Like many developing societies around the globe, Jammu and Kashmir is experiencing a “Youth Bulge”, where 69% of the population is under 35. The large cohort of youth between 15–29 makes 23% of J&K’s population (projections as per census 2011 and National Youth Policy-2014).
Youngsters in Jammu and Kashmir face innumerable challenges at multiple levels ranging from exposure to protracted conflict, extreme violence, conflict-related stress, post-traumatic stress disorders, suicides, drug addiction and lack of positive engagement opportunities.
For more than a year, one of my good friends with whom I have worked for the public good is languishing in jail for alleged terror links. The continuous news releases, statements about Waheed Ur Rehman Para depressed me many times and I decided to write what he has done over the years.
Besides a friend, I know him as a grassroots political and social activist who was always connected with the youth of the area and everyone had free to access him. He advocated the cause of youth in the erstwhile state of J&K.
His view on the mainstreaming process was that Kashmiri Youth was dejected. Delhi must abandon the security-centric approach, acknowledge that economic measures cannot stand in for political outreach. In an article, Young and Alienated written in 2016, he explains the saga of miseries, sorrow and un-ended pain in the hearts and minds of Kashmiri’s, especially among the youth.
A son of a farmer with a mainstream political background, he was actively engaged in many initiatives aimed at bringing lasting peace to the region. While reading Waheed’s blog, I saw a very good piece written by him about his Gandhian grandfather, who died unknown.
This anticipates that he was deeply influenced by his grandfather, a social activist, a congressman and a staunch supporter of Late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, Former Union Home Minister and Former Chief Minister of erstwhile J&K State. He was taken by the impact his grandfather had on people, sharing their trials and tribulations. This spurred Waheed to devote his life to help people.
Growing up, Waheed realised that a nuanced political sense is ingrained in every Kashmiri because of what they are exposed to. His vision was to see a peaceful Kashmir. I remember when I asked him how it was possible, he said it needed to start with small steps.
“People don’t want to be frisked at every check-post, be treated like animals or insulted in their own homes. The youth feel choked by the restrictions and the indignities. The personal becomes political in Kashmir. Someone has to make them feel dignified and respect their emotions.”
Waheed always used to discuss ideas and would suggest everyone dream big. He proved to be a good Orator, debater, educationist, panellist and whenever any discussions were held in the university, he was seen participating enthusiastically. He continued the light and with time, we could watch him debating on national news channels.
His views are analytical and his ideas are original. He always advocated that the Central government’s healing touch policy should form the core of Kashmir policy and not a military crackdown. The policy of consistent inconsistency practised by consecutive Central governments has not helped. Delhi should look in a different prism towards Kashmir.
He believed that Kashmiri youth are not the enemy of India; they are not radicalised but angry. He believes that Kashmir is an emotional problem rather than geographical or economical. Delhi lacks emotions and its responses are often in the form of economic packages than a serious political outreach.
We all may have read evolution, gravitational and lot of other theories. But, how many of us apply them in real life? From basic/pure research to applied research, his belief that communication could make the whole world a borderless place to discuss the solution to problems.
That is why he applied the factors of The media ecology theory and technological determinism theory which led him to pioneer a community channel in Pulwama district by setting up the first private community channel named Himalayan Broadcasting Network (HBN).
It emerged as an interface between the government and the people until 2010, when private news channels were banned in the erstwhile state. Waheed groomed many promising journalists who now work for different national news channels at HBN. The news channel had become the beacon of true and fair journalism in South Kashmir.
During his short stint as a freelance journalist, he highlighted myriad social, political, economic and environmental issues of the valley. At the national and international fora, he spoke for mainland India. He always spoke his mind fearlessly and didn’t toe the line of others.
He joined the master’s degree in 2010 and was into social activism. He was nominated as a member of the “Kashmir Committee” revived in 2011 by Ram Jethmalani, former Member of Parliament and Union Minister.
Kashmir Committee II took shape against the backdrop of the violent upsurge of 2010 when lakhs of young men and even children came out on the streets in Kashmir to vent their anger against the State government. Jethmalani and Waheed worked together to ease the tensions in Kashmir during and post 2010 unrest and gained great success in curbing the violence to a great extent.
Waheed was also known for taking bold steps. Immanuel Kant’s principle fit this young Turk well, “To be truthful out of duty is something being truthful out of untoward consequences.”
In 2010, he rocked a BJP rally in Delhi and spoke in front of almost all of the senior BJP functionaries, including the then BJP President, Rajnath Singh. It was his first such action where a Kashmiri showed his mettle to stop a BJP yatra that was supposedly heading to Kashmir.
In 2013, at the Young Indian Leadership conclave (YILC) organised by Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) during an interactive session with Narendra Modi, Waheed appealed to Modi to include his state in the development agenda. His vision from the first day was to see J&K in the top economies, a developed, peaceful and prosperous state.
The watershed moment in his life came when he joined the People’s Democratic Party in 2013, thus becoming the party’s youngest leader. It didn’t take long for PDP president Mehbooba Mufti, former Chief Minister of the State, to recognise the genius of this young leader and made him the Youth President.
She groomed him and made him the face for youth and often, youth meetings were conducted wherein Ms Mufti gave Waheed authority to redress their grievances, issues, etc.
For Waheed, it was a great honour coupled with many challenges. However, he accepted the challenge and worked tirelessly at the ground level to the best of his capacities to strengthen the roots of his party. The dividends came within a span of a few months and he became the heartthrob of Kashmiri youth.
He used to communicate with administrative officials to get people’s genuine grievances, especially the youth, redressed and he was endeared by youth metamorphosed into a youth icon. The same youth proved to be the game changers in the assembly elections of 2014 when J&K PDP won all the three parliamentary seats and assembly elections in the erstwhile state.
He didn’t stop there. During the devastating deluge of 2014, he provided succour to the flood victims of different hamlets in district Pulwama.
He moved from one village to another to help those who needed a helping hand. He mobilised the party cadre for relief and rescue work and rehabilitation of those rendered homeless. He distributed blankets, medicines and edibles among the flood victims. This was his healing touch for the lesser mortals who were left to the mercy of God.
Keeping his good work and public outreach as part of his healing touch, he assumed the role of a spokesperson for his party. One could watch him debating on national news channels like NDTV, TIMES NOW, HEADLINES TODAY, REPUBLIC TV and NEWS18. He always speaks his mind and never minces his words.
He is worth emulating for his demeanour, straightforwardness and articulation. He has a mind of his own and always follows the dictates of his conscience. His pragmatic approach, passion, patience and perseverance speak volumes about him.
Waheed made it to the cover page of FORCE, a national security and defence magazine, in April 2014, thus, adding another plume to his cap. However, it is his charisma that gravitates every youth towards him. His emergence on the political horizon of the J&K has rekindled hope among the youth who identify themselves with this youth icon.
In June 2015, it did not take much for the People’s Democratic Party to recognise and acknowledge his people-friendly work and give youth a voice. He was appointed as Political Analyst by the then Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. This was an assignment with a tremendous load of responsibilities.
Waheed proved his prowess within a few days by disposing genuine grievances of people on the spot or dispatching them to the concerned departments. His exuberant and dedicated team in the CM’s Grievance cell kept a close watch on the social networking sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and picked grievances from the netizens for their speedy redressal.
Hundreds of grievances were redressed daily, much to the relief of commoners, whose voices were being heard by a patient listener. There was a sigh of relief among people. Whosoever visited him with issues, problems, grievances and never returned blank.
His graph kept ascending and he was appointed as Secretary, J&K State Sports Council in July 2016. The Sports Council, which was obscure, started hogging all the limelight as soon as Waheed assumed the office. He revitalised sports activities and strengthened sports infrastructure across the length and breadth of our state. During his tenure, the sports council could produce athletes who brought laurels to our motherland in the international arena.
It has been his endeavour to make sports an integral part of the curriculum right from the elementary stage to create a “sports culture” where sportsmanship is nurtured, valued and internalised. He spoke and highlighted the need to make sports a full-time task and generated a great response.
He created a new discourse of inclusive and rural sports for villages and towns, girls and boys. He organised the first match of Kashmiri girls with International player Adam Gilchrist in Delhi. He successfully invited the Sri Lankan Sports Minister, Member of Parliament and Sri Lankan President’s son for a week-long training for rugby players in Srinagar.
New hope emerged in the fields which were earlier filled with dust mixed with distress, agony, pain and sorrow.
He wrote and spoke on various events to promote sports in Kashmir and make the place-best known for sports. Be it the event report on youth engagement through sports in Kashmir by Vivekanand International Foundation or being a TEDx speaker, he left no stone unturned to make sports a new discourse in Jammu and Kashmir.
I remember the then Union Home Minister and now Defense Minister of India, Rajnath Singh, applauding Waheed for his efforts and bringing all the three regions (Kashmir, Jammu & Ladakh) on a single platform of sports. Singh praised Waheed at Sher-e-Kashmir Indoor Sports Stadium in front of almost 9,000 youth assembled by Waheed there for Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s speech.
Waheed never carried politics as his profession but his mission. Finally, the time came and he started to represent the sentiments of a common Kashmiri. He became the voice of the voiceless and hope for the hopeless. He had dreamt about a change and that “change” was visible.
Instead of youth showing anger on the streets by pelting stones, they changed their platform. From roads to playfields and social media, the youth started venting their anger. They started raising their voice against administrative failures and the government started working accordingly.
Waheed always thought that there is an utter need to bring much-needed peace and reconciliation between Kashmiri Muslims and the displaced Hindu community. He has spoken at various International policy think tanks and intellectual gatherings in South Asia. He always feels that Kashmir is incomplete without the Pandit brethren’s and finds it difficult to carry forward the processes without them.
Being an environmentalist, a nature lover, Waheed was usually seen in orchards with his grandfather when he was little. Who knew when he grew up, he would speak at the United Nations Climate Summit in Paris COP21, where all world leaders gathered to have their points on global warming.
He has always been a peace messenger over the years. There are many write-ups written by people, reputed writers and others about his work, his dedication and his passion for public policy and good governance.
It has now been more than a year of his detention after the abrogation of the Articles. Yet, he still believes that every problem’s solution is under the constitutional frame and filed his nomination for DDC elections which he won with a huge margin of votes. He has such faith in democracy; how can he be anti-national?
It is pertinent to mention that after his yearlong detention post 5 August, 2019 when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated, he spoke to UN Security Council virtually in an event. After that, he was arrested again in alleged terror links by National Investigation Agency (NIA) and months after he was granted bail by the special NIA court.
He was arrested by Counter-Intelligence Kashmir (CIK). He has been charged with UAPA (Unlawful Activities & Prevention Act) and the charge sheet was filed a day after UN Special rapporteurs raised their concern over Waheed and the other two youth (one is missing and the other was allegedly killed in custody) in a report and sought reply from the Government of India.
The following lines of an American poet, Edgar Guest, would be a tribute to this young, charismatic leader:
When you’re up against a trouble,
Meet it squarely, face to face;
Lift your chin and set your shoulders,
Plant your feet and take a brace.
When it’s vain to try to dodge it,
Do the best that you can do;
You may fail, but you may conquer,
See it through!
Waheed was born in a mainstream farmer family at Naira village of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district during the tumultuous period of Kashmir history and started his educational journey from a missionary school at Pulwama.
He graduated from Government Degree College Pulwama, did his Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies from the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Awantipora. He was awarded a peace scholarship by the SIT Graduate Institute, Vermont U.S.A. He also did a course in investigative journalism from the renowned Boston University, U.S.A.
A journey from freelance Journalist to National Level Baseball player to Social activism to various top posts and finally in jail. Here is a quick reminder of the activities Waheed Ur Rehman Para did over the years.
Waheed Ur Rehman Para has been preaching peace all his life. His work speaks volumes about him and this write up is just a small portion of his work. Does a person, a young leader, a brilliant mind need to be kept in jail?
Umer Wani is a gold medalist and a PhD. Research Scholar at Department of Journalism & Mass Communication, IUST. He is U.S. Legislative Fellow-2016 and U.K. Bridge Institute’s Kalinga Fellow-2020. He tweets at: @umerwani99