Hundreds blinded, but government didn’t blink

Hundreds blinded, but government didn’t blink

Pellet gun victims in Kashmir

Post the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani in July 2016, the Kashmir valley was on the boil. The young and old, men and women flooded the streets in thousands. The anger was building. For months, they fought with stones. The protests were not new and Kashmir had seen several over the years. But this time, it was different — scores were killed and hundreds were blinded. A huge outcry resonated across the country: inside Parliament, among human rights activists and elsewhere. The call was for a ban on the use of pellet guns, especially against common people. Government and security agencies did not budge, saying it is a “non-lethal weapon.” But hospitals said a different story.

It was not the first in 2016 that the pellet guns, manufactured at the Ordnance Factory in West Bengal’s Ishapore, had made its entry in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2010, these were introduced in the Valley when Omar Abdullah was the chief minister. Then Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) raised a hue and cry over its use but when it came to power later, it did not do anything to withdraw it from the ‘arsenal’. 

A pellet gun is actually a 12-bore shotgun with cartridges having around 500 lead shots. Once fired, a cartridge disperses the pellets over a few hundred metres. They have short ranges but when fired from close range, it could be lethal. It can penetrate soft tissues. Experts claim that one cannot control the trajectory of the shotguns beyond a limited range, which makes them “inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate”.

As images of blinded victims with pellet injuries on their face made it to newspapers, weeklies and Television, a section felt there was an “indiscriminate” use of pellet guns, which are intended to injure and cause pain.

Pressure built on the government for a tweak in strategy but nothing much changed. Parliament continued to witness emotional appeals to ban its use. The government made it clear it will not ban its use but would direct the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to use it in the “rarest of rare” instances. This instruction went in August 2016, almost a month and a half into the raging protests. Months later in April 2017, it again instructed security personnel in the valley to increasingly use plastic bullets and resort to pellet guns only as a second last resort. Three weeks into the protest, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs on July 26, 2017 set up a seven-member expert panel headed by a Joint Secretary-level officer to explore possible alternatives to controversial pellet guns. But nothing much changed as security forces felt that use of chilli-based PAVA(Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide) shells did not have the desired impact and insisted on pellet guns.

“These instructions on using it rarely is rubbish. There is no restraint,” Amnesty International India (AII) Executive Director Aakar Patel told DH. On April 1, 2018, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report based on a “confidential information” provided to it, around 40 people were reportedly injured, including 35 who were hit in the eyes, by pellet shotguns used against people protesting against the killing of civilians in Shopian and Anantnag districts.

The government told Parliament last year that it decided that the security forces will resort to various measures such as using PAVA-Chilli (Shells and Grenades), STUN-LAC (Shells and Grenades) and Tear Smoke Shells to disperse the rioters and if these measures prove to be ineffective in dispersing of rioters, use of pellet guns may be resorted to.

One of the damning observations was in the OHCHR report on Kashmir, which India described as rubbish when it called the pellet guns “one of the most dangerous weapons used against protesters” in the valley.

It also said the pellet guns used in Kashmir was not listed in the Standard Operating Procedures issued by the Bureau of Police Research and Development in March 2011 while an RTI request seeking to know its “efficacy and impact” was rejected citing that this was sensitive information related to national security.

In its report ‘Losing Sight in Kashmir: The Impact of Pellet-Firing Shotguns’, the AII said a weapon meant to be deployed for crowd control has been responsible for blinding, killing and traumatising people in Kashmir. It summed up what pellet guns did to Kashmiris: “School-going boys and girls have lost vision in one or both eyes, and have difficulty reading, playing with their friends, or watching cartoons. College students have had to give up their dreams of pursuing higher education. Young men and primary breadwinners of families say that they cannot earn a living any more, that they are now a liability to their families.” And, this is the cost a nation paid and continues to pay. 

Read more: Losing sight to pellet guns in Kashmir
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