Despite home minister Rajnath Singh’s assurances that pellet guns aren’t being used often by the security forces, doctors and civil organisations say otherwise.
Srinagar: “I have nightmares of pellets being shot at me. I long for peaceful sleep.”
“Watching cartoons on TV, playing with my friends on the streets, reading books for hours – this is what I dream of now.”
“I had 92 pellets hit at my face. Who says pellets are not lethal? Ask us. Pellets killed our dreams and hopes. They bruised our souls. They made our lives hell.”
“I want to read and write but pellets have made it difficult.”
“I was at home when I was hit by hundreds of pellets, mostly on my face. They even went inside my mouth. I want the forces who fired the pellets to be punished but I know that the state doesn’t care. I have no faith in the system.”
These heart wrenching statements by five pellet-blinded persons, named among 88 victims by the Amnesty International (AI) in its latest report, gives an insight into the dark and bruised lives of Kashmir’s pellet victims.
On Wednesday, September 13, the international rights body released the report Losing Sight in Kashmir: The Impact of Pellet-Firing Shotguns at a function in Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar. At the event, many victims talked about the pain and the suffering they go through in their daily lives.
‘Losing sight in Kashmir’
Filled with black and white photographs of blinded pellet victims, the 109-page report has of one of the first victims, 15-year old Insha Mushtaq, a class 9 student from Shopian district of South Kashmir, on its cover. Shopian was the epicentre of the 2016 summer uprising.
Insha – who lost sight in both eyes – had opened her street-facing kitchen window when she was pumped with hundreds of pellets by security forces.
After 14 months and six surgeries in Srinagar, New Delhi and Mumbai, young Insha’s world is still dark.
Zahoor Wani, senior campaigner at AI India, said they started work on the report this year with the help of some local NGOs. They found that children as young as nine, like Asif Ahmad Sheikh, and the elderly, like 65-year old Haseena Begum, had been blinded by pellets.
The report, which has more pictures and lesser text, is an “attempt to tell to the world that the dangerous, inaccurate and indiscriminate use of pellet guns have shattered lives” in the conflict-torn Valley.
Of the 88 people named in the report, 31 suffered injuries in both eyes, with two of them losing their vision completely, said Wani. He added that the inured included 14 women who were allegedly inside their homes and not part of any protest.
“One woman said she was making afternoon tea in her home when she was hit by the pellets fired by the forces from outside,” Wani said.
While compiling the report, the AI team also obtained data from the Kashmir health department, which revealed that 16 Jammu and Kashmir armed police personnel had been treated for pellet injuries in different parts of their body, including their eyes, between July 16 and 21 last year – days after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani triggered massive uprisings in the Valley.
Injuries to police personnel shows how ill-trained the force were to use the pellet guns, Wani said.
“When those who fire the pellets don’t know how to use them safely, we can only imagine the devastation this weapon can cause to the victims,” he explained.
‘Ban pellet guns, order impartial probe’
At the release function, the AI representatives called for an “immediate ban” on the use of pellet guns.
The international body demanded “prompt, independent and impartial civilian criminal investigation” into all incidents where pellet-firing led to deaths or serious injuries.
“The government must use legitimate force like water cannon or lathi charge or teargas against protestors. But this (pellet gun) weapon should be banned completely. This is our demand that this weapon which has been kept reserved for use against Kashmir should not be allowed to be used at all,” said Aakar Patel, executive director of AI India.
He drew attention towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech, where he said that problems in Kashmir can’t be resolved through “gali” (abuse) or “goli” (bullet), but only by embracing Kashmiris.
If the government “truly means this,” Patel said, it must then end the use of pellet-firing shotguns, which have caused “immense suffering” in Kashmir.
The pellet gun, which is used to hunt birds, was first introduced in Kashmir as a “non-lethal” weapon during the 2010 summer uprising in which over 120 civilians were killed in forces’ action.
Over the years, however, the injuries and the deaths caused by this “cruel weapon” bears testimony to how “dangerous, inaccurate and indiscriminate” it is, reads a statement released by the AI. It also said there was no proper way to use the pellet gun and it is “irresponsible of the authorities” to continue its use despite being aware of the damage they do.
Shailesh Rai, senior policy advisor at AI, said law enforcement agencies have the duty to maintain public order. But the use of pellet guns is not the solution, he stressed.
“When there is stone throwing the authorities should tackle it in less harmful way that allows for more control over the harm that is caused,” Rai said.
The use of pellet guns, Rai said, violates the international human rights standards on use of force. The weapon uses the cartridges containing around 500 small metallic pellets and once fired there is “no way to control their trajectory or direction and hence their effects become indiscriminate”.
Blinded… now facing trauma, depression
Among the pellet victims who were invited to the function were Shabroza Mir, Ifrah Shakoor, Nazir Ahmad Dar from Rahmoo in Pulwama district and Danish Rajab Bhat from Rainawari in Srinagar.
Recalling the tragedy, 18-year-old Mir said: “Our house is located on the main road. There were no protests in the village. Suddenly police and CRPF came in vehicles and started smashing the windowpanes of our houses and then they fired pellets.”
Five pellets had gone into her left eye, causing permanent blindness. “The injury forced me to drop out of the school as I can’t concentrate on a book for more than five minutes. I want to cry but I know I can’t as it will further damage my eye,” said Mir, who couldn’t appear for her class 10 examination last year because of the injury.
It is not only the physical injuries that the pellet victims – who have been forced to remain confined in the four walls of their houses – have to struggle with. They are developing signs of depression and anxiety, and loss of memory because of the continuous trauma.
“I don’t know why but I have become impatient and I often fight with my brother and other family members about small issues. I feel I am losing my memory also as I often forget things,” Mir shared with the audience.
The report makes a mention of these “serious health” issued faced by the pellet victims. “These (victims) face serious mental health issues including psychological trauma. Their lives have changed entirely and they are struggling to cope,” the report says. It says that they are likely to face the effects of these injuries for years to come.
Sixteen-year-old Shakoor said she prefers to remain alone at home and wants complete silence around her. “Nowadays I often have arguments with my family members as I want them to remain silent. I have broken so many cups and glasses in anger, but my parents understand me,” she said. She too had to drop out of school due to the injury.
School-going boys and girls in Kashmir have lost vision in one or both eyes and find it difficult to read, playing with their friends or watch television while college students have had to give up their dreams of pursuing higher education, the report says.
“Young men and primary breadwinners of families say they cannot earn a living anymore and that they are a liability for their families,” it says.
Beyond the report
The use of pellet guns by the state police and paramilitary forces continues in Kashmir particularly during civilian protests, although the numbers of those injured has fallen.
As per the records at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital, since July 2016, at least 1209 persons with pellet injuries in one or both eyes have been treated there.
Of these, 77 people have had both eyes “severely damaged” by the pellets while 21 persons have lost sight in one eye due to pellet injuries. Besides those blinded, the indiscriminate use of pellet guns led to the deaths of 16 people and caused injures for about 7000 others.
But Union home minister Rajnath Singh, who ended a four-day visit to Kashmir on September 12, said in Srinagar that the weapon was being used “very sparingly” by the security forces.
“Last year, we looked into the alternatives to pellet guns and introduced PAVA (grenades). Though it was not very effective, the pellet guns have been used less compared to earlier,” Singh told a press conference at Srinagar.
Despite Singh’s comment, a surgeon at SMHS hospital’s ophthalmology department said pellets continue to blind and maim people in Kashmir. He cited the example of 17-year old Ummar Fayaz of Guroo village from Pulwama district, who in August lost vision in both eyes after being hit by pellets fired on protesters who were trying to distract the government forces from an anti-militant operation.
“All those who were hit by pellets in their eyes have been rendered visually impaired. You can’t hide behind a jargon and talk about the percentage of vision lost. This doesn’t make a sense. Also the concern is the long term impact of the injury on a person who has been handicapped for entire life,” said the senior surgeon.