Pellet guns are generally used to defend land or property from wild animals of all shapes and sizes, from rabbits to deer. When shot, hundreds of small lead projectiles are launched at high speed toward the target, causing hundreds of tiny wounds, enough to send the animal running.
The same deterrent technology has been introduced since 2010 in the state of Kashmir, alongside batons and tear gas. This combination of crowd control measures, judged “non-lethal,” has been used by the Jammu Kashmir police force and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF, the Indian federal police, with a massive presence all around Kashmir on orders from New Delhi) to disperse protests against what the majority of Kashmiris consider a military occupation, as well as separatist gatherings.
This is the official version of the authorities, anyway. They claim to be scrupulous in limiting the use of pellet guns exclusively to street situations where popular protests include throwing rocks at the police, a custom which can be seen, for example, every Friday afternoon on the avenues in front of the Jama Masjid of Srinagar, the largest mosque in the state, after the religious-political sermon by the Kashmiri imam and separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
On July 8, 2016, when the Indian Army killed the young Burhan Wani, 22, leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen separatist group and considered a hero by an entire generation of young Kashmiris, hundreds of protests erupted across the Kashmir Valley, signaling the start of a year of clashes between protesters and security forces that were among the worst in recent history. And it was since that date that the police and army began to use pellets extensively against protesters and bystanders, children who throw rocks, and whole families “safe” within their own homes.
This indiscriminate offensive, according to official data, has led to 15 dead and several thousands injured by pellet guns in just a few months. The latter have to live with tens or hundreds of small lead bullets in their bodies, in addition to post-traumatic stress disorders. Victims who were hit in the eyes represent a dramatic case all on their own.
According to the rules of engagement of the police forces in Kashmir, pellet rounds should only be fired “below the belt,” avoiding damage to the upper part of the body. This indication is systematically ignored by agents in the field, and this has caused thousands of cases of partial or total blindness.
On Aug. 28, 2016, Bilal, 16 years old, was hit by a volley of pellets. One of them perforated his retina, reducing the visibility in his left eye to 30 percent. With that eye, he can see only shadows. Interviewed by il manifesto at his home in Srinagar, his family said: “He was shot from a distance of 10 meters and, together with two other injured friends, was taken to the hospital. The authorities forbade us to visit him for eight days and have not given us his X-ray plates or results. They said it was ‘confidential material.’”
After a first operation at the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar, Bilal was subjected to four other surgeries, all failed. The projectile will remain in his skull, past his damaged retina, and Bilal will never get his sight back.
Fatima, the second of three sisters, told me: “On 10 July 2016, the situation was very tense. My older sister was sick and we had to take her to the hospital. As we walked out, together with our uncle, a police bus stopped in front of the house. Three men got out, and when we protested, telling them to let us pass. They shot at us from close range. Fortunately, my uncle managed to close the gate almost immediately.”
At this point, the uncle raised his pant legs and unbuttoned his shirt, showing dozens of small black growths under his skin. These are the pellets, and his latest medical certificate shows he has almost 250 in his body. His oldest niece, 22 years old, got away with just 30. The smallest, 5 years old, shows us one above her forehead. In her body, legs and abdomen, she has five more.
“In the first days after July 8, 2016, every day we got between 50 and 60 patients injured in the eyes by pellet guns; before then, I counted 50 or 60 per year,” says Rashid Maqbool, an ophthalmologist working at the time for the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar, now employed at a private facility. “The hospital management gave clear orders: Don’t issue medical certificates, and don’t talk to reporters. They did not want the details of what was happening to be made public. The more they insisted on this, the more I did just the opposite, and in the end they made me leave.”
Maqbool said there are at least 1,200 patients who have lost their sight, partially or completely, because of pellet guns. And a contributing factor was that the doctors on duty were faced with an emergency they had never encountered before. “We did not have the tools or training to cope with a flood of similar injuries, and there are no clear indications about how to handle an eye injury caused by a lead pellet. Besides closing the wounds and trying to remove the pellet when possible, we didn’t know what else to do.”
Despite the official protests lodged against the government in New Delhi and the appeals from organizations such as Amnesty International for the abolition of the use of pellet guns in Kashmir, these “non-lethal bullets” are still in use throughout the state. “Kashmir is the only Indian state that approves firing pellet guns into a crowd. And it is the only place in the world where they are fired at any height, indiscriminately,” Maqbool said.
Despite the thousands wounded across the state and the hundreds of Kashmiris sentenced to partial or total blindness, at the moment no police officer is under investigation for the misuse of pellet guns against men, women and children — an outrageous impunity that only exacerbates the conflict between the Kashmiri population and the Indian state they consider “an invader.”
Maqbool, summing up the sentiment expressed by the dozens of Kashmiris that il manifesto spoke to in the past week, concluded: “Every single Kashmiri hates India with every fiber of their being. And not because of ideology, but because of what they did to us, and what they are still doing here in our land.”