The recent violence in Jammu and Kashmir triggered after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani on July 8 by security forces, has brought pellet guns into focus. To control the protesters, pellets were fired that have injured hundreds of protesters till now. The use of pellet guns and the number of fatal eye injuries in the Valley has resulted in a huge outcry and severe criticism.
After series of deliberations by the Home Ministry on the issue, an expert committee was set up to find alternatives to pellet guns. Stating that pellet guns should be used as a last resort, the committee is learnt to have suggested other non-lethal weapons for crowd control.
On Saturday, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh approved the use of chilli-based PAVA shells for crowd control measures in the Valley ahead of his visit to Kashmir for the all-party delegation meet. PAVA shells are non-lethal, which temporarily incapacitates the target and paralyses them for a few minutes.
The harm caused by pellets: Pellets, loaded with lead, penetrate the skin’s soft tissues, and the eye being the delicate structure is the most vulnerable to damage. When a pellet hits the eyes, it shatters tissues causing multiple damages.
Though, police claim that it is a “non-lethal weapon”, doctors treating pellet victims say it maims a person forever- causing partial or complete blindness. The use of pellet guns, by the J&K Police, have come under serious criticism and there has been a huge outcry over its use, for the severe nature of injuries inflicted on protesters.
The extent of injuries: Pellet guns have injured hundreds of people, several of whom are being treated for severe eye injuries. Insha Malik (14) a 9th class student, has lost vision, after suffering pellet gun injuries during a clash between stone-pelters and security forces in Shopian several days back. The Chief Minister also enquired about the welfare of a policeman, who was grievously injured during ongoing unrest and is undergoing treatment at AIIMS.
According to the official figures gathered from most of the major hospitals, 8904 civilians who were injured during the action of forces were received in the government hospitals across Kashmir. Each second hour an eye of a person is hit by the pellets fired by the forces – 664 persons have been admitted in the Ophthalmology department of Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital of Srinagar since July 9.
The data analysis of the number of injured received from Kashmir hospitals excluding Budgam district reveals that out of the 8904 civilians seen by doctors in the district, sub-district and tertiary hospitals, 6270 people were hurt during the protests that have taken place at district headquarters and in villages of south, central and north Kashmir.
The alternatives suggested: Earlier, a committee that was set up to find alternatives to pellet guns stated that pellet guns should be used as a last resort. The committee suggested other non-lethal weapons for crowd control.
“We have not barred use of pellet guns. But we have tried to give the forces several alternatives before they are forced to use pellet guns. These alternatives, we believe, will be as effective as pellet guns and reduce their use,” a committee member told The Indian Express. The alternatives suggested are non-lethal weapons which temporarily incapacitate people and are not likely to cause severe injuries.
* Synthetic oleoresin capsicum grenades or shells are also called PAVA shells. PAVA stands for pelargonic acid vanillylamide and is more potent than natural oleoresin capsicum gas which is extracted from processed capsicum. It causes severe irritation and watering of eyes apart from a burning sensation on the skin. Its exposure to water causes greater irritation.
* The committee has also suggested tweaking of tear gas shells and the gas to make it more effective. At present, the forces are faced with a situation where protesters pick up tear gas shells and throw these back at them. To overcome this, shells are being made of plastic so that they melt on being fired and cannot be picked up.
* Marker grenades emit irritating gas apart from carrying a permanent paint that help identify protesters later.
* Stun grenades emit strong light, incapacitating crowds for some time.
Most of these have been tested by the CRPF, but have rarely been used in the field.
Earlier, the committee had also suggested the use of chilli-filled grenades to control mobs in addition to the debatable weapon being used now.
Sources said most have been tried out in the past, and occasionally used for crowd-control, but have not been found to be as effective as pellet guns. The CRPF, the main force dealing with protesters in Kashmir, has in the past year put many non-lethal weapons on trial. These include pepper balls, oleoresin capsicum grenades, CONDOR rubber pellets and FN303 guns. “All these are effective in small, closed areas with the wind in your favour,” a CRPF officer said.
The committee had also suggested tweaking of tear gas shells and the gas to make it more potent, effective. At present, the forces are faced with a situation where protesters pick up tear gas shells and throw these back at them. To overcome this, shells are likely to be made of plastic so that they melt on being fired and cannot be picked up.
Condor rubber bullet guns that fire spherical rubber pellets have been widely used by UN peacekeeping forces but are most effective in controlling small crowds.
The FN303 uses compressed air to fire projectiles from a 15-round drum magazine. It is designed to incapacitate the target through blunt trauma without causing critical injuries since the projectile disintegrates on impact. The rear half of the shell can contain an irritating gas like the oleoresin capsicum or a permanent paint which will help identify suspects following a riot. Stun grenades emit strong light, incapacitating crowds for some time.
“We have fired close to 7,000 tear smoke shells and they have been ineffective. Pepper balls and oleoresin capsicum grenades work in small alleys with small crowds. All smoke-emitters are dependent on wind and space. If the space is large and the wind is not towards the crowd, they have little impact. Pellet guns are effective because they cause prolonged pain,” a CRPF officer said.
The reactions on the use of pellets: An opposition delegation from Jammu and Kashmir led by former Chief Minister and National Conference chief Omar Abdullah called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi Monday to discuss the ongoing turmoil in the state. The delegation submitted a memorandum to PM Modi seeking immediate ban on pellet guns in the state. The delegation included CPI-M MLA Mohammed Yusuf Tarigami, state Congress President G A Mir, senior leaders of National Conference and some Independent MLAs.
Global rights group Amnesty International had asked the Jammu and Kashmir government to stop the use of pellet guns which have claimed lives and left hundreds blinded in the ongoing protests in Kashmir Valley. “Pellet guns are inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate and have no place in law enforcement,” Zahoor Wani, Senior Campaigner, Amnesty International India said in a statement issued in New Delhi. “Amnesty International India calls on the Jammu and Kashmir government to immediately stop the use of pellet guns in policing protests. They cannot ensure well-targeted shots and risk causing serious injury, including to bystanders or other protesters not engaging in violence. These risks are almost impossible to control.”
Amnesty also termed the weapon as a “less-lethal” weapon which has “deadly consequences”. Authorities have termed the pellet gun as a “non-lethal” weapon. “The death of a third person in Jammu and Kashmir due to injuries caused by pellet guns is a reminder that the ‘less-lethal’ weapon can have deadly consequences.” On Wednesday, 23-year-old Riyaz Ahmed Shah died in Srinagar of multiple pellet injuries. “The autopsy report said that Riyaz was shot at from a close range, and there were multiple pellet injuries to his vital organs. The state police have registered a murder case against unnamed security personnel,” Amnesty said.
After an inspection of patients with eye injuries caused by pellet guns, at the Sri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital in Srinagar, Sudarshan Khokhar, an ophthalmologist from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said: “Violence is not an option. It (pellet guns) shouldn’t be used here or anywhere.”
J&K government spokesperson and Education Minister Nayeem Akhtar has told The Indian Express, “We disapprove of it. But we will have to persist with this necessary evil till we find a non-lethal alternative.”
The surgeries performed on the victims of pellets: Padma awardee Dr S Natarajan made two successive visits to Jammu and Kashmir, one in July and from August 22 to 28, treating over 220 patients with pellet injuries. Natarajan who performed 86 vitreous and retina surgeries said that out of 220 patients, at least 20 had vision loss in both eyes.
“During the visit, I even treated a five-year-old boy who was operated at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), New Delhi, as the retina had been detached after the surgery. These cases are extremely complicated and they will have to be followed up for a year. It takes at least six weeks after the surgery for the eye to heal but retina patients often develop glaucoma and other complications. Hence, we will have to wait and watch,” Dr Natarajan who will make another round of visit to check on his patients at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, Srinagar, in mid-September.
The Valley has been facing unrest due to the protests in the aftermath of the killing of terrorist Burhan Wani on July 8. The Valley has seen possibly the longest spell of protests for over 50 days in which 70 people have lost their lives so far.