Lifetime Performance Award
Srinagar's firemen are trained, they're skilled, they're fearless. And often unable to perform their duties.
On June 25, at 6:30 am, the alarm rang at Srinagar’s Bari Nambal fire station and four firefighters jumped into their service truck. Headquarters had reported a “minor” fire in Khanyar, a dense neighbourhood in the city’s old town. Carrying 7 000 litres of water, the truck sped out with its siren blaring. The blaze was just four kilometres away.
Mehraj-ud-Din, a 42-year-old crew commander, looked through his windshield and saw a cloud of smoke to the south. “Doesn’t seem too bad,” he told his engine driver.
At three kilometres from their target, they heard people shouting, “Shainillah (for God’s sake)!” After another kilometre, they saw people running out of their houses with buckets, some of them yelling, “Where the hell were you?”
After 20 years with the Srinagar fire brigade, Mehrajud-Din expected this kind of reception. In Khanyar, the locals could turn fierce with a minimum of provocation, and have been known to throw stones at the police. People are probably angry because someone has lost their home, he thought. As the driver took a right turn, however, Mehraj-ud-Din’s eyes grew wide.
“God have mercy!” he gasped. An inferno had enveloped the 200-year-old Sufi shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, one of the holiest structures in Kashmir. Even the firefighters were shaken at the sight. Mehraj-ud- Din attempted to boost his team’s morale: “Let’s just try our best. Even if we die, we die as martyrs.”
The company split into two groups: the forward team to fight the blaze, the rear guard to search for nearby water sources. But as soon as the firefighters set to their tasks, they were pelted with stones and shoes. A 100-strong mob then beat the firemen with sticks, and turned their own hoses, hammers and shovels against them. The crowd soon had control of the engine, haphazardly spraying water everywhere.
“They finished all the water in two minutes,” says Mehraj-ud-Din, who was beaten by an iron rod. Within 20 minutes, most of the shrine had been burned. “Then,” he says, “they accused us of coming with an empty fire [truck]".
To avoid being further beaten once the rumour had spread, Mehraj-ud-Din took off his gear, unbuttoned his uniform, and tried to blend into the crowd as much as he could once he was down to his underpants. He’d radioed headquarters, requesting reinforcement, and 23 trucks were immediately dispatched, but the mob swelled and intercepted them, banging their windshields and alarm bells, dragging the drivers out and assaulting 20 more firemen.
“I saw young boys driving the trucks,” recalls Tariq Ahmad Dar, one of the drivers. “I knew it would be impossible to control the fire.”
A few minutes later, police lobbed canisters of tear gas, clearing a path for reinforcements. When the firefighters finally gained access, the shrine was gutted, and flames were advancing on the surrounding neighbourhood. For 16 hours, firefighters confined the blaze to the shrine. They even retrieved several holy manuscripts. But this did little to mollify the crowd, and neither did the independent inquiry into the firefighters’ performance, called for by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.
Much to the government’s surprise, the probe discovered something remarkable: the first call for help was made at 6:29 am, an hour after the fire broke out. Within five minutes of the call, the firefighters of Bari Nambal station were out in their truck. In view of this response, one wonders, why did the people at the shrine stop the firemen from doing their job? Why were they so angry?
The answer is spread over the last couple of decades.
Kashmiris have been angry with their firemen since the outset of the armed rebellion against Indian rule 22 years ago. The logic is simple: the fire department comes under the home ministry, just like the police, paramilitary and the army. As thousands of unarmed civilians have died at the hands of Indian security agencies, many citizens perceive the fire department as part of that same, oppressive state machinery. And when young Kashmiri men – the same ones so often harassed by police for being suspected stone throwers – see the firefighters in their khakis, they wait for one to make a mistake, to give them an excuse to lash out.
“Trust is the first casualty of conflict,” says Dr Arshid Hussain, Kashmir’s leading psychiatrist. “When somebody comes to help, he is not trusted.”
Hussain feels the aggression during the fire at the shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani was the result of psychological trauma; trauma that blurs the power of reasoning. “Now Kashmiris have started doubting everything. Be it this fire, they would be more into suspecting who burned the shrine. Is it the government or did it happen naturally? They even cast doubts on small accidents like a simple drowning.” The first doubt in the case of the Sufi shrine fire is: If the fire broke out at 5:30 am, why was the fire brigade alerted at 6:29 am?
After the call, the firefighters had arrived in exactly five minutes, at 6:34 am. Surely they can’t be blamed for the hour-long delay that led to the loss of the sacred structure?
Even if firefighters display courage by jumping into a burning building to save people and their property, somehow, they still end up being discredited. For instance, while the Sufi shrine burned, the fire department says its most sacred manuscript – a Quranic text written by Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Ali – was saved from destruction by firefighter Lucky Singh. But locals deny this claim, saying it was the spiritually revered Sajadda Nisheen, the caretaker of the shrine, who “walked” into the flames and retrieved the sacred book.
It wasn’t easy to hold back the fire long enough to open the scorching hot iron vault where the manuscript was kept.
“We adopted the water cutter strategy,” says Mehrajud- Din, recalling how Lucky Singh entered the shrine. “In this strategy, we spray water from three directions and make the water collide at a certain point. As a result we get a kind of shield, a water shield. That is how Lucky could get [the sacred manuscript].”
Srinagar’s old town, clusters of densely packed houses built with easily flammable deodar wood, is always vulnerable. In most cases, fire trucks can’t easily get to a fire as the narrow bylanes and alleyways restrict their movement. In such situations, even a minute can feel like an hour, the perceived delay triggering restlessness among the neighbourhood youth. It’s not long before impatience leads to a reckless form of volunteering. Within seconds, the firemen are pushed aside, further stalling the rescue operation. The young men take hold of the firemen’s tools, their ignorance of how to use them adding to the chaos. For instance, the firefighters’ hose, a brass barrel with a knob that controls the flow of water, can only be wielded by a trained, skilled fireman. What the firefighters know is that if a blaze is raging, they need to shoot from a distance with full hose pressure; if it is more a matter of smoke, then they advance.
But this method of firefighting is barely applied in practice, says GA Bhat, Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Fire and Emergency Services, “Because when the fire breaks out, there is always a distance between the fire and the fighter. When we reach [the location of the fire], our men and machinery are always set apart. Can you expect anything from a weaponless fighter?”
Bhat is a stout 52-year-old with a pitch-black moustache. I meet him at his office on a sunny July afternoon, and he offers me tea from a miniature tea set on his desk. He comes off as a genial officer with a remarkable sense of humour, qualities that would be well deployed to manage his subordinates, convince his superiors and outwit his competitors. But he looks uneasy today. For more than a week, he has been rebutting newspaper reports that are seeking to “tarnish his reputation.” He tells me that Asgar Samoon, the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, is waging a bureaucratic war against him. “He is blaming us for everything,” says Bhat, leaning forward in his chair. “Trust me, he has no idea about fire services.”
Bhat has prepared a detailed report, explaining all the minutiae of the fire rescue operation. “Be it stupid questions or technical questions. I have explained everything,” he says, flipping through the pages.
“I am not worried about any bureaucratic hurdle. I am worried because the media is listening to my enemies and portraying a wrong image of our department. This is why people get angry with us. God forbid, tomorrow if someone’s house will be on fire, I know we will be beaten again, more houses will burn again and then we will be blamed again.”
Even after facing public outrage, Bhat doesn’t hold people responsible for any damage to the department’s equipment or the firemen’s morale. He simply wants people to know that his fire brigade is a competent force for good, not a bunch of non performers. Last year alone, it responded to 5 452 calls and saved property worth Rs 581 crore. When I ask him about the rumour as to whether the firefighters had arrived at the Sufi shrine with an empty truck, he says “Each fire truck carries about 7 000 litres of water. After ten minutes, the truck empties and we connect it [to] the fire hydrant. Then we can fight for hours and hours and this is how any firefighter from any part of the world will work. But here, we find it difficult to work like that. Not because people beat us. It is because we never find the fire hydrants on time.”
Poor urban planning has also worked against the firemen. Bhat tells me a good number of Srinagar’s fire hydrants, which were installed before 1947 when Kashmir was a princely state, have been buried. Various road-works have been built over the hydrants, and many others have “disappeared under illegal constructions,” he says.
In Srinagar, these premature burials of fire hydrants have come about because of two infrastructural departments. In a common scenario, a bulldozer under the orders of the Telecommunications Department comes along and digs up a tarred road. In that process, the pebbles and mud are then spread around, covering the hydrants. A few months later, the Roads and Buildings Department fills the holes and paves the road along with the existing fire hydrants. A year later it may happen all over again.
As the Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani shrine burned, fireman Nisar Ahmed of Bari Nambal station was rummaging through a massive pile of rubbish. From behind, he could hear his commander shouting: “The truck is getting empty, did you find the hydrant?”
He hadn’t. Ahmed tore apart a wooden chicken coop trying to find it. He knew it had to be here somewhere. He dug through a heap of sand. No hydrant. When he heard his fellow firefighters shouting, he tried to slink away through an empty courtyard. A few teenagers saw him, stopped him, and gave him couple of blows.
“They ran away with my jacket and helmet,” Ahmed tells me, recalling the morning of June 25. “I ran after them and people thought I was running away from my duty, so a huge mob ran after me.”
For Ahmed, it was a haunting experience. In his 16-year career, he is proud to have served at the Line of Control (LoC), a de-facto border between India- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. In the summer of 1998, when he was stationed in Tangdar district, a heavy exchange of mortar fire took place between Indian and Pakistani soldiers. A few minutes later, a shell from the Pakistani side hit an Indian ammunition barrack, exploding into a deadly blaze that leapt onto adjacent barracks and engulfed a section of forest. Ahmed was ordered to control the forest fire while others focused on the barracks. “The army informed us that there were land mines everywhere,” he says, “but we didn’t listen to them. We still tiptoed through the dense grass and managed to stand with our hoses.”
While narrating his story, Ahmed’s demeanour changes – from a feeble man to a brave fighter. After a series of successful operations, his brigade earned great respect in military circles and adjacent villages. “The big army officers came to meet us. They thanked us and said, ‘You saved our unit and about fifty villages. You are our heroes.’ ”
When there’s a fire in Srinagar’s old town, the mob is often led by a blend of the same characters: embittered Islamists, ex militants, college dropouts and unemployed graduates. The fire is the disaster that brings these disillusioned men together, always looking for an opportunity to settle their scores with the government, most often by turning a place of disaster into a theatre of agitation.
“People don’t beat the firemen,” says Muzaffer Hussain, a 27-year-old resident of Saraf Kadal. “They actually beat the government.”
Hussain was buying bread when he heard about the fire at the Sufi shrine. Leaving his basket behind, he ran towards the scene and by the time he arrived, the shrine had been mostly gutted, and he could sense the brewing public outrage. “Everyone was crying,” he says. “All of Srinagar was crying. People came on scooters and motorbikes from far off places to save the shrine. But no one from the fire services came, no one from the police came. And when the firemen arrived an hour late, people pounced on them because half the shrine was gone.”
In the last week of July, the government announced that they would restore the shrine to its original design. The announcement has provided some solace. Outside the charred ruins, a few stalls have been set up so that people can donate money to speed up the restoration.
The lives of the firefighters continue in bewilderment, struggling to reconcile with the people’s perception that they’re incompetent and unable to perform their duties.
I meet Bhat again at his office. He’s disheartened. He tells me that on the previous night, a fire destroyed a small cluster of three houses in Nawa Kadal, in the old town. During the rescue operation, Muhammad Noor Rather, the leading firefighter of the Batamaloo brigade, glimpsed an old man lying on the floor of the second storey of a burning building. He climbed the ladder to help him, and stepped onto an iron window grill to enter the house. But somehow he lost his balance. He fell 20 feet and broke his leg.
“He had just fifteen days to retire from the service,” says Bhat. “This is what he got in the end. A crippled leg.”
When I go to visit Rather, he is lying on a bed in Srinagar’s Bone and Joints Hospital. His wife, daughter, and two sons are visiting him. He is teary-eyed, but keeps saying to his wife, “Come on. This is nothing. I could have died. God just saved me.”
“It was dark,” 58-year-old Rather tells me, “I didn’t know what I was stepping on. I was just walking, trying to get closer to the corpse.”
In his 35 years of service, Rather has participated in most of the city’s historic fire operations – assembly bombings, suicide attacks, the Tourist Reception Centre fire –but he’s never suffered so much as a scratch.
When I ask him if he regrets ending his service with an injury, he replies: “This is part of our job. We always get hurt. No issues.”