In one of the most devastating incidents of its kind, on April 10, 1993, a large section of downtown Srinagar known as Lal Chowk was burned to the ground by I
ndian paramilitary troops, apparently in retaliation for the burning of an abandoned BSF building by local residents. The BSF commanding officer refused to heed warnings
about the security risks of abandoning the force’s headquarters and bunkers, and then ignored pleas for assistance from local police who were trying to protect these sites. The incident, which was one of the largest such arson attack by Indian forces since the beginning of the conflict, left at least four civilians dead in the immediate area and more in attacks in nearby neighborhoods.
Although the senior most civilian authority in the city, Deputy Commissioner Abdul Salam Bhatt, witnessed the behavior of the security forces, he did not intervene.
Officer Majeed of the Jammu and Kashmir police, said that at 8:05 a.m. on April 10, he left the station on duty and walked toward Lal Chowk. Before he reached Lal Chowk, he was told that the BSF had vacated their building, the Sandam Dharam Sabha building, and their bunkers in Lal Chowk, which they had occupied since the beginning of the conflict. He entered the building and saw that no one was there, and that the bunker had been demolished.
“The local people asked me why the forces had left. I went at 8:15 a.m. to see the BSF commander of the 117th division, B.R. Sharma, in the Dashma Akhara building. I saw that the troops, about 100 men, were standing in position, ready to move. I asked where the commander was, and a BSF deputy superintendent told me that the commander was in his office. I went straight to the office but Commanding Officer Sharma was not there; he was sleeping in the room next door and came out in his nightclothes at 8:15 a.m. I saluted him and told him that I was surprised that the BSF had withdrawn its troops without telling us. He said it was the order of a higher authority to withdraw the troops, and that he had started the withdrawal at 11:30 p.m. the night before. I told him the building was not safe because the local people set fire to buildings which have been abandoned by the security forces. I told him the BSF should provide me one platoon to protect the building. He said he had no troops available. I asked him to please give me six or seven men. He said he would see what he could do. I left the building.”
Officer Majeed. informed his superiors at the police control room and then returned to Lal Chowk. When he approached the Sandam Dharam Sabha building he was warned by the crowd that had assembled at the building not to go in because it had been mined. Concerned that the building would be set on fire, he returned to C.O. Sharma’s office and again asked for troops to send to Lal Chowk. Officer Majeed. told:
“C.O. Sharma then said, “Let us have a cup of tea.” He ignored me. I told him it was not a time for tea, but a time to save Lal Chowk. He said he would arrange to send troops to Lal Chowk. I left the building and saw that the Sandam Dharam Sabha building had been set on fire. It was 8:50 a.m.”
At that time, the fire was still small enough to be brought under control. Officer Majeed ordered the police control room to send the fire brigades, and within ten minutes the fire fighters arrived and tried to put out thegunfire continued for an hour and a half. Finally, after the fire was out of control, but the gunfire had stopped, the Inspector General of the BSF, Ashok Patel, the Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Mahmood ul-Rahman, the Additional Director General of the Crime Investigation Department (CID), Amar Kapoor, and the Advisor to Governor on Law and Order (Home) D.D. Saklani, arrived and asked what had happened. One of the Jammu and Kashmir police officers told them:
“I requested BSF to save Lal Chowk, but C.O. Sharma showed me a coldness and ignored my request.”
The officer asked IG Patel to send army fire fighters. Patel responded that he had already requested them. An hour later Governor Krishna Rao and Director General of Police Bedi arrived. The fire was still raging out of control. At 2:30 p.m., a single army fire truck arrived with enough water to last ten or fifteen minutes.
Majeed, a waiter at one of the hotels, said that on the morning of April10, 1993, he came to work at the hotel at 8:00 a.m. Everything was quiet at that time and the bunkers near the hotel were still occupied by the security forces, as they had been for many months. Then at about 8:30 a.m. he heard people shouting slogans of “Azadi” (Freedom) and “We want freedom.” He said that when he looked out of the first floor kitchen and dining room windows he saw Jammu and Kashmir police and civilians running in Lal Chowk in front of the hotel.
Just after 8:30 a.m. He saw smoke and flames rising from the Sandam Dharam Sabha building. He said that at about that time a security vehicle arrived on the scene. The vehicle went towards the fire and thensaw SSP Rajendra Kumar come out of the vehicle, walk toward the Sandam Dharam Sabha building and then walk back to the vehicle and put on a bullet-proof jacket and helmet. SSP Kumar then went inside the Akhara building. After half an hour, he and other security forces came out and, as Majeed. watched from the dining room windows, about 100 security forces surrounded Lal Chowk and started firing indiscriminately.
After the fire started, people who were trapped inside the buildings tried to push open the doors only to discover that they had been bolted from the outside and could not be opened from the inside. The soldiers moved down the street, one of them carrying a green plastic bucket into which another soldier dipped a small can and then threw liquid from the bucket onto wooden portions of the buildings.
Within a few minutes, the buildings erupted in flames. The other soldiers continued to shoot all around Lal Chowk. Majeed saw a waiter from the hotel come to the second floor window and scream, “Spare us!”, and then he saw at least two soldiers fire at the man. The man fell backward. Then the soldiers threw liquid from the bucket on the gate of the hotel. Fire erupted. Another soldier pointed some kind of weapon at the top of the Standard Hotel and fired and the roof burst into flames.
Then the Jammu and Kashmir police came and opened the bolt on the door from the outside and five persons came out of the hotel. Majeed said that at about 10:30 a.m., he broke open a window at the back of the hotel and escaped down the staircase of the mosque next door. As he went he saw that the doors of two buildings adjacent to the new Standard Hotel were bolted from the outside and people were pushing on them from the inside. He ran to Barbar Shah along the by-ways and two others from the hotel escaped with him.
Tauseef, a resident, stated that as he was returning from home from Maisuma Bazaar, he heard bursts from light machine guns. He took refuge with friends in a house on Red Cross Road from where they could see the BSF putting liquid on the Standard Hotel and other buildings which then erupted in flames. When Tauseef learned that his own house was on fire, he ran out on to Red Cross Road. He saw five BSF soldiers on the street, some of whom were gathered around a light machine gun outside the burning Standard Hotel. When Tauseef reached home, he found the front door bolted from outside, as were other houses in the lane. He and his mother and sister then fled to a relative’s house in another part of Srinagar.
Mohammad, another resident of Lal Chowk, stated that he heard shots at about 10:00 a.m. The security forces banged on the door of his house saying, “Come out, we will kill you.” After that, he saw smoke coming from the right side of the house. Mohammad and his family escaped through the back door. Since the burning of their house, the family has lived in a hotel.
In all, 59 houses, 190 shops, 53 stores where inventory was kept, two office buildings, five commercial buildings, two schools and a shrine inside the building were gutted by the fire. An estimated 125 people were killed.