How Mirza Kamil Chowk Became Bihari Chowk

Non-local labourers in Mirza Kamil Chowk. KO Photos by Syed Burhan.

The square bearing the name of a saint has become a victim of the reckless name-calling over the years thus leaving the locals anguished and annoyed at the “new identity”.

SHAHNAWAZ Khan has been running a grocery shop at the busy Mirza Kamil Chowk for more than two decades now — the epoch when Kashmir’s all-weather architecture became fair-weather showpieces: cold in winter, hot in summer.

At the heart of this sweeping change was the influx of the labour class from the Ganges—the cut-rate sand-iron-cement workforce —whose identity would stay with the square known for its spiritual distinctiveness.

The changing dynamics of the locality due to the growing footfall of non-local labourers lately made Shahnawaz to designate one part of his stop to masonry and hardware items.

While he hopes his business will eventually pick up, he has a reason to be angry.

He questions the way locals have started to call the place as Bihari Chowk.

“For us Bihari Chowk holds no significance,” the grouchy grocer said.

“What does it even mean? This place is named after a spiritual personality. We’ll continue to call the place as Mirza Kamil Chowk. But sadly, not only we Kashmiris are losing our economy to outsiders, but identity too!”

Mirza Kamil Chowk signboard at divider.

This anger was voiced in a hot summer morning, when Srinagar’s Mirza Kamil Chowk in Hawal area was crowded by non-local labourers. It’s an everyday scene at the busy junction in the heart of downtown when the non-native ‘early birds’ cool their heels for customers amid the din and spits—with tobacco wrappers all over the place.

But before the ‘new identity’, the locality—named after Hazrat Sheikh Akmal ud Din Mohammad Kamil Badakshi [RA]—was once visited for its spiritual and religious significance.

Born in 1642 AD, the saint’s ancestors reportedly arrived in the valley from Afghanistan’s Badakshan area. His lineage can be traced to Hazrat Ali [AS].

“Before moving to Kashmir, the saint’s ancestors used to work in the courts of Mughal emperors,” said Maulana Khursheed Ahmad Qanungo, a chief cleric of the Mirza Kamil Shrine and the Anjumane Himayatul Islam.

“He led an apolitical and a spiritual life and was named by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, which shows the level of influence he enjoyed but he left everything for Islam.”

Maulana Khursheed Ahmad Qanungo.

Qanungo is aghast and sad at what he calls negative attitude of Kashmiris when it comes to protecting their legacy and identity.

While recalling the literary contributions of the saint, he said, “This place used to be a center of faith and devotion and people used to flock the place during the lifetime of Mirza Sahib, and after his death the area came to be known as Mirza Kamil Sahib Chowk.”

But sadly, he said, Kashmiris take names in a lighter sense and end up distorting the identity of places and persons.

“While our locality was named after the saint, the neighbouring locality was called Mohalla Zahid after the grandfather of Mirza Sahib. Localities were either named after the majority of people professing their profession or after a famous personality. For example, Naeyid Door used to be a locality full of barbers, while Chan Mohalla was an abode of carpenters.”

But with time, education and status, the cleric said, the new generation made their elders give up their professions which led to the dearth of manpower in Kashmir. And the void was ably capitalised by the non-locals.

Shrine of the saint.

Massive constructions and least local manpower, many say, led to the massive migration of non-local labourers to Kashmir by early 2000.

While many of them came from Bihar, a considerable number also arrived from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Upon their arrival, locals rented their places to them. Most of them took shelter in Manzoor Building, located in the nearby Zahidpora area. Scores of bicycles can be seen parked to the opposite of the unusually long structure.

“Since several adjoining localities of Hawal are poor, they started to rent their places to these labourers and it eventually became a hub of non-locals,” the cleric said.

“They started gathering at Mirza Kamil Chowk which came to be known as Bihari Chowk.”

Manzoor Building houses hundreds of migrant workers at Zahidpora Hawal.

Erosion of names, many believe, started the day when Kashmiris left their ancestral jobs.

“Carpenters hate carpentry to the extent that they have built joinery mills so that no one calls them carpenters,” said Qanungo.

“People associated with traditional bread-making are ashamed to call themselves bakers and instead run confectionary shops. If bakers from towns would not have moved to Srinagar, we would be left without bread.”

Amid this anguish, the cleric said, a collective effort is needed to protect the ancestral legacy and identity.

“We should launch a spiritual movement,” he said, “to safeguard our cultural and religious identity.”

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Syed Mohammad Burhan

Syed Mohammad Burhan has Masters in Mass Communications and works as City Reporter at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @syedmohammad313

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