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Bund, Baton and Baron

Bund, Baton and Baron

The pristine glory of Srinagar’s iconic Bund has faded behind concrete structures hoisting commercial setups, barracks and political headquarter.

With his hawkish bloodshot eyes, a sentry is seemingly playing the bygone British on Bund. The pledge to patrol pathway makes the two guards at the ghat as some strange bedfellows.

But unlike the imperial nature-trail gatekeeping, the gun-toting guard—standing at the corner of a cemetery—protects a dark horse who rode on his 2014 deluge daredevilry and eventually became a political poker chip in Kashmir’s intriguing statecraft showground.

The riverbank park where young Kashmiris would once engage in hearty conversations is now a campsite of yawning sentinels. Those fresh-faced romantics stealing some peaceful moments from their strife-stricken lives hardly show up in the face of Bund’s restricted nature.

Down the river, Jhelum is getting naked and bereft of its floating houses. The water-borne community is losing their ramshackle houseboats in want of proscribed repairs.

At Sheikh Bagh, such pathos now fuels new poll pledges. “Without enforced adversity, our politicians can’t sell their self-styled ‘politics of prosperity’,” says Niyaz Durrani, a regular at Bund. “Even this Bund politics of the day doesn’t seem an exception.”

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But there’re takers of this politics, as some keen supporters are swarming a go-getter — the one who almost repeated 1984 at the peak of 2016 summer and was the first political entrepreneur—spared from post-abrogation prison—to accept and endorse “Naya Kashmir”, albeit with some terms and conditions.

Amid this baton and baron show on Bund, the bits and pieces of old dazzle reflect through some vintage villas — maintaining the British-era façade and the captivating river-view.

“Who would believe that even riding cycle wasn’t allowed during Maharaja’s rule this side,” says an elder ambling on the regulated 1.5 kilometre stretch from Amira Kadal to Zero Bridge.

Back then, it was not only a tourist attraction but a walking mall inhabited by British residents.

A monochrome of bygone Bund where things were restricted and regulated. / Photo Courtesy: web archives

Years later, however, as a merchant from the north—loaded with ‘orchard’ opulence—made it a political capital, the Bund altered its course. Driven by his flood feats, the man handed over another northerner—the grand old party’s Lolab face—a convenient defeat in 2014 polls from the seat—Amira Kadal—which fuelled fury in 1987.

With the advent of Altaf Bukhari, first as Mufti Sayeed’s “man of means”, before the BJP’s “B-Team”, Sheikh Bagh on Bund underwent a change.

The merchant’s methods, including his takeover bid (in times of street defiance) with over a dozen defectors, only made air scheming, rather than serene on the recreational route.

With some of those connivers, he would later float his party—the Apni Party—in “Naya Kashmir” and rally behind the snatched statehood.

But before becoming a new political address in Kashmir, Sheikh Bagh had a reputation of housing a Christian cemetery. “If you think carefully, then you’ll understand the larger pattern in Kashmir politics with Sheikh Bagh’s emergence as a new political venue of the valley,” says Mumtaz Bhat, an Apni Party supporter.

“Politics always worked on symbolism in Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah would woo the masses by reciting the holy Qur’an before addressing his rallies. It made us gullible believe that the so-called tallest leader was god-fearing and far from having a deceitful bone in his body. Similarly, Mehbooba Mufti and her father used MUF’s Pen and Inkpot sign as their party symbol to strike semblance with the conflict-torn Jama’at-e-Islami pockets in the south Kashmir during the late 90s and early 2000s. Bukhari, wittingly or unwittingly, used the graveyard address to announce his rise like a phoenix on the dead political ground of Kashmir.”



But the B-Team’s detractors dismiss such accolades as far-fetched, and denounce the moneyed merchant’s brand-building as an attempt to shield his rival party poaching.

When many Gupkar Alliance picks gravitated towards Sheikh Bagh and shifted sides recently, Bukhari faced “horse-trading” accusations. “After all,” says a National Conference worker, “money makes the mare go.”

The rise of the Apni Party in Kashmir politics.

That ‘sizeable’ support ensured a fanfare launch to Bukhari’s Apni Party on Bund, followed by the recent poll bash over the double DDC win. “The Apni Party went ahead in the game with the BJP’s backing,” says Iftikhar Ali, a political observer. “They won some strategic slots [Srinagar and Shopian], while the Gupkar Alliance was rendered a rudderless ship in the new rules of engagement in the valley.”

The BJP’s pick from Srinagar with the Apni Party’s win, Ali adds, reminded commoners that Article-370 is forever done and dusted now.

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All these intrigues have created a new brouhaha on Bund. And unlike the carefree commoners around, the foot-soldiers of this new political pack hail their king for his epicurean philosophy. And Wazwan, interestingly, remains at the heart of this belief.

“Most of us consider our chief as a political chef,” blurts a cheerful party worker. “He knows how to serve the tastes.”

In this crowd of cheerleaders, a greying man advises others — probably new party recruits — to attend dinner at Apni Party headquarters later that evening.

“Be it the time when Bukhari Sahab would host businessmen, or when as an MLA he hosted public delegations, or now when he’s hosting his party workers and political groups, Wazwan has never been skipped,” he says leaning others for a break.

Far from this Bund party, many discarded unionists are getting nostalgic about their Gupkar gatherings. With shifted priorities and power, the old loyalists are now witnessing a new crop of catalysts making hay while the sun is shining.

While the trader’s troupe has already started calling Sheikh Bagh as ‘New Gupkar’, many in the capital are getting paranoid over the dark horse’s puny stature in masses. And then there’s a resurrection of another northerner known for his legacy support. Those watching shifting sands in the valley now probably understand that league and lineage—despite a slur campaign—still holds some water in Kashmir’s political landscape.

“That’s why politics isn’t about individuals lacking massive support and sway,” a senior political analyst says. “The fate of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, the ‘man who retained Abdullah storm’ is an example,” he adds, calling Bukhari a ‘pebble nowhere close to the stature of the former Prime Minister of J&K’ and least a choice worth considering for New Delhi.

From Nature Trail, the Bund has been reduced to a concrete arena. / Photo Courtesy: Autar Mota

However, the festive mood and shrill at Sheikh Bagh spin a different yarn, scripted with the belief of holding “the politics of truth and development”.

Whatever the case, the most prestigious addresses in Srinagar whose dazzle came from all across Europe is unfolding the watershed, with observers believing that the baron is being boosted to end foot-dragging of the old picks.

But what isn’t an illusion is the fact of Srinagar’s Bund that once was an oriental challenge to Venice being inevitable of falling to the chess game where individual pieces decide the frame of the board.

(This Feature was published in the March 2021 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)

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