stance, regardless of party lines. It's as if she's the only man left in Kashmir who stood strong. Everybody else remained silent. This is a very new situation for us after delimitation, abrogation, and reorganisation. Both the situation and politics are evolving. Perhaps, people will throw a surprise.

What can you offer if you win, given that everything in Jammu and Kashmir is controlled from Delhi?

I believe we need to change the mindset in Delhi, and for me, Parliament is a road to achieve that.

What can you achieve as a parliamentarian, given that in 2019, Kashmir's three MPs were unable to prevent the constitutional changes in J&K?

Undoubtedly, they (the union government) can do anything, but at least [Kashmiri] people should have a voice in Parliament, so they can openly criticise the government's actions. We had three MPs who did nothing substantial. They discussed minor issues on a larger platform and would talk about bigger issues only on the streets of Kashmir.

Having a voice at this point is enough because we are facing survival issues on multiple fronts, including land issues, eviction concerns, and insecurity among the people. Someone needs to raise these issues. There's a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and communication gaps between Delhi and Srinagar. Even if it's a BJP government, they need to be told about the ground reality. It's important to know that the people of India, the government of India, and the Parliament of India are three distinct entities. Not everything the government does is necessarily endorsed by the people of India. So, if you’ve a voice (in Parliament), it will make an impact.

Then, you'll have to engage with the State at some point. But, how will you engage with the State when it has shut its door on you?

We're always willing to engage. We're not isolating ourselves from the government. As a political force, we believe in finding solutions within the system. So, we're not against the engagement, but we emphasise that the engagement must be productive and constructive. We want a result-oriented engagement.

What hope and guarantee can you give to the public on Article 370?

People need to hold onto hope. While Kashmir has issues related to Article 370 and issues larger than that, succumbing to hopelessness and believing that everything is lost is dangerous for a society like ours. We have endured a great deal in the past, and we are a resilient community. I am sure things will change. We are hopeful that we will reclaim our pride and our rights. It’s just that we have to be patient, more democratic, and also more political in our approach.

Do you have a roadmap for bringing back Kashmir’s pre-2019 status?

Not immediately. But, it's clear that you need the people of India to be convinced to restore your rights. Our constitutional position has changed over the past 70 years, and even more so in the last 30 years. Now that the mindset has changed, we need to engage with the people of the country and create some space (for ourselves).

Is reconciliation and dialogue the only way forward for Kashmir?

That's what it is globally. Dialogue is the key. The failure of dialogue then means violence. 

Is your party greater than Kashmiri political unity?

No, it's not. We're uniting people within our party ambit. We tried our best to serve the cause of unity, and we were actually willing. The party's political affairs committee decided that we would leave all three seats (to the National Conference), if we had been asked to do it, and if there was an invitation [from National Conference]. 

In the INDIA alliance meeting, Mehboobaji said that whatever Farooq Abdullah decides, we will abide by it. For us, unity was paramount to everything. That’s why we awaited a call, hoping NC would invite us for a unity initiative and opt for a joint election. However, they decided to field their own candidates, and to make matters worse, they declared us irrelevant, claiming we were not a force on ground. This hit our cadre.

The party leadership was also placed in a very tricky position by being told that they don't matter, that they're not relevant. The whole fight in Kashmir is about existence and relevance. If I deny you your relevance then what kind of leadership are we claiming? So, we are only going back to the people, talking to them, and seeking their mandate. It's better to unite under a voice that truly speaks the truth rather than having unity which doesn't articulate anything.

(Zaid Bin Shabir is an independent journalist based in Jammu & Kashmir.)

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