In 2011, Burhan Wani joined Hizbul Mujahideen’s militant group in Kashmir. He soon became popular for his anti-Indian posts and videos on social media and came to be known as the poster boy of the Hizbul Mujahideen. In 2016, Wani, who was considered as a terrorist by the Indian Army, was killed in an encounter with the police. As he was considered as an activist by the local people, his death outraged the many separatists and militant groups in the valley, leading to widespread protests including recurring stone pelting, mob violence, curfews, suspension of Internet and public transport etc. As the valley erupted with protests, the army resorted to the use of pellet guns as a form of riot control, injuring and blinding many. This approach was cited by many as a gross human rights violation by the Indian army.
Here’s how it all started and the impact it left on the people in the valley.
The Loaded Gun
The pellet gun is a type of non-lethal weapon for riot control, it is less likely to kill the target when compared to conventional weapons like knives or firearms. Pepper spray, tear gas, water canon, teaser gun are other such examples of non-lethal weapons.
Pellet guns were introduced in the state of J&K by the police back in 2010. After police firing during a protest killed 112 people, the Congress-led Government deployed pellet guns to avoid ‘civilian fatalities’. Another reason why the police chose to use pellet guns was that they are effective in controlling a large crowd. One cartridge contains few hundred pellets made of lead. Once fired the cartridge bursts and immediately throws out hundreds of pellets from a single point to every direction, but this is also the feature of pellet guns that make them controversial.
Sure, pellet guns are a non-lethal weapon, but they come with certain terms and conditions. Because they go from one point to every direction, they can’t be focussed to a particular point and errant pellets can hit innocents. If the guns are fired from a close range say any less than 50 meters they can be pretty lethal, just like a normal firearm. When used at a closer range, the pellets do not have space to disperse and thus travel in compact groups at a high velocity of speed. Experts say in such situations, they more or less have the same impact as the regular gun, penetrating deep into the skin’s tissues or bones. And it’s worst when it hits a sensitive area like the eye. Like these, there are several other conditions which need to be followed while using this weapon, but during stressful situations like riots or protests, these conditions are almost always impossible to follow. Results?
Since July 2016, pellet guns have injured a whopping 1,725 people in J&K. Despite knowing that pellet guns should be aimed towards the lower body to minimise the damage, shockingly more than 500 were shot in the face, easily capable of piercing one’s eye. There have been incidents of children losing their eyesight forever. A 14-year-old girl in south Kashmir, who sustained pellet injuries near the window of her kitchen, lost vision in both her eyes. According to doctors, pellets could maim a person forever. Whether he/she is a protester, stone pelter or not, the marks on their faces will always make them look suspicious. A stigma they’ll have to carry their entire life. Further, many families have lost the breadwinners or have to spend a huge chunk of their savings for the treatment of the victims. These bloody months of agitation soon came to be known as ‘epidemic of dead eyes’.
Clearly, the use ‘non-lethal weapon’ has not been effective in reducing the casualties, and the reason lies in why they were introduced in the first place.
After so many blinded innocents, lives coming to a standstill and bodies of their loved one riddled with pellets – the resentment in Kashmir only grew. What added fuel to this was the government’s authorisation to Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to procure additional 5,000 pellet guns. The hatred and aggression soon shifted from the Burhan Wani’s death to anti-Indian Army. In any democratic country, the force that is used against the crowds should only require a minimum application of force or proportionate to the violent action of the crowd and weapons like pellet guns should be the last resort. Owing to the dangerous consequences of these guns and the physical and psychological impact they leave behind, there is rarely any country in the world that uses them to control crowds and riots. Even the crowd control guidelines in India specify the use of minimum force without ‘danger to life and property’.
Pellet guns have never been used in any other state of India. So, why J&K? Sure, the protestors there pelt stones, but many protests in many other parts of the country have been far more violent, like the Jat agitation in Haryana and Patidar agitations in Gujarat. We’ve never used pellet guns in those states. The security force there resorted to lathi charge, tear gas and water-cannons. Such discriminatory treatment and indifference to the people’s well being will undoubtedly turn more and more civilians into protestors against the Government considering that to them, the Government is just trying to tear them apart by continuing to blind, disable and kill them.
And thing only get worse when at a time like this our Army Chief, Bipin Rawat, warns of further ‘tough actions’ against the stone pelters, instead of addressing the damage that has already been caused at the hands of the Indian Army.
Brutal use of pellet guns and the human rights violations caused by it have been widely condemned by organisations in India and abroad, inviting immense criticism for the Indian Government and the Army. In 2016, the human rights groups launched an online campaign called ‘Kashmir Blind Spot’ which included posters with text written in braille script. The NGO Save The Eye Foundation demanded a complete ban of pellet guns in the state. The United Nations too released a report that indicts pellets guns to be the most dangerous weapon used against the protestors in the valley. In its report called Losing Sight in Kashmir: The Impact of Pellet-Firing Shotguns’, Amnesty International India, urged the government to prohibit the use of pellet guns immediately. They also launched an online petition, #BanPelletGuns to generate awareness.
However, all these efforts brought no positive change as, despite the J&K High Court Bar Association filing a petition to ban its use, the J&K High Court declined it. The court stated that the use of force by the security forces is ‘inevitable’ when dealing with protestors who regularly engage in violence. After which, the bar association appealed to the Supreme Court, who noted that the guns should not be used “indiscriminately” for controlling street protests and asked the Centre to explore alternatives to pellet guns.
The Arsenal Change
Finally, in August 2016, an expert committee was set up by the Union Government and recommended the use of newly developed PAVA shells (chili filled grenades) as an alternative to pellet guns. PAVA, when used will severely irritate and paralyze the protestors, but only temporarily. Once fired, the shell will burst to temporary stun and immobilise the target in a more effective way than tear gas or pepper spray.
But, a month later, this alternative proved to be ineffective to disperse the protestors in the valley and in 2017, the Government decided to re-introduce the pellet guns, but with a slight tweak and modification. The new pellet gun would have a ‘deflector’ on the muzzle to prevent the pellet from ascending, which will ensure that the pellet does not hit the protestor above the abdomen region. It’s shocking that after so much loss and despair already done, all the government can think of is reducing the pain – not eliminating it altogether.
The situation in Kashmir is so tense that all it takes is a spark to create large-scale protests. Clearly, the weaponization approach is backfiring and only aggravating the situation. Instead, the Government should consider controlling the dissent with meaningful and peaceful dialog. Kashmir is the only place in the world where pellets continued to be used to control the masses. Even countries like Israel and Palestine are using non-lethal weapons more effectively. For instance, Israel in 2008 started using Skunk, a foul-smelling liquid as a means to control the masses, which can at max cause nausea and vomiting. We could use other riot controlling weapons which involve temporary pain rather than something like pellet guns which leave a permanent scar – physically and mentally.
One of the reasons for an increase in violence is the heavy militarisation in the state. This militarization has a bunch of adverse effects, but one that has recently come to light is that of an illegal gun-licensing racket. Watch our video below to know more.