Shams Khwaja, a resident of Delhi, is fighting Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from south Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency.
He roams around under tight security cover and stays in picturesque Phalgam valley. As no one knows him in south Kashmir’s constituency, he has not conducted any rally but says he has interacted with people.
Khwaja, 53, is the only non-Kashmiri whose nomination has been accepted by the Returning Officer of the constituency “on the Election Commission’s directions.”
However, Khwaja has suspended his campaign alleging that the Returning Officer of Anantnag constituency has not approved his paper of intent and also the security forces and the police haven’t allowed him to travel to Kulgam to meet people. He says the Returning Officer cast doubt over the signatures of people who proposed his nomination and sent it to the ECI which directed the officer to accept his nomination.
He makes all noises that the mainstream regional parties National Conference and the PDP is making these days. “Article 370 and Article 35 A are part of the basic structure of Indian constitution. If these Articles are tampered with, the constitutional paradigm collapses,” he tells Outlook.
He describes the current encounters taking place in the hinterland of the Valley as the biggest human rights violation. He argues that instead of Army and paramilitary forces blasting a house where militants hide, the forces could easily use gas to make them unconscious and arrest them. He says no effort is being made to arrest militants, instead youths are being declared militants and killed.
On being asked how many votes he is likely to get, Khwaja says he would get only three and half votes. “One is of a black dog who met me at the Returning Officer’s compound, and other is of a cat who met at Phalgam, third vote is of a rabbit who was in the saffron fields of Pampore and half is of a Qalander (wanderer) who is yet to vote. The day the Qalander decides to vote, it will be three and a half votes,” he says.
He says he decided to contest from south Kashmir after he noticed with “distress the progressively increasing gradient of constitutional delivery breakdown in Kashmir.” “I waited for local leaders as they have the mandate to do something. But in the aftermath of Pulwama attack and the custodial killing of civilian Rizwan Pandith, I realised that the state leadership is going nowhere with securing guarantee of life and personal liberty to the individual Kashmiri men and women. I decided to contest,” he says.
Khwaja says it is not the first time he has taken an electoral plunge; in the “late 1980s when the local leadership decided to boycott Lok Sabha elections in the state,” he rushed to Srinagar to file his nomination papers.
“I resigned as young assistant editor at All India Radio and arrived here and declared that I will be filing my nomination. When the local leaders heard that I am filing my nomination and realised that I will go unopposed to the parliament, they declared that they are calling off the boycott,” he claims. He doesn’t, however, remember the year in which the development had taken place. The local regional leaders here say no such event has taken place in 1980s.
Khwaja claims he has 400-year-old Kashmiri connection. “400 years ago, my ancestors carried caravans of trade from Kashmir to Calcutta and down the generations they settled in Calcutta, Kanpur and some other places,” he says. He says his father -- late A. A. Khwaja -- was in the Indian Administered Services and he served in Delhi and his mother Ayesha Khwaja was a poet.
He says he submitted his nomination under Article 84, and it doesn’t override Article 370 of the Constitution. However, his nomination has created a legal issue with National Conference saying they would be challenging it.
Former advocate general Ishaq Qadri says Khwaja’s nomination is legally untenable. “He is not a state subject and he is also not even a voter. The electoral rolls for the Assembly and the parliament in the State are the same. When he is not a voter and a state subject, how come his nomination was accepted,” asks Qadri, who heads the legal cell of the National Conference. “We see certain design in his filing of the paper, and we are going to challenge it,” he says.
Khwaja, however, says Jammu and Kashmir Representation of Peoples Act pertains to the State Assembly only, not to the parliament and the registration of the electoral rolls pertains to registration of the voters, not to the nomination.
Senior lawyer, Z A Shah say since Shams Khwaja is not a voter in Jammu and Kashmir, he cannot file nomination from the State as the electoral rolls for the Assembly and the Parliament in the State are same.
“Legalities apart, we have to look at what Mr. Khwaja is trying to achieve. My understanding is that state subject issue is so sensitive, that too at a time when Articles 370 and the 35A are under challenge, that it is impossible for anyone to come in make some impact in Kashmir. Even if Mr. Khwaja plays Muslim card, even then I don't see his case getting any traction here,” says IAS officer-turned-politician Shah Faesal.
The first phase of the elections in Anantnag constituency was held on April 23 recording dismal 13 percent poll percentage. The second phase will be held in Kulgam on April 29 and third phase in Shopian and Pulwama on May 6.