Mass Blindings in Kashmir: The Horrors of Pellet Guns

On a festive Eid day celebration, Junaid was walking back to his car after offering obligatory prayers. It was then that the Indian military police decided to launch an assault. With a loud bang, the Indian forces started shelling the prayer goers with tear gas canisters. One after the other, the shells rained like balls of fire. As the smoke engulfed him, Junaid couldn’t see where he was going. Blinded by the smoke, Junaid hit a road divider and fell to the ground.

“I had lost my sense of direction. I got up and started walking with my hands extended to look for anything I could hold. My eyes were burning with pepper smoke. Then I heard another loud bang, and I felt excruciating pain all over my face. I could feel warm blood running down my neck, and everything went dark for me,” Junaid says, sitting in his home in the Hawal area of Srinagar. Junaid is now completely disabled.

The pellets fired by Indian forces had hit both his eyes, rupturing his eyelids, entering his eye, and damaging the cornea.

Pellet shotguns, an allegedly non-lethal form of crowd-control used by India in Kashmir, are banned worldwide. Used originally for hunting birds, the guns have since been banned as they cause too much damage to animals. However, in Kashmir, they are used on humans. Each cartridge fired by a pellet gun releases 360 metal splinters laced with lead and spreads over a wide area.

“They fired at me from close range. Almost the entire cartridge of 360 pellets entered my body. I have around 80 pellets just inside my face,” Junaid says, as he continuously moves his leg in a clear sign of anxiety.

Over six years have passed since Junaid was blinded in both eyes. Doctors say that it is beyond repair now. “He is completely blinded in his right eye and has lost 70% of the vision in his left eye. There is not enough data to study the long-term effects of these lead pellets inside the human body, but the mental and psychological impact on victims is the harshest on the patient, they feel they have been rendered useless and are a burden on their family,” Junaid’s doctor tells us inside the ophthalmology ward of SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. This ward has functioned as a war hospital with rows of ambulances ferrying patient after patient over the years, in what Amnesty International has called the world’s first ‘enforced mass blinding’.

As per Amnesty’s report on the impact of these pellet shotguns during the 2016 civil uprising, most of the injured civilians, including children, had eye injuries due to the pellet shotgun used by the Indian forces. “People injured by pellet-firing shotguns have faced serious physical and mental health issues, including symptoms of psychological trauma. School and university students who were hit in the eyes said they continue to have learning difficulties. Several victims who were the primary breadwinners for their families fear they will no longer be able to work. Many have not regained their eyesight despite repeated surgeries,” the report mentioned.

Like Junaid, there are thousands of pellet gun victims at the hands of Indian occupational forces. New research published in The Indian Journal of Ophthalmology revealed that 80% of pellet victims in Kashmir have lost part or all of their vision. The research paper on 777 eye operations during this period shows that 80% of victims have vision limited to just “counting fingers.” One of the paper’s leading authors and a retina surgeon from Mumbai, Dr. S Natrajan, said in a report, “…the sad reality is that the visual prognosis of the patients remained poor.”

In 2010, those wielding political power in Kashmir, acting as the Indian State’s proxies, gifted Kashmir this menace. Omar Abdullah, the then chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, made an inhumane decision leading to introducing these so-called “non-lethal firearms” in occupied Kashmir, replacing live ammunition. An extra-judicial killing by Indian soldiers sparked months of unrest in the valley, and Indian forces responded by shooting people outrightly. Following the killing of 120 civilians, pellet guns were introduced as an alternative. However, they did not prove to be any less dangerous.

Per the official response to the right to information (RTI) application filed in 2013 by lawyer Abdul Manan Bukhari, 91 patients with pellet gun injuries were admitted to the hospital between March 2010 and October 2013. The Department of Ophthalmology admitted 36 of the 91 patients, and many pellet-injured persons had “no prospect of restoring their sight.”

The official procedure of using the pellet gun warrants’ targeting a protester below the waist. Aiming towards the eye is a deliberate move to maim, blind, and kill.

From 2010 to 2011, 100 persons with pellet injuries were admitted to Soura medical institute alone. In the following year, 18 persons were brought to the hospital for treatment of pellet injuries.

According to statistics revealed by data journalism experts, analysis of MHA data, and Srinagar hospital records, in 2016, Kashmir faced 13 killings due to pellets, 868 eye injuries, and 1,994 pellet injuries on other body parts.

“These numbers are very unreliable,” states a human rights activist who has chosen to remain anonymous. Inside his office in Srinagar, which now lies defunct after repeated raids by Indian agents, lie papers documenting how India has used a policy of denial to avoid accountability.

“The heads of these hospitals, especially the surgery and emergency departments, are often given these positions as a ‘reward’ for their loyalty to the Indian State. These are state collaborators who distort the actual figures. In one instance, after Indian forces opened fire on protestors, seven dead bodies were brought to the hospital. The hospital authorities declared two people dead and misidentified and five as ‘injured.’ Over the next two weeks, as the media glare had shifted, the hospital declared that the others had died of injuries. Yet, that announcement hardly received any coverage, and this was their strategy. Therefore, these numbers that we receive from official sources cannot be relied upon,” the activist says.

Over the years, pellet guns have repeatedly caused damage. According to Amnesty International, over 6,000 civilians were injured by pellet guns in the seven months following militant commander Burhan Wani’s killing, with 782 suffering eye damage. Data from the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons revealed that “over 80 civilians were killed, and pellet guns partially or completely blinded 352 civilians.”

In the next three years, there were five pellet killings, four in 2017 and one in 2019. India has repeatedly justified its action by saying it has only targeted protesters and fires to control crowds.

Ravi Nair, director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, writes, “stone-throwing does not give police the right to shoot at protesters indiscriminately. Deadly force should only be used when it is unavoidable and proportionate to the crowd’s actions. Proportionality, necessity, and calibration are key principles governing the use of force within national and international law.”

While protesting is a right guaranteed by international law, even those inside their homes have been attacked. Victims as young as two-years-old such as Hiba Nazir became visually impaired when Indian forces fired pellets inside her house where she was playing.

International law is routinely ridiculed and trampled upon by India in occupied Kashmir. There are records of pellet victims being denied healthcare, with police and paramilitary forces attacking hospitals, dragging pellet victims out of ambulances, and assaulting them repeatedly on the roads.

Shafiq, a victim of these pellet guns, recalls how he was denied medical aid in one of the alleys of downtown Srinagar. “We were hit by pellets while coming back from Jamia Masjid (Mosque) one Friday in 2017. Two of us were hit, me and my friend Umar. I was hit in the back, but he was hit in the face, so we rushed him to the hospital. On the way to Soura medical institute, Indian forces stopped our ambulance and dragged us out. We were assaulted once again. Umar was later operated upon for his pellet injury to the eye and the broken arm he suffered from the beating on that day,” Shafiq says.

Even though Shafiq was injured, he did not tell the hospital authorities about his injuries. “They have police agents at the hospital who act as informers for the colonial government. Umar was booked under bogus charges because of these agents, they accused him of throwing stones, and he was kept in jail for seven months. sexual violence was part of the torture that he suffered at the hands of the Indian agents. “I did not report to the hospital staff about my pellet injuries and instead went to see a friend who was studying nursing and he took out pellets from my back with crude tools used in his labs. A lot of other victims also did the same and chose not to go to the hospital,” Shafiq adds.

The weapon has been indiscriminately used by Indian forces on civilians demanding the right to self-determination and against children while playing inside their homes.

In August 2020, Indian occupational forces fired pellet shots on a peaceful Muharram (religious) procession, injuring over forty people. After the attack on religious processions, Human Rights Watch condemned the use of pellet guns by Indian authorities stating, “Indian authorities need to recognize that this weapon fired into crowds, even with violent demonstrators, will invariably cause indiscriminate and excessive injury in violation of international standards.”

Numerous appeals have been made to the colonial Indian government to reconsider its decision on the use of pellet guns in occupied Kashmir, but India continues to indulge in this inhumane behavior and pointed out “the physical, emotional, and socio-economic burden on society and the patients (mainly males aged 20 to 29) due to poor vision, high medical care costs, and long-term rehabilitation caused by pellet gun use.”

Amnesty International has called for a ban on the use of pellet guns, stating that “pellet guns are inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate, and have no place in law enforcement.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has called the weapon lethal, stating that “hooting metal pellets is one of the most lethal weapons used in Kashmir.” It has demanded that its use for crowd control be prohibited immediately.

(Names and indicators that might identify an individual have been changed due to risk to life and property of the victims.)

Image credits: Anadolu Agency