J&K Police and Central government forces had tested and approved in 2012 the acquisition of low-lethality riot-control equipment that could have prevented many casualties in the ongoing street violence in Jammu and Kashmir, according to documents obtained by The Indian Express.
But the acquisition process got stuck in bureaucratic red-tape, despite a public commitment made by the then prime minister Manmohan Singh after police shot dead 110 protesters across Kashmir during the unrest in 2010.
On Monday, a Central government panel set up by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had recommended a list of less-lethal equipment that police can use as a first line of defence before firing No.9 lead pellets from 12 gauge pump-action shotguns, which became controversial after causing eye injuries to over 570 protesters, with over 20 permanently blinded in one eye or both.
Following tests conducted last Monday, the committee short-listed the procurement of Nonivamide pellets and grenades, filled with an irritant derived from capsaicin; a foul-smelling repellant liquid known as skunk; directional speakers that can create an acoustic shield to push back crowds; and 12-gauge shells filled with rubber pellets, instead of lead.
In 2012, documents show, the same capsaicin-derived pellets, as well as rubber balls that deliver baton-like blows at a distance, were tested in Srinagar at field trials witnessed by the then Kashmir IG S M Sahai, DIG Abdul Gani Mir, CRPF IG B N Ramesh and DIG Nalin Prabhat.
Footage of the trials show police personnel, ordered to hold their ground and promised rewards for doing so, fleeing as the pellets explode near them, creating a cloud of irritant. Police volunteers can also be seen displaying non-penetrative injuries to their buttocks, caused by rubber rounds being fired at a range of about 50 metres.
Later that year, though, the Ministry of Home Affairs called for a fresh round of tests — the fourth, since 2011 — to resolve doubts that remained in the minds of some officials. For reasons that are unclear from official records, this fresh set of tests was never held and the procurement process ended without explanation in 2012.
Experts in the MHA panel told The Indian Express that unless a clear acquisition procedure is laid out this time, the new recommendations could end the same way. “There are a host of questions that have to be addressed,” said an official linked to the panel. “How much equipment is to be acquired, and how is to be deployed? Who is to pay for it? When will the precise tactics for using this suite of weapons be decided? Above all, how are police personnel going to be trained in its use?”
Training issues were key, said three officers this newspaper spoke to. In 2011, faced with delays in finalising a full suite of non-lethal equipment, police in Kashmir and the CRPF deployed the 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, choosing No.9 shot over No.7 and No.8, as it was least likely to cause fatalities. The weapon system seemed non-controversial: in use with UN peacekeepers and police forces across the world, the pump-action shotgun was also listed for use against civil disturbances in the US military’s Field Manual 3.
In the event, though, police in Kashmir received almost no training in aiming the weapon at varying ranges — a key skill in preventing pellets from hitting the chest and face of targets. There were also no stocks of alternate ammunition for use at different ranges or in varied conditions.
Police and CRPF in Kashmir, documents show, were meant to attend a seven-day course for all units deployed in the region for riot control, called the Joint Law and Order Training Module. The course included case studies, as well as hands-on instruction on the use of shotguns. The courses, however, ended in 2014, when floods and elections threw deployments into disarray.
At a January 18, 2016 meeting, Sahai, now an ADGP, and IGP Prabhat called for a restoration of the training schedule, pointing to intelligence assessments of civil disturbances, said police sources. No instructions were, however, issued.
“The original idea was that the CRPF’s Rapid Action Force centre in Meerut would become a hub for training instructors,” said former CRPF DGP K Vijay Kumar, now a Union Home Ministry consultant. “I inaugurated it just before I retired, along with the then Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde.”
Evidence from around the world shows even the most state-of-the art equipment can be dangerous, if badly used. In 2005, for example, a woman in Boston was shot dead by a badly aimed pepper pellet, fired from an FN303 weapon. In 2009, a US Justice Department review found 334 people had died in the previous eight years from the use of less-lethal conducted-electricity devices, popularly known as tasers. “While less-lethal weapons are less likely to cause serious injury or death than firearms, significant injuries and fatalities can result from their use,” it warned.
“It’s called less lethal, not non-lethal, for a reason,” said a senior police officer. “Whenever high-kinetic projectiles are used, great care has to be exercised. Even a stone isn’t non-lethal.”
There is still no course in less-lethal methods of riot control at any police academy in the country, including the elite National Police Academy. There are also no standard protocols for the use of these weapons, Ministry of Home Affairs officials admitted.
Ex-PM Singh had kicked off the search for less-lethal weapons to control riots in the wake of the Kashmir protests, telling a conference of DGPs on August 26, 2010, that “we need to revisit standard operating procedures and crowd control measures to deal with public agitations with non-lethal, yet effective and more focused measures”. He called for “a high-power task force to come out with a set of recommendations on these issues in the next two-three months”.
Led by the then home secretary G K Pillai, the committee struggled to meet the PM’s timeline. The Bureau of Police Research and Development, which was to shortlist the equipment available internationally, ended up in a dispute with the vendor chosen for the task.
Instead, the technological search fell largely to the CRPF. In 2011, Vijay Kumar announced that the CRPF’s Rapid Action Force was introducing long-range acoustic devices, capsicain ball rounds, grenades and several types of shotgun rounds into its inventory — the same equipment the MHA panel has now recommended be inducted.
Brazilian firm Condor Non-Lethal Technologies was also tapped for a range of 12-gauge shotgun shells, including variants the MHA panel has now recommended.
The new equipment, sources said, was tested along with a range of protective gear, designed to shield police personnel from the hail of rocks and bricks which have caused injuries to over 4,000 of them this summer. The police and CRPF units in Kashmir, though, never received full suites of this equipment.
“Frankly, I have no idea what happened after I left office,” said Pillai. “There were people who were quite resistant to new ideas, which is perhaps understandable, so the process was slow. It perhaps petered out as memories of what had happened in 2010 faded.”