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‘The election is an opportunity to end silence in Kashmir’: Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra

The PDP leader, who is contesting from Srinagar, says the Lok Sabha election is an occasion to connect with people after a huge political vacuum.

Published : Apr 21, 2024 12:00 IST - 11 MINS READ

Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra during a youth convention in Srinagar on November 27, 2022.

Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra during a youth convention in Srinagar on November 27, 2022. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Following the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who opposed the Central government’s decision to remove the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, was jailed for around 19 months under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Parra was selected as the Yale Peace Fellow in 2023 but the Indian government denied him a passport, which prevented him from pursuing the fellowship.

Parra, who is fighting for people’s rights and self-representation, believes that the Lok Sabha election could address a long-standing political lacuna by giving Kashmiris an opportunity to be integrated into the fold of democracy.

Speaking to Frontline on a variety of issues, Parra, who is contesting from the Srinagar constituency, shared his vision for an empowered Kashmir. Excerpts:

Is there a central theme that you have been addressing during your campaign? How has the response been?

Based on what we have been discussing during the campaign, the burning issue in Kashmir is the abrogation of Article 370 and how it has shaped the dispossession and disempowerment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The fallout of it is also that there’s silence. There’s a vacuum. And, there’s suffocation.

The electoral process is an occasion to connect with people after a huge political vacuum because no Assembly elections were held in the last 10 years and no panchayat elections in the last six years. People are showing interest in the election because of the long-existing vacuum. This is also an opportunity to end the cycle of silence in Jammu and Kashmir.

Also Read | Collapse of NC-PDP front PAGD could benefit BJP

On April 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a rally in Udhampur that the Assembly election would be held soon in Jammu and Kashmir. He also promised the restoration of Statehood. What are your thoughts?

This statement sounds more like a measure to pacify the domestic constituency and the local leadership in Jammu, which is disgruntled with the BJP. It doesn’t represent the sentiments of Kashmir.

Whenever the Prime Minister spoke from the Red Fort on August 15, or on January 26 [from 2019 onwards], he has made assertions that elections will be conducted and Statehood will be restored.

It seems that the BJP is not prepared for electoral politics in Jammu and Kashmir. They have not fielded candidates in the three Lok Sabha constituencies in the Kashmir region [Anantnag-Rajouri, Srinagar, and Baramulla in Kashmir]. That’s because they don’t see any electoral success happening here in the near future.

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti with supporters during an election rally in Kulgam on April 17.

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti with supporters during an election rally in Kulgam on April 17. | Photo Credit: PTI

Peace is commonly understood to be an absence of violence but it is also a function of justice. How do you envision and advocate for peace in Kashmir?

Since we have been witnessing conflict and violence so intimately, peace for Kashmiri Muslims is about the participation of people in every process, whether it’s an election, decision-making processes, or the larger peace process, which, as you said, is not only the absence of violence but also about justice. Psychologically, people should feel free; they should not feel that they’re under surveillance or control. Peace cannot be classified as an event; it’s a process that involves dialogue and dignity, where the local people feel that they’re part of the process. It’s a process of reconciliation where the first step towards transformation starts with the acknowledgement of trauma, as a lot of people have been undergoing trauma owing to conflict; people have lost their loved ones, and the trauma of these people has neither been acknowledged nor addressed.

So, peace means more of an honest conversation where there’s an acknowledgement of the pain of those who have experienced trauma; it has got nothing to do with the physical peace that the government defines.

When they [the government] say Kashmir is peaceful right now, it may not be so in reality. We may look peaceful but we’re not happy. So, for us, peace means acknowledgement of justice and also a process that involves reconciliation from all sides. It’s not just for Muslims; it’s also for Pandits. It has to be a process of reconciliation, where we try to heal each other, and try not to defeat each other.

What are your party’s measures to ensure participation in electoral democracy? Do you see reconciliation and dialogue as the best way to resolve Kashmir’s issues?

We are a party that believes in peace; peace with dignity and justice. The philosophy of justice has to be there to set peace in a direction so that people feel that there’s no denial of whatever has happened. The PDP’s core philosophy is to heal people through dialogue, reconciliation, and acknowledgement. We’re trying to integrate those people who’ve been part of violence, people who have been cut off from constitutional or democratic processes.

“Kashmiris have been welcoming tourists and pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra for centuries. However, the irony is that during these visits surveillance is increased to ensure the travellers’ safety, while Kashmiris are made to feel insecure and disturbed.”

Kashmir’s youth face massive socioeconomic and political isolation. How have you been mobilising them amid possible feelings of disillusionment with the electoral process? How are you reconciling these sentiments alongside asking them to exercise their right to vote?

I come from a time when youngsters who joined pro-India democratic processes weren’t popular. The dominant narrative at that time was “pro-Azadi” and anti-India [often termed as separatists]. Despite that a section of us joined pro-democratic movements.

We thought that violence had already consumed a few generations, and we didn’t want the younger people to be detained in jails, buried in graves, or becoming orphans. I thought that if we love Kashmir, we should live for it, not die for it.

But how will you engage with the state when it is not willing to engage with you? That’s a challenge. However, offering yourself into militancy or violence is not a solution either; we’ll lose an entire generation to bullets.

There are young Kashmiris who believe that it’s dignified to die rather than to live in denial. However, people like us, who came into politics through the process of democracy, believe in fighting for dignity within democracy. It is challenging, but we should consistently pursue the idea of democracy.

Isn’t this also a personal cause for you?

Yes, I have made it a personal cause because I was jailed, with multiple charges [under UAPA]. I fight six cases every month; every six or 10 days I need to make an appearance in court. The process itself is a punishment; it consumes you, and you have to spend your best time in court. And nothing moves, only one date after another for hearing. However, I still feel it’s better to be optimistic rather than cynical or resorting to violence as a means to find resolutions.

And I see a larger shift in sentiment among young Kashmiris; they are also seeking solutions through democratic processes. Now, they’re able to quantify the dividends of achieving anything through violence and non-violence, and evaluate and see for themselves which is better.

Women after casting their vote at a polling station during the first phase of the Lok Sabha election, in Kathua district of Jammu on April 19.

Women after casting their vote at a polling station during the first phase of the Lok Sabha election, in Kathua district of Jammu on April 19. | Photo Credit: PTI

What have been some of the deeper structural and systemic barriers to women’s political participation in Kashmir given a historically low voter turnout even in your constituency? How have you been reaching out to women voters​?

I think it’s challenging for women to come out in a typical conservative Muslim society where there’s an ongoing war or conflict. However, despite being in conflict and violence for years, female literacy is higher than male literacy in Kashmir.

Women also participate in the electoral process, but the real issue is that there are very few women in positions of power. Typically, women take up the roles of homemakers—taking care of families, kids, kitchen gardens, etc. One of the reasons could be the political space in Kashmir has been very fragile. Instability has played a role. So, women are not seen much in politics or political spaces.

You have said that your priority is to ensure the security and empowerment of every Kashmiri, not just making Kashmir more beautiful for tourists. How do you envision this process?

My comment was in response to what the common behaviour regarding tourism has been. Kashmiris have been welcoming tourists and pilgrims on Amarnath Yatra for centuries. However, the irony is that during these visits surveillance is increased to ensure the travellers’ safety, while Kashmiris are made to feel insecure and disturbed.

Kashmiri journalists are not allowed to travel outside India. People are put on a no-fly list. We were denied our right to go on Hajj pilgrimage; I was denied my passport.

We don’t want our kids to be profiled. We don’t want our young people to be profiled as anti-nationals, militants, radicals, or extremists. We want equal treatment, the same goes for the rest of the country. However, the entire concern seems to be regarding the ultra-securitisation of Kashmir where locals are controlled.

At a rally in Udhampur, Modi said that this was the first time an election was going to take place without the fear of terrorism, cross-border fighting, stone throwing, and so on. Do you agree?

Yes, I do, to an extent. There’s less fear today. There’s less violence; no stone throwing. There is a shift in that situation, we can sense it on the ground, and I won’t deny that. However, will this necessarily translate into greater political participation? I hope so; it should but let’s see.

About your detention under the UAPA, you mentioned how the process itself is a punishment. You suffered indignity, not being allowed to visit your father who was battling cancer. Is this a larger continuum of political witch-hunting and violation of human rights? If yes, how do you propose to rally for rights and freedom?  

There’s no doubt that Kashmiris are feeling voiceless right now. They feel that they do not have any political agency in the largest democracy in the world. There’s nobody to speak for us; to represent us. Hence, there’s a sentiment of alienation.

There is a lot of bureaucratic response to Kashmir. There’s a lot of response from the Centre as well. Everybody is discussing the peace and security of Jammu and Kashmir. But it’s the locals who need to come out and start talking and discussing Kashmir themselves and not the officials or the government. That’s where the vacuum is. And that’s because of multiple factors, one of them being how the BJP sees Kashmir, and how it is not interested in having an elected government here or empowering the locals.

A player celebrates after scoring a goal during a I-League football match between Real Kashmir FC and Namdhari FC, in Srinagar on April 13.

A player celebrates after scoring a goal during a I-League football match between Real Kashmir FC and Namdhari FC, in Srinagar on April 13. | Photo Credit: PTI

How do you address lack of faith in the fairness and transparency of a democratic election when appealing for votes?

This debate and discussion around rigged elections have existed since 1987. But, now, we see a slight shift, people in Kashmir think that electoral politics is relevant, it’s important, and slowly it is gaining legitimacy. In Kashmir, the vote is going to gain more relevance with time. The vote will become our protest.

What is your view on hate-fuelled political propaganda and how would you locate polarisation in Kashmir?

Hate is a political campaign now. Just like mob lynching or hate crimes. People are now celebrating and deriving their heroes out of hate. I think divisiveness is the new definition of leadership; destruction is becoming the construction of leadership in a sense. This is the overall trend in India. And it’s dangerous, it’s venomous.

But in Kashmir’s context, we are not facing a Hindu-Muslim conflict now. We have a circumstance where the State and the people are in constant argument with each other on the question of fundamental rights, constitutional safeguards, democratic dignity, and civil liberties. There is polarisation, but it’s in a very different context. It isn’t between two communities but between the government and the people.

Having said that, it does affect our psyche. I think there is a sense of defeat. For instance, when we talk about integration and assimilation and then you see people (Muslims/minorities) being subjected to prejudice in their own country it raises questions on the entire process of integration and assimilation.

Also Read | Kashmir: Valley of contention

What are going to be the key metrics of empowerment for Kashmiris? How are you looking at inclusive growth and sustainable development?

Development is taking place in Kashmir but this entire concept of concrete cementing is dangerous as we are a fragile ecology. Kashmir needs sustainable development; the current lens of development needs to be reframed. In the name of development, developers are trying to destroy the ecological balance and displace people, all for profit. We also need to revive our aesthetics, our way of living, culture, houses, and thoughts.

As for sports, youth form 70 per cent of Kashmir’s population but they have little access to public spaces or inclusive spaces. I think sports are a huge means to channelise energy, especially when you are in a conflict zone. When youngsters tend to get inspired by violence, it’s all the more important to involve the youth in alternative ways of life. And sports is the most attractive way to do it. Sports teaches leadership; sports inculcates discipline. 

Horticulture is one of the most important sectors that can become a source of strength for the economy.

We have a lot to be hopeful about. The good part is people are struggling but they’re also evolving because of digital and social media. They learn how to do e-marketing, so that’s the positive impact of digital connectivity.

Sanhati Banerjee is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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