In the early 90s, people in downtown Srinagar faced the brunt of Indian military forces’ brutalisation. Downtown or the Old Srinagar has been at the forefront of the Kashmiri struggle for independence since centuries. In fact the first revolt against Dogra in 1864 started in its Zaldagar area.
In 1990s, the rebels found home in the maze of alleys and lanes. The underground movement had massive support in Downtown. Thus the military choked this area with a camp or a bunker at almost every nook and corner. It resembled casbah in Algiers when the Algerian armed struggle to overthrow the French started.
The arsons of Kaw Dara and Noor Bagh in the early nineties saw more than 300 properties summarily burnt down (including homes, schools and shops) shocked people. No one expected this incursion in their daily lives. Fear grew by the day. It forced many to consider leaving downtown — the crucible of Srinagar’s culture — to the outskirts or Lal Bazar.
What academicians would call ‘internal displacement’ due to conflict.
Other factor being the families were getting bigger and thus needed to find more space.
For me, Downtown is a country in itself. Living away from Kashmir for almost half a decade, i felt homesick more for the Downtown where my roots are than to the place where I was born – Lal Bazar.
Lal Bazar became a colony during the 1970s when Sheikh Abdullah’s plan to demolish Nallamar canal was executed by the Prime Minister GM Sadiq. Nallamar was a historical bastion of the resistance with a massive base of support for the Mirwaiz family.
The area became densely populated in the early nineties with most of the flow from the Downtown. In fact post 2010, a lot of families from Downtown have relocated their homes to Lal Bazar. This is due to the continuous repression that has been unleashed to choke out the collective resistance.
Lal Bazar is located at a distance of about 11.6 km from Lal Chowk. Probably the biggest neighbourhood in Srinagar; it extends to Soura via Onti Bhawan in the North, in the East it touches Nigeen Lake and Hazratbal, in the West it reaches Nowshera and in the South it reaches Badam’wear and Hawal.
Lal Bazar was closest area to the capital of Budshah, Nowshera which housed the palace of the great King called ‘Zoonidab’ which burnt in a fire. There are still ruins of a bridge of Budshah’s time in Sikh Bagh which was used by travellers.
According to eminent oral historian Zareef Ahmad Zareef, “Lal Bazar was a marketplace for jewels and precious stones during Budshah’s time. The traders from Central Asia would sell their well-crafter merchandise at this market. Hence it got its name as Lal Bazaar.”
Lal Bazaar is home to Akhtar Mohiuddin (1928-2001) who is regarded as one of the greatest Kashmiri writers in history. He won the Indian Sahitya Academy Award in 1958 for his collection of short stories called ‘Sat Sangar’. He later returned the award in protest against the hanging of the revolutionary Maqbool Bhat in 1984.
He was also awarded Padma Shree in 1968 which he later returned after his son and son in law was killed by state militia in the early 1990s. In whose memory he dedicated his last collections of short stories,
“Dedicated to the innocent martyrs Muhammad Yusuf and Ahmadullah Reshi and those boys who under the cover of oppression’s darkness were killed in nameless places”
Here’s a translation of one such short story. He passed away in 2001 and lies buried at the Sikh Bagh graveyard. His son runs a locally famous school the Green Woods.
Mirza Waheed, a prominent journalist and an award winning author also belongs to Lal Bazar. He has written the critically acclaimed ‘The Collaborator’ and the recently published ‘the Book of Golden Leaves’.
Ghulam Rasool Baba, a teacher of urdu at my school who often challenged the authors of our school urdu book (with whom i have an interesting story to share some day) is a poet in Kashmiri and Urdu.
Mohammad Yousuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin had a large following during his preaching days in Lal Bazar. The burial place of first Jamaat e Islami chief J&K, Saadudin Taribali is also in this area.
Also this place had its own student-gang-thing in the late 90s-early 200s. One of them has starred in few TV shows and modelled for some brands. Junaid Handoo.
Apart from the Asar-e-Shareef which houses the holy relics, there are many small shrines around Lal Bazar. One among them being the shrine of the Botshah. Botshah was a trader from Tibet/Ladakh who settled in Lal Bazar and his nobility made him a saint.
The famous Darul Bilaliya which is a hub of the Tableegi Jamaat and Darul Qasimiya a Nadwi seminary is also located here. Apart from these seminaries is the famous Salfia Masjid which was called ‘Guzar’ decades ago.
There’s also a women only seminary called Jamaat ul Banaat at Umar Colony B.
Lal Bazar is so huge that it should be declared a district. Maulvi Stop is a famous Bus Stop (which almost entire Srinagar knows), the area is named after the Maulvi clan i.e the Mirwaiz family. The stadium earlier called Khan Bagh has been named as Shaheed-e-Millat Stadium after Shaheed Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq. There’s also a water-tap-memorial named after the Shaheed Mirwaiz at Adda stop. (which basically is dedicated to every martyr in any area as a tribute to their memory)
Umar Colonies (A&B), Botshah Mohallas, Amda Kadal, Qureshi Mohalla nearby Maulvi Stop, Wountbawan (called Chotta Afghanistan/Pakistan in the militancy days due to the frequency of Af-Pak militants in the area), Sikh Bagh (named after a Sikh who owned that area) are some of the oldest inhabited areas.
Leper colony is located towards Baghwanpora built in 1890 by Lord Roberts on the banks of Nigeen lake. The Tuman houseboats are also located. in this area. The Tuman family is one of the earliest Kashmiri families engaged with hospitality business since mid 19th century.
Tution centres et al
Faiz ur Rehman, Nazir Shah, Shafi Qazi etc are famous teachers who live in this area.
Uncle ji is a famous snooker parlour which stays flocked throughout the year.
Mann Monj’goor (who has opened a small restaurant), Kulfi chache at Maulvi Stop and Waaza which is next to it are famous food joints. Now a lot of cafes and restaurants have opened up.
Inayat and Zaz are famous pharmacies. Mohmud is a famous goor (milkman) with a really good zamdodh.
The most infamous part of this lovely place is the cancer stricken Bus service. It takes ages for the buses to reach Lal Bazar to & fro Lal Chowk.
In early 90s this year was also a victim to brutal army repression. A lot of army camps cramped up everywhere in the area. One of them still stares at me everytime i leave home. The Farooquis lost two of their sons to bullets of the Indian Army, one of them an engineering student.
Some women were raped and molested by Indian army. Three unmarried women of a well-respected family were abducted by the Army to an army cantonment and released after two nights of sexual assault.
There were crackdowns, encounters and endless firefights in the nights of my childhood. The moments and events that stabbed my childhood and left me memories that are countless; happy, sad and painful.
Thanks to the Haamid Peerzada for inputs.