Lethal Toll of Non-lethal Weapons

On April 21, 23-year-old Hilal Ahmad Ganai, of Barpora, Pulwama, was hit by pellets in his chest, head and face after police fired air guns towards the youth protesting against the vandalisation of the local graveyard.

He was brought to Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar where doctors said his right eye had lost vision. Not convinced, the parents took him to Chandigarh to a hospital specialising in eye treatment. They gave the same diagnosis. His left eye was operated in Srinagar with doctors assuring 70 percent sight recovery. Finally, only 30 percent was restored. Ganai has now been confined to his house, dependent on his parents.

“What do I do now? He is now dependent on us even for taking a few steps,” says the father Ghulam Muhammad Ganai. “My worry is not that he will not be able to do anything for us but what will happen to him after I die”.

Hilal is just another statistic in the rising toll of the unrestrained use of the pellet guns to subdue protests in Kashmir.

The guns are part of the range of riot control gear described as “non-lethal weapons”. But since their deployment in Kashmir in 2010, scores of youth — most of them teenagers — have lost their eye-sight in one or both the eyes. Hundreds of others have been injured and some have even been killed.

In public opinion, thus, the label of non-lethal has taken an Orwellian connotation: It not only means its opposite but has come to define a law and enforcement gear deadlier than lethal weaponry. For while lethal weapons take lives, non-lethal alternatives ruin lives.

The figures for the last year at Srinagar’s two major hospitals — SMHS and SKIMS Medical College, Bemina — once again bring this grim reality home. Around 38 patients hit by pellet guns were admitted to the Department of Ophthalmology of SMHS, one of Valley’s oldest tertiary care hospitals, from October 2014 to November 2015.

Around 32 of them had suffered serious ocular injuries and had to undergo surgery at the hospital. Since they didn’t return for a follow-up, it is not known how many lost their eyesight.

Similarly, from January 2015 to December 2015, nine patients were admitted to the eye ward of the SKIMS hospital at Bemina. Out of them, two lost sight in both eyes, three in one eye and one recovered partial eyesight.

Doctors at the SMHS put the number of eye injuries due to pellets at 500 since 2010 when the weapons were first introduced during the five-month long unrest in the Valley. Around 45 youth had lost their eyesight in one or both eyes at SMHS in the year, a study by the hospital revealed.

“We conducted this study through the five-month-long 2010 unrest,” Dr. Manzoor Ahmad Kang, the then head of the Department of Ophthalmology at the hospital said at the time, adding that the figure didn’t include the injured admitted to other hospitals in the Valley. Around 120 youth were killed in the unrest, some of them after being hit by the tear gas canisters, again a non-lethal weapon.

Tufail Mattu, the 16-year-old boy from downtown Srinagar whose death triggered the extended strife, was hit by the canister on the head.The toll, both in terms of the killings and the blindness has since continued to rise. And it’s not just apparent from the data from the Valley’s hospitals but also from those outside the state. Chandigarh is one such place where the families of offspring with pellet-damaged eyes rush for treatment. Dr. Sohan Singh Hospital, one such facility receives on an average 25 patients a month from Kashmir in times of trouble in the state.

Dr. Vipan Kumar Vig, one of the senior doctors at the hospital, says he has conducted 25 surgeries of pellet cases in 2015. “I reckon around 50 boys from Kashmir treated at our hospital alone would have lost their sight over the past five years. The number could be even bigger as patients go to other places too,” Dr. Vig told Tehelka. “The situation is very, very grave. I fully empathise with these boys and the people of Kashmir”.

Dr. Vig added that some boys had serious injuries in both the eyes. “They lost sight in both the eyes. I can never forget that. We could do nothing for them. I cannot forget their names. It is tragic,” he said.

Similarly, Dr. Om Prakash Eye Institute in the city receives at least one pellet-injury case every month from the Valley. Though this has triggered a widespread public and political outcry over the use of the pellet guns, the weapons have continued to be used. In October 2014, the current chief minister who was then in Opposition had staged a walkout in Assembly in protest against the use of these weapons. But now she only calls for restraint by the police.

In May last year, when PDP-BJP regime was two months old, Hamid Nazir Bhat, 16, from village Palhalan lost his right eye to pellet injury. The picture of his swollen, pellet-riddled face which soon went viral defined the havoc wrought by the use of the non-lethal weapons. Over a 100 pellets had pierced Bhat’s face and skull. His carpet weaver father Nazir Ahmad, later took him to Amritsar for further treatment. But despite two surgeries, Nazir hasn’t recovered the complete sight in his left eye.

Sahil Zahoor, 19, from Nowhatta Srinagar similarly received a hail of pellets during a protest against the desecration of the Grand Mosque in 2014. He was operated on the same day but to no avail. He can’t see in his left eye anymore.

And Farooq Malla, 22, of Hajin, has lost the sight in both his eyes. Malla says he was hit by pellets in March 2014 when he was taking an evening stroll with his cousin after the protests had ended. He stood at the edge of Hajin bridge, peering down Jhelum when he heard something flying through the air towards him, sounding like “loud chirp of birds”

“These little things, which we couldn’t see, hit my eyes,” Malla says.

His description of his loss is poignant. “Now I can’t see a thing and I’m slowly getting used to the darkness. But I always long to see something, anything that can appear in front of my eyes. I can’t see my family members, I can’t see my friends. I can’t see my room and I can’t see how I look,” he says. “Sometimes I have this intense longing to see something, to see my family members again. But I don’t know if I can see again. I get angry at times, for not being able to see anything. I feel sad too, for what has become of me”.

Before his blindness, Malla worked at his father’s bandsaw. “I used to help my elderly father and brother. Now, I can’t move a glass of water”.

Weapons for peacekeeping

The non-lethal weapons were first used in the middle of 2010 unrest when already around 50 youth had been killed in the firing on protesters. The then chief minister Omar Abdullah wrote to the Centre for supplying such weapons to the police. “At the request of Omar, the Ordnance factory at Jabalpur got into act quickly and produced such rifles which were handed over recently to the state police for putting them to use in mob control activities,” a PTI report of that year states.

On 14 August 2010, the pump action rifle was used for the first time at Seelo Sopore on a 3,000 strong mob. Few people received injuries that time. But soon while killings through lethal weapons continued — another 70 died in the following three months — the non-lethal weapons blinded scores of others.

The following year, J&K went for a major non-lethal weapons upgrade to tackle recurrent protests in the state. The list is long: vehicle – mounted tear-smoke devices, blast dispersal cartridges and stun-lac grenades. The police also procured body protectors, polycarbonate shields, polycarbonate sticks, helmets and visors, bulletproof bunkers, pump action guns, water cannons, anti-riot rifles, and rubber and plastic pellets. The new weaponry also includes dye-maker grenades and colored water canons.

However, police have mostly used pellet guns and pepper spray. But of all the other weapons, pellet guns have wrought havoc. Now hundreds of youth carry pellets in their body, many of them developing crippling disabilities because of them.

Due to their small size, it is difficult to remove all the pellets from the body. And the remaining pellets in the body, the doctors say, can deviate and damage internal organs. But it is the toll in terms of the eye-sight of the scores of the youth that has been the most horrifying.

Says Dr. Vipan Kumar Vij: “Once you have a pellet in the eye, the eye is never the same again. It is a frontal kind of attack. The pellet is worse than any other eye injury, for example, a foreign body in the eye or any other flying object into the eye”.

The reason for this, Dr. Vij says, is that the pellets are high-velocity projectiles. They have “a flat, round, hollow or pointed tip, followed by a taper to a thin waist”.

Flying through the air at high speeds, they break apart and scatter, raising the number of people they hit in the crowd. What is more, the pellets not only pierce the eye but also rotate, crushing the tissues in the process.

“They pass through the eye and go behind the eyeball and settle themselves between the tissues. It can be the nerve or the central part of the eye which we call macula.,” says Dr. Vig. “So many of the youth who are hit have very bad prognosis after the treatment”.

A senior doctor at SMHS compared the eye to a “water-ball” which bursts once hit by a pellet. “Pellet often breaks into multiple pieces in the air. And when fired, they hit the ground, walls and ricochet into the eyes and the other parts of the bodies of the people nearby. Or they hit directly,” the doctors said, not wishing to be named as he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Dr. Vij is soon coming out with a study on the number of the Kashmiri youth who have lost eyesight because of the use of non-lethal weapons. “There is nothing non-lethal about these weapons,” he said.

Public outcry

This has generated a contentious debate in the Valley about the use of the non-lethal weapons, something that has become an extension of the same debate in other parts of the globe. The label non-lethal is seen as a deliberate euphemism to conceal the deadly nature of these weapons. Dr. Dibyesh Anand, a UK Professor, with research interests in Kashmir sees the lethal and nonlethal distinction “as semantics deployed by an oppressive state to justify cruel and inhumane policing of the restive population.”

Similarly, in 2013, State Human Rights Commission in response to a petition by an NGO International Forum for Justice, termed the use of pellet guns as a human rights violation. The petition had detailed the incidents in which then ten persons had lost their eye-sight.

Last year, shortly after Hamid Nazir Bhat was blinded, even Amnesty International called on the state government to “end use of pellet guns”.

“Jammu and Kashmir authorities must prohibit the use of pellet-firing shotguns in policing demonstrations, as they are inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate,” Amnesty International India said in a statement.

J&K Police, on the other hand, doesn’t see any “alternative” to these weapons. “Such weapons are necessary to prevent a higher loss of life,” says Inspector General of Police, Kashmir Javed Mujtaba Gilani, “There is no alternative”.

In November 2013, the police defence was validated by the J&K High Court when it dismissed the petitions seeking a ban on the use of pellet gun in the Valley.

“These petitions styled as PILs have been filed without any empirical research and in a totally casual manner…without any supportive documentary evidence,” the court said in its judgment. The court said the petitions were “devoid of merit and out of sync with the provisions of the law”.

There is thus a legal sanction for the use of the non-lethal weapons. But as an Opposition leader said this didn’t stop the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to oppose them and promised to check their use once in power. But now in power, the PDP-BJP coalition has done little to put checks if not completely bar the use of these weapons. This is despite the fact that 64 youths have suffered serious pellet injuries between October 2014 and December 2015, many of them in the eyes.

Missing political will

Will she fulfil her pledge now? Well, she has yet to speak on the issue. Nor has there been a move by her government to put in place a restrictive policy, say a strict Standard Operating Procedure that reduces the chances of the civilian injury.

Meanwhile, Hilal Ahmad Ganai, who lost eyesight just a fortnight after she assumed the charge, has inconspicuously been added to the tally of the pellet-blinded youth. So has Suhail Ahmad of Qamarwari Srinagar who lost his eye in January when police fired pellet guns at people protesting against the new National Food Security Act.

Says Dr. Vij: “There is nothing like non-lethal with these weapons. Somebody losing one or both his eyes when he is 20 years of age is worse than the death”.


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