'Dead eyes' epidemic plagues Kashmir

This year, the police fired upward of 1.2 million pellets in the first 32 days of the protests in the region

'Dead eyes' epidemic plagues Kashmir

The street outside is patrolled by riot police officers in camouflage, bracing for the ni-ghtly spasm of violence, but it is quiet here inside the operating room. The surgeon’s knife slides into an eyeball as if it were a soft fruit.

The patient’s eyelids have been stretched back with a metal clamp, so his eyeball bulges out of glistening pink tissue. The surgeon sits with his back very straight, cutting with tiny movements of his fingers. Every now and then, a thread of blood appears in the patient’s eye socket. The patient is 8-years-old. “Very bad,” murmurs the surgeon, Dr S Natarajan. But then, all 13 cases he will see today will be very bad.

Since mid-July, when the current wave of protests against the Indian military presence started, more than 570 patients have reported to Srinagar’s main government hospital, with eyes ruptured by lead pellets, sometimes known as birdshot, fired by security forces armed with pump-action shotguns to disperse crowds.

The patients have mutilated retinas, severed optic nerves, irises seeping out like puddles of ink. “Dead eyes,” the ophthalmology department’s chief calls them. Every season of popular revolt in Kashmir has its marker.

This summer’s protests in the part of Kashmir controlled by India, the most sustained and violent since 2010, caught the authorities in New Delhi unaware. The stone-throwing crowds have no political leaders, put forward no specific demands and metastasized with alarming speed. Around 60 civilians and two members of the security forces have been killed; on each side, thousands have been wounded.

But 2016 will almost certainly be remembered as the year of dead eyes. The eye injuries have become such a focus of public anger that last week, in a conciliatory gesture, Home minister Rajnath Singh, promised that the pellet guns would be replaced by another type of nonlethal weapon in the coming days.

On the ophthalmology ward at the main Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, however, new patients arrive every day. Walking the hospital hallway, you first notice a handful of young men in blackout goggles. Then you see them everywhere.

A weary ophthalmologist looks on from the break room as Natarajan’s young patient, waking from anaesthesia, stirs and begins to moan. “That 8-year-old boy, he will live for 70 or 80 years,” says the doctor, Afroz Khan. “The history remains there, even if it is not in the books.”

On July 9, Tariq Qureshi, head of the ophthalmology department, was at a seminar on paediatric retinal repair. The previous day, Indian security forces raided a village and killed Burhan Muzzafar Wani, a 22-year-old militant leader whose videos posted on WhatsApp and Facebook attracted a vast following. But major violence was not expected. Qureshi was in the seminar when his phone rang.

It was the hospital emergency room, calling to let him know that two patients had come in with pellets in their eyes. Qureshi sent a doctor over, and the seminar resumed. Ten minutes later, the phone rang again. It was the same doctor in the emergency room, telling Qureshi to come immediately, that the number of patients had risen to 15. The four ophthalmologists, who were across the hospital campus from the emergency room, ran.

For the next 72 hours, they operated in shifts around the clock, suturing the eyes to keep the matter inside from leaking out. In most cases, it became clear, the pellets had burst in through the cornea and out through the retina, leaving little hope of fully restoring vision. Twenty-seven patients were hit in both eyes. The pellets, when they could be removed, were preserved on the heads of cotton swabs.

“Once it goes in the eye, it rotates like this, and destroys everything there inside,” Qureshi said. “It’s physics. This is a high-velocity body. It releases a high amount of energy inside. The lens, the iris, the retina get matted up.”

The doctors were told to take all possible measures to save their patients’ vision, including complex surgery, at a cost to the government of 70,000 rupees per operation, Qureshi said.

The worst cases go to Natarajan, director of Aditya Jyot Eye Hospital in Mumbai. Natarajan specialises in patients whose eyes have been punctured by projectiles – typically, children standing too near fireworks, or industrial workers who did not wear protective goggles, or boxers whose eyes have been punctured by thumbs.

In cases of catastrophic injuries, Natarajan’s goal is to save a small portion of the eye’s function, enough to sense light, or movement of a hand. “Even that minor change from zero matters a lot, for a man with no light,” Natarajan said. “It is like, if you have no money in your pocket, 10 rupees seems like big money.”

Effective weapon
For an Indian security official, to be engulfed by a hostile crowd in Kashmir is, without a doubt, a life-threatening situation.

Bhavesh Chaudhary, the second-in-command of the 161st Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force, has dedicated much of his career to battling stone-throwing crowds. Indian troops use pellet guns for crowd control only in Kashmir. They were introduced in 2010, halfway through a particularly bloody season of protest. 

For Chaudhary, who sometimes faces crowds of more than 1,000 hostile young men with a contingent of 20 or 30, it is by far the most effective weapon at his disposal. “It causes bodily injury, so you will be feared,” he said. His battalion commander, Rajesh Yadav, nodded at this assessment. “If you pinch them,” he said, “only then people will understand.”

This year, the use of pellets on Kashmiri protesters increased sharply, with the police firing more than 3,000 canisters, or upward of 1.2 million pellets, in the first 32 days of the protests, the CRPF has said. Though troops are instructed to aim them below the waist, “sometimes it is difficult to go in for precise aimed fire at a moving, bending and running target,” the police explained in response to a lawsuit seeking to ban their use. If they are withdrawn from the arsenal, Yadav said, troops will have to use their firearms.
In a recovery ward at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, a nurse pushes a trolley down a row of beds, distributing cups of tea and slices of white bread to a row of young men in sunglasses.

To converse with them is to see new energy coursing into Kashmir’s old cycle of violence. It is difficult to find a patient here who admits to mourning the loss of his eye. They say it is an acceptable price to pay for azaadi, or freedom from Indian rule. Quite a few offer to sacrifice their second eye for the cause.

Wazira Banwo, 40, is watching her 8-year-old son, Asif Sheikh, recover from surgery. The boy is curled on his side under a blanket, his head swathed in surgical gauze, woozy and sick. It was his third operation; now, with his retina reattached, he may be able to see for a distance of 3 to 5 feet, according to Natarajan.

Asked whether she was grateful to the government for providing the child medical care, Banwo grimaces. “Not a single person from the government has come to help,” she says. “If any one of them come to me, I will tell them, ‘You give me your eyes, I will put them in my child.’

”On the day he was injured, she says, he just happened to be standing in the market when security forces arrived in a van and fired pellet guns. “This time he is very young,” she says. “But he will grow. He will understand what happened to him. And he will go out to the street and throw stones.”

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