1993 Lal Chowk fire

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The 1993 Lal Chowk fire (literally Red Square) refers to the arson attack on the main commercial center of downtown Srinagar, Kashmir that took place on 10 April 1993. The fire is alleged by government officials to be started by a crowd incited by militants,[1] while civilians and police officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch and other organisations allege that the Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) set fire to the locality, apparently in retaliation for the burning of an abandoned BSF building by local residents.[2] Over 125 civilians were killed in the conflagration and the ensuing firing by BSF troops.[3]

The fire[edit]

On 9 April 1993, at approximately 11:30 PM BSF troops abandoned the Sanatan Dharm Sabha which had been their base within Lal Chowk.[1][2] On the morning of 10 April, the now abandoned bases were set ablaze. As the fire continued to spread to neighboring homes and businesses, the area was declared to be under curfew. The para-military forces arrived and were involved in a shootout which resulted in loss of life.

Jagmohan, then Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, in his memoir, alleges that the next morning the building was accosted by a crowd incited by a few militants who then proceeded to set the building on fire. The fire spread and engulfed the locality consuming over 50 homes and 260 shops. When the para-military forces arrived in response to the situation, they became engaged in a fire-fight for over four hours during which over 10,000 bullets were fired. In this and other incidents in the ensuing days, over 260 lives were lost due to terrorism-related violence.[1]

Human Rights Watch in their investigation reported an unidentified Jammu and Kashmir police official, M., as stating that the BSF had withdrawn forces the previous night without informing the police. The official stated that he had requested the BSF for protection of the building as such buildings vacated by security forces in the past had been burnt down. When he had approached the building, the crowd warned him not enter as it may be mined. He alleged that the building was ablaze before the tardy arrival of the BSF troops. He also alleged that tardy and limited response of government fire fighting resources led to the fire growing out of control despite the efforts of him and his men. When a company of approximately 100 BSF soldiers arrived, curfew orders were announced by megaphone, and the troops surrounded Lal Chowk and began firing indiscriminately.[2]

Civilians interviewed by Humans Right Watch stated that the BSF did not allow the police to rescue of people. Another police official alleged that the BSF opened fire on civilians and the police.[2] The New York Times reports that BSF forces fired on people fleeing their burning homes and businesses.[3] Other witnesses stated that the external latches of the buildings had been closed trapping the people inside, supposedly by the security forces. A waiter of a hotel alleged that he had seen BSF troops spraying the buildings with flammable liquids.[2]

The shikara killings[edit]

As the fire continued to spread through Lal Chowk, a number of locals attempted to escape the flames by fleeing across the Jhelum River in 'shikara' boats. According to eyewitnesses, 20-30 BSF troops gathered on the river bank and opened fire on the boats with machine guns. Some of those on board jumped into the river to escape the firing, only to drown. The gunfire continued for at least 30 minutes, and at least 16 bodies were later recovered from the river.[3][2]

Indian authorities later claimed that "a shikara boat which was on its way from Lal Chowk to Lal Mandi carrying a large number of persons capsized in the river Jhelum." There was no official government investigation into the incident.[2]

The aftermath[edit]

In all, 59 homes, 190 small shops, 59 stores where inventory was kept, two office buildings, five commercial buildings, two schools, and a shrine were destroyed in the blaze.[2] An estimated 125 people were killed.[3]

References[edit]