Pellet guns

The ‘non-lethal’ pellet

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Insha Malik, 14, blinded in both eyes by pellets, in hospital. Photo: AFP

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh responded to the outrage at the use of pellet guns by saying that he had set up a committee of experts to look into the alternatives, hinting that the government might ban the use of this otherwise “non-lethal weapon”. Since the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8, over 200 young boys and girls have been struggling with their eyesight after being hit by pellets. At least 10 of them have been completely blinded; 40 per cent may not be able to recover their sight by 20 per cent; and the rest will need many interventions to be able to see, though not completely.

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court asked the State government to ban the pellet gun, taking cognisance of the havoc it had caused. Citizens started signing a petition urging the Union Home Ministry to stop its use. Started by Mohammad Ashraf, a columnist and former bureaucrat, the petition was signed by nearly 12,000 people by July 25. It states: “Paramilitary in Kashmir has been indiscriminately using pellet guns to control crowds of unarmed civilian demonstrators. These pellet injuries especially in the eyes render people of all ages totally disabled for life. The use of pellet guns for controlling crowds is banned all over the world.”

For those not in the know, a pellet gun is an air gun (often called pellet gun or BB gun, depending on the projectile) or any variety of pneumatic weapon that propels projectiles by means of compressed air or other gas. It is different from a firearm in the sense that it uses a propellant charge. It propels multiple particles at a target but is not lethal.

The pellet gun was introduced in Kashmir in 2010 to quell protests with minimal civilian deaths. A police officer who was then involved in handling the situation said that those who were using it were not well trained. “In Kashmir, mobs come very close to you to charge at you, and that is why this damage is caused,” he said, pleading anonymity. According to this officer, Kashmir is perhaps the only place where tear-smoke shell also becomes lethal because of the proximity of the mob to those lobbing tear-gas shells.

Another officer said that the forces were not adequately trained to control mobs. “That is why you see hundreds of injured in just two days,” he said.

It has been a tough time for the doctors treating people who have been hit by pellets in the eye, at Srinagar’s Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital and the SKIMS Medical College. Both hospitals have received over 200 such patients. More than 200 surgical procedures have been conducted in a fortnight’s time. “It is a difficult time. We are conducting surgery, but I can tell you that at least 50 per cent of them will never recover fully. They might regain 30 to 40 per cent vision,” said Dr Tariq Qureshi, who heads the Ophthalmology Department at SMHS Hospital.

The Deputy Medical Superintendent at the hospital, Dr Kawarjeet Singh, said: “Hundred and seventy-four people have been hit by pellets so far. Four have lost their eyesight, 10 to 12 have become partially blind. And about those patients who have undergone surgery, after two weeks we can comment on whether they will regain their normal vision or not.”

Insha, a 14-year-old girl, has been blinded in both eyes and her photographs, one that shows her mutilated face and another one taken before the injury, have been all over social media. “Insha was on the first floor of her house when the forces fired pellets into the house,” said one of her relatives. There is despair in the air at the ophthalmology wards of SMHS Hospital and the SKIMS Medical College. At the latter hospital, doctors have admitted 27 patients and six of them have irredeemably lost their eyesight.

“We tried hard, but some will never regain sight,” said Dr Riyaz Untoo, Principal, SKIMS Medical College.

The crisis forced Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to send an SOS to Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda to send retina specialists to Srinagar. A team from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences visited the hospitals in Srinagar. On its return to Delhi, one of its members said that there was “a war-like situation in Kashmir”.

Dr Kaisar Ahmad, Principal, Government Medical College, Srinagar, said: “Our doctors are doing their best to take care of them [the injured]. They have never seen this load of trauma in recent years. The number of injured people we have received this time is much higher than ever seen before.”

This is not the first time pellet guns have claimed such vast numbers as victims. A statement made last year by the human rights activist Mannan Bukhari, author of Scars Of Pellet, says: “There are at least 10 deaths which have been reported due to pellet injuries in different hospitals of Kashmir since 2010, and around 1,500 cases of pellet injuries have also come to the fore. Of the injury cases, 70 per cent of the patients have suffered damage to their eyes.”

Shujaat Bukhari

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