“Like our son, our blood”: Waheed Para, once democracy’s icon, now in jail

“I’ll eat properly if he wins this election. We are worried about him. Our son is in jail, how could he be fine?” 

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On 7 December, 28-year-old Shabu Jan braved the early morning cold to reach the polling booth in the Naira village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Jan isn’t a frequent voter but for her this vote is personal. “We are all voting to show support,” she said, “and if I could vote twice, I would. Waheed is family.” 

Women gathered at the polling station recounted their memories with Waheed. “He should have been here, around us,” said Jawahira Bano, 45. She has seen the young politician come of age before her eyes — from running errands in the village to the day he shared the stage with the then union home minister, Rajnath Singh, in Srinagar.

Waheed was contesting elections for the first time, for the District Development Council (DDC) seat from the Pulwama-I constituency. However, five days after he filed his nomination, Waheed was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in New Delhi on 25 November. 

Waheed is the only candidate who is currently imprisoned and faces a criminal trial, leading to whispers of a rethinking of unionist politics by his supporters. “[His arrest] has left my heart aching,” said Bano. “We are like his mothers. He is like our son, our blood.”

Youth icon to NIA

Born and brought up in a nondescript village of south Kashmir, 32-year-old Waheed was once hailed as an icon of unionist politics. Coming from a family of farmers, he is credited for ensuring the landslide victory of the People’s Democratic Party’s Rajpora candidate, Haseeb Drabu, in the 2014 state assembly, in which the National Conference was rooted out. His grandfather was initially associated with the Congress and then a worker of the PDP.

That year, Waheed, who has studied journalism and Peace and Conflict Studies, was appointed as president of the party’s youth wing and on 2 July, the following year, he was appointed as Political Analyst in the then state government’s Grievance Cell in the secretariat of the then chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

Shortly after the massive civilian uprising in 2016, Waheed was appointed as the General Secretary of the J-K Sports Council — at a time when the government had renewed its focus on using sports to wean the youth off from militancy.

His mettle was tested and proven when he mobilised hundreds of Kashmiri youth to attend a gathering for the then Home Minister Rajnath Singh, at Srinagar’s indoor sports stadium — just a year after the uprising. Singh had applauded Waheed “for channelizing the energy of the state’s youth in a positive direction.” 

When New Delhi abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy on 5 August 2019, Waheed was arrested for six months. This year, the NIA has accused him of links to a high-profile militancy case that also involves a Deputy Superintendent of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, Davinder Singh.

His party has begun an online campaign — with the hashtag #ReleaseWaheedParra — calling for his release from arrest, which it has termed a “political vendetta” by New Delhi. When Mehbooba Mufti, the party’s head and former chief minister, visited Naira  last Saturday, she told local residents: “You all are aware that Waheed has always raised his voice against cruelty and he is being punished for that today.” 

For Mufti, a vote for Waheed was “an answer to Delhi’s tyranny”; the People’s Alliance, however, hasn’t said anything about his arrest. In his absence, Waheed’s friends and the extended Para family had taken up the task of campaigning.

One of Waheed’s neighbors said that there was gunfire, from the nearby army camp, in the adjacent Tahab village, a night before the polling day. Many others in the village, who had come out to vote, said the same. Local residents feel it was to intimidate Waheed’s supporters. A PDP leader claimed that “we had to run away, in pockets. We thought, now they will fire at the home.”

“I have given him to people”

Women voters at a polling station in Naira village of district Pulwama in south Kashmir on 7 December 2020. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

Strolling in the small garden near the polling station, Waheed’s 18-year-old cousin, Nisar Para, looked distraught, his eyes swollen. Nisar is a bit lost when it comes to politics but he knows that his cousin was just about his age when he started rubbing shoulders with seasoned politicians.

He came out to vote for Waheed because his cousin “needs his family”. 

To ensure Waheed’s victory, Nisar took part in the election campaign. “I went around Pulwama asking for votes,” he said. “I felt good because Waheed bhai has supported these people a lot with employment and basic development work.”

After working in media for a few years, Waheed started his life as a political activist. He was part of the second Kashmir Committee that was headed by former parliamentarian and renowned supreme court lawyer, Ram Jethmalani. The committee — originally formed in 2002 as a private effort to reach out to Kashmir’s pro-freedom leaders for the upcoming assembly elections — was revived after government forces killed nearly 120 civilians in street protests during the 2010 uprising.

Sushobha Barve, a prominent social activist and member of Concerned Citizens’ Group, saw Waheed “as a very sincere young man, committed to finding a solution to Kashmir problems, or any other social and political issues, through nonviolent dialogue.” Barve, who has met Waheed in several seminars in the last decade, said, “He is very articulate and very well versed with peace and conflict philosophy, peaceful ways of resolution of conflict. He knows what he is talking about. I found him to be a very promising young man.”

“To fight against customized democracy, you need sacrifices. I think my time has come.” 

However, a new era began for Kashmir when the coalition government fell apart in June 2018. Even after his release from the August 2019 detention, Waheed was reportedly under house arrest. “During his detention [post-August], I only met him once,” said his father Ghulam Ahmed Para, “for thirty minutes.” 

The last time Ahmed saw his son was in February 2020, when Waheed had come to visit his sister who was expecting a child. “Waheed came to meet her but I was in orchards,” said Ahmed, “and he left without meeting me.” “I was heartbroken — what had I done that I couldn’t even see his face?” he asked himself, breaking down. But, later, “Waheed told me that you are my father, how could I trouble you? He said that he wasn’t allowed by the security to meet me.” 

Ahmed is a composed man who seldom loses his calm. Despite hardships, he doesn’t regret Waheed’s decision to join politics. “I have given him to the people [of Kashmir].”

“This too shall pass” 

Dressed casually, Najmu Saqib, spokesperson of the PDP and also the People’s Alliance’s, observed the polling in the constituency. The voter turnout, he said, “isn’t impressive, to be honest” but “we are positive we will win.”

For young politicians like Saqib, Waheed is a role model. “He is a boy, who comes from Naira village in south Kashmir to champion the idea of democracy,” Saqib said of Waheed, “at a time when Kashmir was struggling with muscular policies. He has inspired a generation of youth by the healing touch.”

A night before his arrest, Waheed, who was at that time being questioned by the NIA in New Delhi, had called Saqib. “To fight against customized democracy,” Waheed told Saqib, “you need sacrifices. I think my time has come.” 

But before he hung, Saqib said that Waheed reassured: “This too shall pass.”

Waheed was released six months after his arrest on 5 August 2019, but apprehensions of another arrest had begun to haunt him for some weeks, said his close-aide Mohit Bhan, also a party spokesperson. “Waheed would have made a huge difference in south Kashmir for the Alliance,” said Bhan, 36. “He has an impact on youth, when he spoke, people listened.”

How is his arrest being seen by his supporters? “The people whom he showed the path of democracy in Kashmir are taken aback,” said Bhan. “He just stood out because of his work. He couldn’t be ignored by New Delhi [in an attempt to crack down].”

Back at the polling booth in Naira village, Shabu Jan, the homemaker, cast her vote and walked out with a smile. “I’ll eat properly if he wins this election,” she said, emphasizing that she hasn’t eaten well since Waheed’s arrest. “We are worried about him. Our son is in jail, how could he be fine?” 

Photograph: Waheed Para, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Youth President, during a party convention in Srinagar in 2018. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

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