My Gandhian Grandfather, Who Died Unknown

Haji Ab Rehman Para was a farmer, a shepherd and a reputed social leader. He showed me how to become the man I want to be.

Growing up in Pulwama, I spent my formative years in the company of my grandfather, Haji Ab Rehman, in a loving extended family. I liked to rush to replenish his ‘hukka’ when the water ran dry. This gave me the opportunity to linger by his side, listen to his resonant voice and immerse myself in the stirring political discussions that he and his friends engaged in. Whenever I leaned in to listen, I realised there was a world beyond Kashmir.

Haji Ab Rehman Para was a farmer, a shepherd and a reputed social leader. His came from a poor family owning a small patch of land, with a hardworking wife and seven children. Through his perseverance and business acumen, he became prosperous. Not only was he able to provide for his family, he also never failed in his generosity towards those genuinely in need. When I started to venture into politics in the most militarised zone in the world, I held my Dadu’s values close and pledged to touch lives. I wanted to continue his legacy of affection, humility and generosity.

He was far ahead of his time in his views, for example about the social emancipation of women. I remember him as a man of eloquent words who had unshakeable conviction in the absolute necessity to educate girls. He acted to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in Kashmir and beyond. Looking through his lens of women’s empowerment in Kashmiri society, I vowed to make sports more accessible for young girls who dreamt beyond the four walls of the kitchen. My tenure as secretary, Ministry of Sports helped me realise their dreams and mine too.

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Significantly, his sense of gender fairness began at home. He treated his daughters and sons the same, and distributed his property equally among them. His passion for equality did not stop at home. He established a school in 1970 which is now a higher secondary school for girls in Naira village of Pulwama district.

My grandfather remained deeply embedded in social and political life for as long as he lived. He was a committed nationalist, and even amid political turmoil his contribution toward strengthening the level of peace and nonviolence, at the grassroots level, was exceptional. He would receive death threats, and his sons were attacked and held hostage many times, but these cowardly acts never bent or broke his spirit. He never hated the gunmen who threatened his freedom; however, he deplored the growing culture of gun violence throughout the Valley.

On Gandhiji’s birthday, October 2, 1996, I saw my grandfather outside our home, distributing sweets to children. I asked him, “Why are you distributing sweets today to the children outside?” He replied, “I want to teach these children to remember Gandhiji’s birthday because it will give them a feeling of love towards this day even if they remember it for getting sweets.” He was thinking about building a new generation that would be inspired by Gandhi’s ideals.

In the meantime, many children came to our house after they learned Haji sahib was distributing sweets. He said to them, “Children, I have distributed all the sweets I had, but next time, on Independence Day (August 15), I will buy more sweets for you all.”

A few months after Gandhiji’s birthday, on January 26, Republic Day, I found grandfather once again distributing sweets. Republic Day was and is a day full of anxiety in the Valley. I was afraid, as I noticed the reactions of some of the passersby who appeared hostile towards Dadaji’s open celebration of Republic Day. Back then, I never understood why he undertook such brazen displays of nationalism, which were deeply dangerous for our family’s wellbeing. Now, from where I stand, all I can see is that his love for the nation stemmed from his love for his homeland, Kashmir. He loved India, for the sake of Kashmir’s peace.

I remember the 2002 elections; militancy was at its highpoint. Regardless of the violence, he campaigned door to door, encouraged people especially women to cast their vote, not for any party but simply to participate in the electoral process. By late evening that day, some people threatened him for voting.

This was a life-changing moment for me and I began to understand the meaning of political activism, and learned about the basic importance of voter participation in elections to further democracy. I did not learn these lessons sitting in a lecture hall at a college, but by observing and understanding my grandfather closely. I began to participate in the process to work at the grassroots level, mobilising voters during assembly elections. My efforts paid off. Finally, the process caused a ripple effect in Pulwama and Shopian, and brought electoral success.

I remember once some local militants came to our house late at night, while I was preparing for class 8 exams. When I heard someone rattling the windows, I thought it was my brother and opened the door. To my shock, I found four armed men who pushed their way inside and wanted to find a room to sleep. One of them asked me “Whose house is this?” I said, “Haji sahib’s.” The armed men discussed this briefly among themselves and walked out. I was baffled and asked them, “Why are you leaving, what happened?” Their leader said, “I have heard from many that he starts discussing issues openly and is not afraid, and I will not be able to face him.

I get my courage from him, I get my never-give-up attitude from him but most importantly, I get my love for Kashmir from him. His words translated into actions and actions translated into integrated peace for one and all. His voice has guided me into being the fighter for democracy that I want to be. His hands have directed me to pick the ballot over the bullet. All of his personality was that of a peace-builder, something I have always aspired to be. My grandfather was a bigger democrat than those who sit in parliament today. His nationalism showed me the way to become a polling agent at a very tender age, when most are worried about peer pressure and careers.

His love for the nation only grew. He discussed many political incidents with me. In the 1980s, when militancy was at its peak and the Indian National Congress had to hoist a tricolour on Independence Day at the main chowk, Pulwama, no one dared to do so. It was the time when Congressmen were shunned in Kashmir, but my grandfather ensured that the flag was hosted at the chowk – a hotbed of militancy.

Despite frequent threats, Haji sahab never gave up, meeting people, debating, discussing and acting on his commitments was what he did all his life. He was known for his honesty in Kashmir and far beyond in New Delhi, Azadpur fruit market. Traders and farmers would give examples of his honesty and truthfulness. He loved to both be a kisan and be active socially and politically. A concerned citizen, he listened to radio news till late in the evening just to have a keen eye on the country’s national and geopolitical scenarios.

He was a keen observer and understood politics really well. In the 2002 assembly elections, he made a prediction that Mufti Mohammad Syed will be the chief minister. People thought that he had lost his senses, but his prediction proved right and the Congress and People’s Democratic Party formed a coalition government.

After a few days when grandfather went to meet Mufti sahib, I accompanied him. What I realise now, after his death, is that he never demanded recognition for his convictions or actions on nonviolence and women’s empowerment. My grandfather, an ardent freedom fighter, refused the recognition of a freedom fighter card and supplements given to him by the Indian National Congress. I draw from him when I identify as a person; I do not wish to call myself a political leader, I wish to be identified as someone who loves Kashmir deeply and would be willing to run relays between stakeholders for peace, in my land, in the hearts of my people and in our lives.

The stories of his integrity and selflessness towards home and country spread across boundaries. My grandfather continues to be an inspiration for me. I was fortunate to have someone to always look up to during all the years as a child and now as an adult who tries to carve out a future shaped by his noble example.

My grandfathers’ compassion and inclusive, farsighted vision for civil society and democracy has guided me throughout my life, from my earliest childhood memories until the present day. The kind of change an ordinary farmer brought in his village can multiply in effect if one looks through the lens of my grandfather, peace would be the rule and violence would be the exception.

Waheed ur Rehman Para is a People’s Democratic Party leader who is currently in detention.

This piece was written by him before his detention.