By Kashmiri standards, the afternoon of 2 October 2016 was sunny and warm. A group of boys from the Kawdara neighbourhood in downtown Srinagar were playing cricket at the Radpora stadium, which is nearby. Among them was 12-year-old Moin Mushtaq, dressed in a white-kurta pyjama, who was fielding at mid-on. “All of a sudden, I heard slogans and screaming coming from the lane adjacent to the ground,” Mushtaq told me when I met him in late October. “As I turned to look, I felt sharp pain in my face, and fell in a heap.” “When I saw him, I couldn’t believe it,” Mushtaq’s mother, Sabina, said. “His kurta-pyjama was no longer white. It was red—only red.”
Sharp lead pellets fired from a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, better known as a pellet gun, had hit Mushtaq. The pellets entered his eyes, face, neck and chest, destroying his right eye beyond repair. The family, which sells bread from their one-room home and earns about Rs 5,000 a month, had to spend close to Rs 5 lakh on four surgeries for Mushtaq’s eye—three of which were conducted in Hyderabad. He is still unable to see through his right eye. “If I close my left eye, I only have a sense of light, if a source of light is close to me,” he said.
Danish Rajab, a 22-year-old resident of Rainawari in Srinagar, was even less fortunate. On the evening of 17 July 2016, he recalled, the curfew—which had been imposed during the unrest that followed the death of Burhan Wani, a divisional commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, on 8 July—had been lifted for the day. Rajab stepped out of his house to meet his friends at a tea-stall. “I saw eight or nine CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] jeeps pass us by. Then, as the last jeep was about five metres away, the man stationed on top of it fired at me. I looked up at him when I heard the sound, ducked instinctively and soon fell down after feeling a piercing pain,” he told me. He said that the next thing he remembers was waking up at the hospital, and “the sounds of my sister crying next to me.” “I couldn’t see her,” he said. Pellets had entered both of Rajab’s eyes, his face and parts of his skull, blinding him permanently. “There has only been darkness since,” he added.
Mushtaq and Rajab are two among over a thousand residents from Kashmir who suffered pellet injuries to their eyes during the 2016 unrest in the valley. Most of those who suffered injuries to their eyes experienced partial or complete loss of vision. Close to 13,000 people were injured, and nearly 6,000 of them suffered pellet injuries to various parts of their bodies. According the 2016–2017 annual report published by Amnesty International, pellet injuries also accounted for 14 deaths during the unrest. The report described pellet guns as “inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate.”
Since July 2016, the use of pellet guns has become a point of contention. At the time of the unrest, the armoury of the CRPF included 640 pump-action guns, and about 125,000 cartridges. In mid-August, the CRPF told the Jammu and Kashmir High Court that between 8 July and 11 August 2016, the forces had used 3,765 cartridges—each of these contains 450 metallic balls, or pellets.
In early March 2017, news emerged that the Ministry of Home Affairs had authorised the procurement of an additional 4,949 pump-action guns and 600,000 matching cartridges to be used in Kashmir, bringing the total number of pump-action guns to 5,589—an increase of over 750 percent. On 27 March 2017, a Supreme Court bench led by JS Khehar, the chief justice of India, directed Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi to consider alternatives to the pellet guns. “It is the duty of the government to ensure the safety of its people as well as security forces,” the bench stated. “The purpose is not to cause physical harm to its people but at the same time protect all.”
The central government and security forces have, at best, dithered on the use of pellet guns in Kashmir. On 24 July 2016, about two weeks after the unrest began, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said at a press conference in Srinagar that he had asked the security forces to refrain from using pellet guns against protestors as far as possible. On another visit to the valley during the unrest, Singh admitted that an alternative to pellet guns was required. “In 2010, it was said pellet gun is a non-lethal weapon which can cause least damage. But, now we feel that there should be some alternate to this,” he told the press at a meeting in August. Singh added that the government had formed an expert committee to look into alternatives to pellet guns, and that its report was expected soon.
The seven-member committee, which was headed by TVSN Prasad, the joint secretary with the home ministry, and included senior officials from the CRPF and the Kashmir police, submitted its report to the home ministry in late August. “There will be no blanket ban on the use of pellet guns,” the report said. It recommended, however, that pellet guns be used in the “rarest of rare cases,” and that “non-metal pellets made of softer material like polymer, soft plastic, rubber and even paper be used.” The report also recommended the use of Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide (PAVA) shells, a chilli-based ammunition that is less lethal than pellet guns. Although the security forces attempted to employ the PAVA shells, in less than a month, they stated that the shells were “ineffective.” According to a report published in DNA on 29 September, the forces found that the delay in the release of smoke from the shells “allows protestors time to hurl it back.”
The human-rights activist Khurram Parvez said that the decision to authorise more pellet guns made it “absolutely clear that the government has gone back on its words.” “In fact, they have gone in the other direction,” Parvez added. According to him, serious injuries are unavoidable if pellet guns are used.
The CRPF claims otherwise. In late February 2017, CRPF officials told the media that the increase in the number of pellet guns would not necessarily mean an increase in number of serious injuries. The officials said that the forces will use a “deflector”—an improvised attachment to the end of a pellet gun that would prevent the pellets from going up, and limit the aim to the lower body of the target. Atul Karwal, the inspector-general of training in the CRPF, who was also a member of the expert committee, told the paper Economic Times: “With the deflectors, 90 per cent of the pellets hit a person below the waist. So vital areas such as the eyes and the chest are not hit.”
Rajesh Yadav, a spokesperson for the CRPF, told me that the deflectors “will be used as an experiment to reduce the number of upper-body injuries.” Yadav told me, “It is not a factory-fitted attachment, and is completely our own improvisation done at the local level.” He added that the CRPF has tested the gun in “static and ideal situations,” and the results appeared to be “positive.” “For example, if earlier ten pellets were spraying upwards now that number has come down to four or five,” Yadav said.
However, Yadav was quick to clarify that the deflectors were tested in a static environment, but that the circumstances under which guns are fired during combat, are “dynamic and unpredictable.” “When stone pelting is happening, it is a very unpredictable situation. Stone-pelters are coming from all directions, they bend to pick up stones. The jawan is also in a stressful situation. So, under those circumstances, the results could be different,” Yadav said. He continued: “Most of the stone-pelting happens in narrow lanes made of concrete and even if pellets are fired at the feet, they can bounce upwards or off walls and hit people in the upper body.”
Bashir Manzar, a senior journalist and the editor of a local English-language daily, Kashmir Images, echoed Yadav’s doubts. Since pellet guns were introduced as a means of crowd control in Kashmir in 2010, Manzar has reported extensively on the unrests and the injuries caused due to firing by security forces. “When shots are fired, it is human tendency to duck and a lot of injuries to the eyes have happened because of that,” Manzar told me. He, too, suggested that pellets could still bounce off hard surfaces and cause serious injuries. “Even if the security forces aim for the feet and even if deflectors are fitted and they actually work, these scenarios cannot be ruled out,” he said. “There is no basis for saying that injuries to the upper body will be eliminated. They will not be.” Manzar continued: “No matter what improvisation they might use, it is not going to help if the intent is to kill or cause grievous harm. And that has been the intent in many cases.”
SP Vaid, the director general of the police in Jammu and Kashmir, too, seemed wary of confirming that the modifications would result in a drastic reduction in injuries. “Our intention is to prevent upper body injuries. But, I cannot give a statistic on reduction in number of those injuries, until it is tested on the ground,” he said. “It can prevent, but not eliminate.”
It is clear that the security forces in Kashmir are committed to using pellet guns as a means of crowd control. “During protests, we face extraordinary circumstances. We have to use a strong weapon,” Yadav said. “According to the Standard Operating Procedure”—the guidelines established by the CRPF for the use of pellet guns—“if lathis and tear-gas fail, we can even use bullets. But, we are not using them. We are using the least lethal alternative, and it has been the most effective.”
I asked Yadav about Amnesty International’s report and its indictment of pellet guns. “We don’t bother about organisations like Amnesty,” he said. “Twelve hundred of our jawans were injured in last year’s unrest, they didn’t raise a voice about that.” I spoke to a CRPF official, who asked not to be named, about the use of softer materials. “In most cases, the stone-pelters are not even scared of the metal pellets. If the pellets are softer, they will be completely useless,” the official said.
Doctors in Kashmir who have treated pellet injuries continue to be concerned about the use of pellet guns. “Pellets enter the body at a high velocity, and continue to rotate inside due to the momentum. They damage everything in their path; retinas, eye balls, intestines,” said a doctor at a prominent hospital in Srinagar, who asked not to be named. Dr S Natarajan, a Mumbai-based ophthalmologist who has flown to Srinagar several times since July 2016 to treat eye injuries, said that the extent of damage to the eyes depends on various factors, such as the “velocity of the pellet, distance fired from and angle of entry into the eye.” “In some cases, patients regain vision but they can only see light. That is not useful vision,” Natarajan added. “The victims will carry the scars of these injuries for the rest of their lives,” the Srinagar-based doctor said. “If the only alternative is a bullet, then it certain cases the bullet might be better than the pellet—end it once and for all.”
“The government would not have authorised a multi-fold increase, if it did not intend to use them. They want to rule with an iron fist,” Parvez said. According to him, the increase in the number of pellet guns also indicates that “the Indian government doesn’t want to engage with Kashmiris politically. It continues to prefer weapons.” “This move also reflects the fear of the government. They do not trust their own ability to engage politically with the people of Kashmir,” he added.
For Mushtaq’s family, the increase in the number of pellet guns quashes whatever little hope they had that the government would acknowledge the hardship and pain they are suffering. “For us, the pellet gun has come to define oppression,” Mushtaq’s mother Sabina told me over the phone in March 2017, from Hyderabad, where Mushtaq had undergone his fourth surgery. “More pellet guns mean more oppression,” she added.