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.