Since the renewed street protests against Indian rule erupted in 2008, the use of pellet shotguns by security forces administering the divided Kashmir region has created havoc. Since 2016, almost 1,500 eyes have been damaged due to pellets. The latest spree of violence that followed the killing of six militants and a 14-year-old girl on November 26 saw security forces partially blinding an infant girl.
18-month-old Hiba Nisar suffered a pellet injury in her right eye. Doctors told local newspapers that the minor required multiple surgeries. “She has corneal perforation and its prognosis is not very good. We will operate on her once she stops vomiting,” doctors said.
Her mother, Masarat Jan, who was holding her said. “My baby was choking inside our house because of the heavy tear gas smoke so I decided to take her out for sometime. As soon as I opened the main gate, the security forces began firing at me,” said Masarat, who added that she had also suffered injuries on her hand.
Officials at the Srinagar’s SKIMS hospital said that more than 1,000 patients with eye injuries had been reportedly operated over the past two years.
A recent United Nations Report On Situation In Jammu and Kashmir pointed to the Indian government’s official figures of around 17 people killed between July 2016 to August 2017 and 6,221 injured in the same period due to pellet firing. Between July 2016 and February 2017, the figures show around 728 peoples’ eyes were damaged. These figures could be more, considering that a number of victims prefer not to provide exact details to hospitals for fear of being arrested by the intelligence agencies.
This year has seen a surge in violence with over 400 deaths, the highest in a decade.
On many occasions, cordon and search operations by the Indian army targeted at militants have seen residents of the area, mainly youth, come out in support of the militants by indulging in stone hurling near the gunfight zone. Often, the death of civilians during such incidents further escalates the tensions and prolongs the protest cycle.
For instance, on October 21, when seven civilians were killed in a blast near a gunfight zone, dozens of civilians were injured in the separate street protests after pellets struck their head and face in Kulgam in the southern part of Kashmir.
In May 2018, over 50 youth were brought to a Srinagar hospital with eye injuries. Doctors in the ophthalmology department said that more than 28 young boys were operated on April 1. “Every time patients are brought here with pellet injuries in eyes, the chances of retaining eyesight always remain minimal,” said one of the doctors who has operated on hundreds since 2016.
In April, when tensions erupted in south Kashmir after forces conducted search and seize operations and later razed houses where rebel fighters were trapped, killing almost dozens of them, nearly 1,000 civilians were brought to hospitals in Srinagar city with pellet injuries. Over 40 youth were operated for eye injuries in April.
During the six-month-long agitation that began after the killing of 21-year-old militant commander Burhan Wani in July 2016, thousands of civilians who took streets for months were injured on the face, shoulder and elsewhere by pellets. The casualties inflicted on the masses were so huge that international newspapers termed the tragedy as “epidemic of dead eyes”.
Pellets are small iron ball bearings that are fired at high velocity. According to Amnesty International India, the pellet gun cartridges used in Kashmir contain 400 to 500 plastic pellets. When fired at short range, a single shot can pierce the target’s body with hundreds of pellets.
The pellet shotgun resembles shot guns that are used for hunting animals. However, Indian government believes they are ‘non-lethal’ weapons for its officials have repeatedly claimed that the introduction of pellets was done to curb the street protests in Kashmir and limit the death toll which often was high due to the use of bullets and live ammunition. But human rights defenders maintain that “pellets are more lethal and cause permanent damage on victims”.
According to doctors, it is difficult to treat pellet injuries because “the flying metallic balls (pellets) pierce the eyes causing blindness or sometimes death if it damages a soft spot of a person like back of head or chest”.
More than 10,000 civilians were maimed and visually blinded from pellets. Since 2016, nearly 20 civilians have died due to pellet injuries and 6,000 civilians have been maimed in Kashmir. Mudasir Hajam was the first of the six people killed in August 2010. He died when pellets damaged his lower abdomen.
As per an initial study conducted by SKIMS hospital in Srinagar, these guns were extensively used to quell anti-India protests in 2010. At that time, pellet injuries killed at least six people and left 198 injured in a span of just four months.
The study found that five of these injured people lost their eyesight — the youngest victim was just six years old, while the oldest was aged 54. The casualties have only risen.
Many human rights activists and organizations such as Amnesty International have, over the years, raised their voices on different forums against the continuous use of pellet guns and the long lasting damage on victims.
It was in this context that the #BanPelletGuns campaign was launched. It aimed at pushing the Indian government to revoke the usage of pellets and create avenues for providing compensation and rehabilitation to the survivors, and also opening investigation into the excessive of use of force in cases of deaths and serious injuries.
As Gautam Navlakha, the noted human rights activist explains, the State government has no say over the use of pellets since the union ministry of home affairs takes the decision on this issue. According to Gautam these pellet shotguns, also called chara badook, were earlier used by British hunters in the 19th century. These pellets have also been used by the Israeli forces against Palestinians. However, even they stopped its use, considering the fatalities it caused. However, in case of Kashmir, “Indian forces continues to use it,” he added.
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association has also sought a ban over its use. However, the the central government told the supreme court that they were using pellets as an alternative to tear gas, chilli-based chemical shells and rubber bullets. However, reports from ground note that besides using pellets, Indian paramilitary heavily fires PAVA (Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide) shells, tear gas canisters and live ammunition as crowd controlling measures in Kashmir.