A man who left behind Rs 1000 Crore company had purchased his first pair of shoes only after passing his matriculation. That is just part of the life and times of Syed Mohammad Iqbal Bukhari, the FIL Chairman, who died at 90, last month, writes Masood Hussain
On November 14, 2021, Syed Iqbal Bukhari, the founder of Kashmir’s premier business group, the FIL Industries passed away. After a brief illness, he was admitted to SKIMS, Srinagar, where he breathed his last. He was almost ninety years old and fit enough to drive his car for the last time on November 8.
Bukhari was one of the old generation businessmen who had the foresight that guided some of them to think out of the box, make wealth, generate avenues for jobs, prevent capital flight and gradually push Kashmir towards some kind of modernity in processes and systems. Their contributions have two aspects, one the fortunes they left for the families and the processes that they helped evolve for the society at large.
However, what is impressive is the situation and the struggle they put in to create sustainable business models as is the case of FIL Pvt Ltd, a premier business group that now has a diverse activity basket. With more than Rs 1000 crore book value, the FIL could be one of the major turnover companies in Kashmir.
Iqbal was born to Syed Wali Shah, a religious leader of his era in Muqam Peer in Uri. His mother was from Askradu, now on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC) in Gilgit-Baltistan. She actually was the resident of Khaplu village and to her, Iqbal was born in Leh on July 14, 1932. The family was putting up with the Imam of Jamia Masjid Leh at that point in time.
He studied locally and for the middle and high school, he had to locate himself in Sopore. He has told his sons that he has endured poverty and knew the kind of scourge it is. When his matriculation result was announced, he was guarding his maize fields in his village and could get his results after three days when somebody brought a copy of Hamdard newspaper in which the results were published. It was after his matriculation that he could afford a pair of shoes.
Soon, he was Srinagar bound. He somehow got admission in the Khalsa School Srinagar. That was the beginning of a change in the Bukhari family.
A Revenue Official
Most probably in the Bakhshi era, Iqbal Bukhari was appointed in the revenue department as Wasil Baqi Navees, a small-time position that could be somewhere around the Pathwari and Girdawar. This position led the young Iqbal to serve at various places.
His first posting was life-changing. Soon after he was posted at Kargil, he took a room for rent and for many months his landlord did not seek any rent from him. However, one day, the house owner asked him for the earnings and for almost three years, he kept taking most of his savings. The situation changed the day, Bukhari got a transfer order to Kupwara. The house-owner, before saying goodbye, gave him the accounts saying you had paid me Rs 11,000 in all these years and I had invested the money in Pashmina trade and your share is Rs 70,000. That was the huge capital that he had earned out of somebody’s efforts but he has told his sons that it was his first lesson in business.
After serving, Karnah, Kupwara and many other places and getting promoted at the same time, he had continued his studies and had reached the position of senior revenue official. When in Srinagar, Nalla Mar projected started, the then Chief Minister Syed Mir Qasim gave him the responsibility of the collector. It was his maiden stint in Srinagar, a city he eventually adopted as his home. That was 1972.
In 1968, his father, Wali Shah had proceeded on Haj but he died there. Being the eldest, Iqbal literally became the family head. A year later, the family decided to leave Uri, once for all. They migrated to Ladoora village in Rafiabad where they acquired part of Dhar Estate on the banks of the local stream. It was this village that led the young Bukhari to get into agriculture.
Experiments With Agriculture
First, he started a unit that would export the walnut stumps to Spain and many other European markets. Then, Kashmir walnut was a craze in Europe. In the second stage, he started his own nurseries and popularised the apple orchards in north Kashmir. Though Kashmir has been growing apples for most of its history, the commercial apple was very limited, partly because of connectivity and distant markets. This started triggering a change in the socio-economic profile of the area.
In the follow up to the apple story, Iqbal launched his Delicious Company by owning Shop No 16 in the Sopore apple market. That was the quantum jump in his business career.
Somewhere in 1973, the scab appeared at a mass scale in the apple orchards and an American company said it had the solution. It was at that point of time that the family started importing and distributing the fungicides in Kashmir, a business that gave it a cutting edge over all other businesses. It was the same year that the family migrated to Sheikh Bagh in Srinagar. Soon, he quit the job and devoted himself to the business.
By then, he had already got some lease for mining in Kupwara and established a unit.
In 1986, Iqbal Bukhari left for Mecca and established a trading unit that would import rice to the Kingdom and also the tent cloth. Soon after establishing this unit, he flew to Germany wherefrom he explored the possibility of importing Sulphur to India. He established this unit as well.
Kashmir had started exploding, especially after the March 1987 elections. By 1990, Kashmir had changed completely. Soon, Iqbal Bukhari was in Central Jail Srinagar. He was being accused of supporting separatism. It was only after 11 months that a limping Bukhari, apparently because of the roller treatment, walked home.
One of his sons said that his father had always friends in politics but he never dabbled into it. His friends included Mir Mustafa, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Syed Mir Qasim and many others. Contrary to the popular belief that he was behind the 1984 coup of Dr Farooq Abdullah government, the fact, his family said was that he was the last to know that too because the meeting took place at his residence at the behest of his son, Syed Altaf Bukhari. Politically, he believed Kashmir has been wronged.
What is interesting, however, is that the politician son and the business tycoon were not on the same page, always.
Growing with the uncertainties of Kashmir, part of it could have been the outcome of Iqbal’s childhood memories when he would go to see his sisters, settled on the other side of the LoC where they had been married. He used to go there quite often post-partition as well. Of his two classmates, Prof Abdul Gani Bhat and Shareef Hussain Bukhari, the latter had decided to live on the other side and retire as the Chief Justice of the Muzaffarabad High Court. He would always talk about him and perhaps hosted him at his home when he once flew to Srinagar. These reasons probably were the key factor that led him to offer a special prayer at home the day Dr Manmohan Singh flagged off the cross-LoC bus on April 7, 2005.
Down To Earth Persona
At the individual level, Bukhari Sr would always stay well-dressed, ensure the welfare of his relatives – regardless of their status, take his time before Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting to calculate the Zakaat and pay it personally. He would always work towards encouraging bright students to get into civil services in the hope that they would help govern Kashmir better.
Till his last days, the well-dressed, self-driving old man would pray five times and spend not less than 90 minutes in brisk exercise. For most of his life, he had been using particular hair oil and, once it stopped being available in India, would be imported from Germany. This oil, his family says was key in preventing his hair fall, till his last day.
A Voracious Reader
What not many people know is that businessman Bukhari was a voracious reader and owned a library with around 30,000 books, according to his son. He would clip important published material from newspapers and keep him hard-bound on monthly basis. He was tech-savvy and would ensure he does not miss any reportage on Kashmir that appears anywhere in the world.
Unlike his money, Bukhari Sr, was a miser in lending books. Usually, he would tell people to stay at his home and read a particular book if they wished so. In case, he could not say no to somebody, he would write details on the book barrow register and seek the borrower’s signature. The maximum he would wait for the return of the book was 30 days and then he would start making calls to ensure the book returns to his shelf.
One of his two long time aides said he would spend almost six hours in his library on daily basis. The Persian, Urdu and English speaking businessmen had two key areas of study – Kashmir and Islamic history.
As far as the career of his children, he wanted his daughters to be doctors and sons to study agriculture. This, however, was not the case of his four grandchildren from two sons – two of whom have joined the business and two are currently studying in England.
Insisting that the family must reinvest its fortunes in the key agriculture sector, the family said he personally supervised the setting up of four pesticide units in Jammu, the CAS store in Srinagar – the first in India, and the apple juice plant that was aimed at creating export-grade concentrate. Off late, however, the family has diversified into engineering and has set up a cable car project in Jammu. The FIL, the holding company also has some offshore business also. He led the group till his last breath and his son admits that his father was not a passive chairman.
Bukahri Sr is survived by his two sons, four daughters and four grandsons. Unlike Altaf Bukhari, eldest of his sons who founded the Apani Party, Tariq Bukhari and two of Altaf’s sons are running the business.
(The write up is based on the information provided by the family on request.)