For a large part of his political life, Waheed Ur Rehman Parra was a poster boy of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, a young leader who stood up for the idea of India in the strife-torn state.

Even after the scrapping of Article 370 in August 2019, which cancelled Kashmir’s statehood and special status, and which was followed by mass incarceration of its mainstream political leaders, Parra did not give up on the electoral process.

In the elections to the District Development Council – the first direct polls held in Jammu and Kashmir after it was split and turned into a Union territory – Parra contested from jail, and won.

But for nearly two-and-a-half years now, the 34-year-old leader from the volatile South Kashmir district of Pulwama has been denied what most elected representatives in the country take for granted – the chance to take an oath and serve their constituency.

“From courts to the Election Commission of India, I have approached every possible forum to take oath,” said Parra. “Since the Jammu and Kashmir’s constitution no longer exists, I participated in an election under the Indian constitution and I want to take oath under it. Yet, they are not allowing it to happen.”

In 2020, Parra was arrested by the National Investigation Agency in a terrorism-related case. When he got bail in that case in January 2021, he was booked in another case involving more or less similar charges. After spending 18 months in jail, Parra was granted bail in May last year.

Electoral law in India does not prevent an accused person from contesting elections, taking oath or holding office. However, elected members of state assemblies or the Parliament can be disqualified if they are convicted in a criminal offence.

None of the allegations against Parra have been proven in a court of law till now.

Despite several court orders directing the Jammu and Kashmir administration to arrange for his oath-taking, Parra’s constituency remains without a representative.

A senior Jammu and Kashmir government official, who requested not to be named, did not elaborate on reasons behind the state’s action. “The matter is sub-judice,” this person said. “Therefore, it’s not right to comment on the case.”

From hero to outcast

In a place where rage against New Delhi was articulated by young militants and teenage stone-pelters, Parra represented a contrast. “I had consciously decided to do pro-India politics at a time when it was unpopular and separatism was the dominant sentiment,” said Parra.

Parra joined the Peoples Democratic Party in 2013, when many it was common for young Kashmiris to be drawn towards militancy.

One of the ways Parra reached out to youth in Kashmir was through sports. In 2016, he was appointed secretary of Jammu and Kashmir Sports Council by the Peoples Democratic Party and Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government.

“All the militants were below 30 years of age and the stone-pelters were mostly under 20. But there was nobody engaging them,” said Parra, whose tenure saw a massive investment in sports infrastructure and training programmes for Kashmiri youth. “I saw young people getting influenced by the idea of militancy. We tried to channel this dissent from the streets to the playgrounds.”

Parra joined mainstream politics when many young Kashmiris were disaffected with India. During a protest in Srinagar in 2017. Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters

A crafty mobiliser, Parra’s efforts to engage with youngsters won him praise in 2018 from Rajnath Singh, who was India’s home minister at the time.

Then came August 5, 2019 – the day when New Delhi scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

In order to prevent any street opposition to its decision, New Delhi locked up scores of Kashmir’s mainstream leaders, including three former chief ministers, for months in a government facility that was declared a prison. Parra was one of them.

Overnight, Kashmir’s mainstream leadership – which had always sided with New Delhi’s interest in Jammu and Kashmir, sometimes even at the cost of angering their voters – became outcasts.

Nobody represents that upending better than Parra.

Not only was he once part of the inner circle of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, he also engaged directly with the powerful in New Delhi on her behalf.

Today, he is almost persona non grata with the establishment.

His passport has been impounded and he cannot travel outside Kashmir without intimating the authorities. On May 31, a local court in Srinagar struck down his application seeking that his passport be released so that he could travel to the United States for a three-month-long fellowship at Yale University.

The government has not provided him any security or any official accommodation.

Parra spends most of his time at his Srinagar residence, not venturing out too far. Visitors from his native Pulwama district keep dropping by almost on a daily basis. “It’s very difficult to stay in Pulwama without security. Here, it’s relatively safer,” he said.

Even though he has been out of jail for a year now, Parra’s legal battles have not ended.

Kashmiri women in Srinagar protest the scrapping of Kashmir's special status, in August 2019. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

First direct elections after 2019

Towards the end of 2019, elections were held in the Union territory to choose representatives to the block development council, where only the panchs and sarpanchs could cast a vote.

The first direct elections in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5, 2019 were held almost a year later, in November 2020, where villagers voted to choose members of the newly formed district development council, or DDC, polls.

Specific to Jammu and Kashmir, the district councils established the third tier of the panchayati raj system in the erstwhile state.

Many saw the elections as a means to express their approval or disapproval of New Delhi’s decision to strip the erstwhile state’s special status and downgrade it into two Union territories.

On one side of the contest stood Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a coalition of Kashmir’s regional parties like the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party, who oppose the decisions of August 5, 2019 and demand the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood.

On the other side was the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Several newly floated political parties, purportedly with the blessings of New Delhi, also took part in the elections.

On November 20, 2020, Parra, the youth president of the Peoples Democratic Party, filed his nomination papers as a candidate from one of the 14 constituencies in Pulwama district.

The first arrest

A day later, Para received a summons from the National Investigation Agency, asking him to appear before it in New Delhi in connection with the investigation of a militancy case.

After being grilled for days, Parra was formally arrested by the premier investigation agency on November 25, 2020 – five days after he filed his nomination.

Parra’s arrest came in a case involving Davinder Singh, a serving Deputy Superintendent of Jammu and Kashmir Police, who had been caught by security forces in January 2020, travelling in a car with two alleged active militants, and a lawyer. They were on their way to the Jammu region.

According to the National Investigation Agency, Parra was arrested for allegedly “supporting” the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen “in conspiracy” with the other accused in the case.

Before Parra’s arrest, however, the NIA had filed two chargesheets under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Arms Act and the Explosive Substances Act in the case. Parra was not named as an accused in either.

The victory

When the results of the district development council elections were announced on December 22, 2020, it was clear that the people in Kashmir Valley had overwhelmingly supported the parties who opposed the August 5, 2019 decisions by New Delhi. Most of the seats secured by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party were in the Jammu region.

Parra was in jail in Jammu when the elections were held. He could not campaign. But he notched up an emphatic win from the Pulwama-1 constituency, securing around 68% of the total votes cast.

On December 28, 2020, all the elected district development councilors from the 10 districts of Kashmir valley were scheduled to take oath.

Voting underway for the first ever district development council elections in Jammu and Kashmir in November, 2020. Credit: Twitter/All India Radio News.

The stalling

This is where things got complicated for Parra.

On December 27, 2020, Parra, who was in judicial custody in a district jail in Jammu, made an application before the NIA court in Jammu, seeking directions to take oath as an elected leader from jail.

The special NIA court allowed Parra’s application. It directed the jail authorities to arrange for Parra’s oath ceremony through video conferencing on December 28 by connecting it with the office of the deputy commissioner, Pulwama.

“But the authorities didn’t comply with the court’s direction and, that day itself, the judge held the deputy commissioner in contempt,” said Parra.

A long walk to freedom

While Parra waited for his oath ceremony in jail, he got a breather.

The special NIA court granted him bail on January 9, 2021, clearing the way for him to be sworn in as a district council representative.

In its bail order, the court said the National Investigation Agency apprehended Parra on the basis of a “so-called disclosure statement” of one of the accused, namely Syed Naveed Mushtaq Shah, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, arrested with Davinder Singh. According to the order, such a statement was “not admissible in evidence under Section 25 of the Evidence Act.”

The court also noted that “offences, particularly falling under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are not prima facie made out against the applicant/accused [Parra].”

But, despite getting bail in the Davinder Singh case, Parra did not walk free – nor was he able to take oath as an elected representative.

The day he got bail, just as he was stepping outside the jail, Parra was detained by the sleuths of Jammu and Kashmir police’s Counter Intelligence Kashmir unit.

A day later, on January 10, 2021, he was formally arrested by the police and brought to Srinagar.

Invoking various sections of the draconian anti-terror legislation of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the police accused Parra of having links with militant groups and financing terrorist activities in the valley.

After re-arresting him, the government went on to challenge the NIA court’s direction to administer oath to Parra in the High Court.

Eleven months later, the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh dismissed the government’s petition. In his order, Justice Rajnesh Oswal observed that the government should not have challenged the NIA court’s order as it had little relevance when the same court had granted him bail two weeks later. Therefore, the High Court ruled, the government’s petition had been rendered “infructuous”.

“The government wanted to delay my oath,” said Parra. “They succeeded as I had been booked in a different case and lodged in a different jail.”

The second case

Parra spent nearly 17 months in jail in the case filed by the Jammu and Kashmir counter intelligence unit in which he was shown as an accused.

In May 2022, a division bench of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh granted bail to Parra, observing that the allegations against him are prima facie not true.

“Viewed from any angle, the evidence assembled by the Investigating Agency…is not such on the basis of which the Court can formulate an opinion that the allegations proved during the investigation are prima facie true,” read the bail order pronounced by Justice Vinod Chatterji Koul and Justice Sanjeev Kumar.

The court also observed that there is “nothing believable on record” to prove that Parra supported “any terrorist organisation”.

Parra was once considered part of the inner circle of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. Credit: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters.

The struggle to take oath

Once he was out in May,2022 on bail, Parra restarted pursuing his application to take oath. “I wrote to the Election Commission of India, Chief Electoral Officer, Jammu and Kashmir and also approached the office of Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. My plea is simple: Since I have been elected by the people and have not been convicted of any crimes, I should be allowed to take oath,” he said. “There’s no response.”

In December, Parra approached the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh seeking directions to the government to administer oath to him as a district development councilor.

On December 31, the court concurred with Parra’s contention and issued notices to the Jammu and Kashmir government’s rural development department, chief electoral officer, Jammu and Kashmir and the Pulwama deputy commissioner. Government officials did not respond to Scroll’s queries about the question of Parra’s oath.

While the court listed the matter for next hearing on February 20, 2023, it observed that “the Deputy Commissioner, Pulwama shall not default in carrying out the statutory duty of administering oath of office to the petitioner” under the Panchayati Act and its rules.

Despite that, things still did not move in favour of Parra. In the latest hearing of the matter on May 25, the government sought time to file a reply.

The matter has been listed for next hearing on June 25.

Credit: Waheed Ur Rehmaan Parra/Facebook

‘What do I tell people?’

His political career on pause, Parra is worried about his electorate. “A voter doesn’t understand technicalities. If he has voted for you, he expects you to deliver,” he underlined. “My people are suffering and I am unable to do anything for them.”

In absence of an elected legislature, the district development councillors represent the peak of local-level elected leadership in the Union territory.

Under the 2021-’22 Union budget for Jammu and Kashmir, every district development council was allotted Rs 10 crore each to spend in the respective areas of the elected leaders. “That means every district councilor gets around Rs 70 lakh for development activities in his constituency,” Parra said.

Of the total five-year term of an elected district councilor, nearly three years have already passed. “I am still waiting to take oath and I have no idea whether my funds are still intact or have lapsed,” he said.

A senior government official, however, said the absence of representatives does not mean the problems of voters were going unaddressed.

According to the official, the projects in Parra’s constituency are carried out on the basis of demands raised by representatives of the other tiers of the panchayati raj system. “There’s no question of any lapse of funds.”

However, Syed Bari Andrabi, the chairman of Pulwama’s district development council, said Parra’s absence is felt on the ground. “This burden is felt by me as people approach me for their grievances in the absence of their leader,” said Andrabi, who is affiliated with the Peoples Democratic Party.

‘I stood up for India’

The last few years, and his many legal battles, have made Parra question his reasons for being part of mainstream politics in Kashmir.

“The idea of joining mainstream was to find peaceful, democratic alternatives to violence and extremism in Kashmir, thinking it will save young people and our future,” said Parra.

But, because of the many challenges he has faced since 2019, his belief in the possibility of democratic politics addressing the grievances of Kashmiris is on shaky ground.

“Every day, I analyse the cost we pay collectively and individually,” he said ruefully.

Parra’s mother died of a cardiac arrest, “always worried”, he said, that militants may harm him for his political activism. His father is a cancer patient, deeply anxious about the threats his son faces.

Parra explained his predicament with an example. “Someone stood up against the idea of India in Kashmir and someone stood up in support of it,” he said. “But both landed in the same jail. In fact, I landed in more trouble than those who stood up against the idea of India in Kashmir.”

He added: “It seems that it doesn’t matter whether you join the mainstream or not, you end up meeting the same fate as that of separatists or anti-nationals.”