Blinding SOP

Amid piling load of pellet-blinds in valley’s another seething summer, Kashmir threatens to become a miserable home of dark lives. As eye assault continues unabated, Bilal Handoo reports evolution of hunter guns as Kashmir’s main vision-crippler


It may sound outrageous, but they disturbingly walk like zombies. Many of them slouch on beds with one bandaged eye, staring at a lifeless wall like a stone. Some are waiting for their turn in nearby doctor’s room, for another dressing session — all bandaged, all unspoken, and probably, all blinded now. Many are restlessly tossing, turning on beds — perhaps craving for that ray of light abruptly gone off. A few of them scream their heart out, maybe unable to make ‘peace’ with the enforced darkness.

Attending these boys, ophthalmologists at Srinagar’s SMHS hospital say they have never treated such an overwhelming rush of pellet-hit cases in their careers. “Treating pellet injuries is nothing new for us,” says one lady doctor, “we handled such crisis since 2010. But assault is clearly on the pattern of war-abuses this time around. Our study and research tell us that even Israel doesn’t go for such a vicious eye assault against disgruntling Palestinians.”

Amid this anguish expressed by doctors on duty, youngsters perforated with myriad metal pellets keep the hospital busy. Apparently punished for being part of ongoing protests triggered after young rebel Burhan Wani’s killing in Kokernag on July 08, these patients suffer from damage in their soft-eye tissues and vessels. Behind the frightening footfalls of such patients is pellet gun’s unspecified, indiscriminate target: protesters, bystanders, women, kids, elders.

Far away from the hospital, one senior rank police officer admits that “mishandling” and equally “misuse” of pellet guns have made the ongoing protests challenging for police to tackle. “The way pellets are being used to blind protesters only shows how amateurs are calling shots at the moment,” the cop says. The “non-lethal” firearm can turn lethal in untrained hands, he says. “Pellets should be fired from at least a distance of 500 feet and should be aimed below the waist. It is fatal if fired from closer than 60 feet.”

Upon firing, a single pellet gun cartridge breaks into 600 small lead pellets that can penetrate any bodily tissue including eyes or even skull. When last checked, the paramilitary had already finished firing over 6000 pellet cartridges since July 09 to “disperse” protesters across Kashmir. Amid rampant “bare metal” pellet abuse, the police say, the SOP prepared by Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) is silent over pellet procedure. In other words, the police meant, pellet usage is unruly in valley.

This ‘unruly’ reality was recently noticed by India’s leading retina surgeon Dr S Natrajan who performed 46 surgeries in Srinagar’s SMHS hospital in three days. While terming the situation “disastrous”, the Padma awardee doctor with service experience in several global conflict zones said he had never seen a situation where “so many people are liable to lose their eyesight”. Dr Natrajan has told his host doctors that he will flying for many days every month for some time to treat and document these cases as part of his new research.

Back home, the nature and amount of eye injuries has now made many doctors to pitch for a new demand. “While government is considering AIIMS for Kashmir,” says a senior eye-specialist, “it should also consider constructing eye-speciality hospital in valley keeping regular pellet assaults in view.” The hospital will give respite to parents of the injured who have to move out for super-speciality treatment. Already the government has flown five cases to AIIMS.

With government spokesperson saying that the government has to continue with this “necessary evil” till finding a “new” non-lethal alternative, many have started invoking the ‘fiery’ Mehbooba at forefront of pellet protests in past. Last time as an opposition leader, she staged a walkout from House in protest against Omar government’s “brute pellet gun policy to render Kashmiri youth without eyesight”. Now apparently playing Omar of 2010, Mehbooba doesn’t seem to get it right despite Home Minister Rajnath Singh vowing to find pellet alternatives.

Being the major pellet using force of valley, CRPF has already made it clear that they aren’t disbanding pellet firearm—although they feel “sorry” for “blindings” in pellet firing. However, before pellets would create blinds, the Kashmir had passed through terrible times with limited crowd-control arsenal.

Celebrities with photoshopped pelleted faces.
Celebrities with photoshopped pelleted faces, an online campaign by a Pakistani artist.

In early nineties as guns against Delhi’s rule began rattling in Kashmir, the only weapon possessed by cops as an apparent crowd-control was baton before weapon became indispensible part of policing. “Till 2008,” says a senior cop, “we hardly had any crowd-controlling weapons other then lethal firearms. That year as guns triggered civilian casualties amid Amarnath land row, the home department flew two planeloads of riot gears from North East to revamp its street management.”

Two years later, as civilian casualties rose again in Kashmir between June and August 2010, Omar government equipped police and paramilitary CRPF with pellet guns—previously known as hunter guns. The idea was to introduce “non-lethal” weapons to confront street ire. But pellet guns ended up taking many lives. Till 2014, the recorded data suggests, Kashmir’s two major hospitals had treated 165 pellet-hit persons. Among them, a dozen were left blinded by pellets, forever.

That summer, a teenage rag-picker from Pattan, Sajad Darzi became one of the first victims of newly introduced pellet gun. Despite his mother raising funds for his treatment through street begging, Sajad passed away, two years later, in pain, penury and poignancy. Sajad who dreamt to become an engineer had pellets embedded deep in his body, causing bone tumour, hand amputation and finally his pulmonary choking.

A month after pellet hit Sajad, a handsome boy from old town Baramulla was left blinded by pellets forever. The teenager Amir Kabir was nursing dream to work for National Geography before he was ‘pelleted’ in September 2010 when he was out to buy medicines for his ailing mother. Despite shelling out all savings and selling all belongings, his parents couldn’t restore his vision. And since then, Amir—now 23-year-old man—remains confined within four walls. Despite his blindness, when his fiancé decided to marry him, his became a stirring story — making many believe: “love is indeed blind”!

But if Omar gave Kashmir a dozen of Amir Kabir—the poster boy of pellet terror in Kashmir—over the period of his six years as J&K’s top executive, then his detractor Mehbooba has already piled up a platoon of them within months of her rule.

Five year old boy, Nasir Altaf, was hit byb pellets in Kokernag area on Friday. (KL Image courtesy: Umar Ganie)
Five year old boy, Nasir Altaf, was hit byb pellets in Kokernag area on Friday. (KL Image courtesy: Umar Ganie)

Inside ward no.7 of SMHS hospital, a sightless Shahnawaz is behaving like a restless eel. He was ‘just married’. Admitted a few days ago in an emergency condition, this wazwaan chef was coming out of Jamia Masjid Shopian on June 22 after offering nimaz when forces fired pellet at him.

The assault reduced eyesight of this 25-year-old man to mere 15 percent. Being an elder, he was taking care of his family by doing odd jobs including as chef in Kashmiri weddings. But now for this 3-month-old bridegroom, the life has come to a standstill. “Just look at him. Look, how they have reduced him to a living corpse,” says his cousin, his attendant. “How can he live now?”

Perhaps atrocities like these make many to conclude that pellet-blinding isn’t even “Zionist tactics” being employed to control Palestine.

In his Palestine diary written on Oct 11, 2010, the ace Kashmiri editor Iftikhar Gilani recalls his interaction with legal advisor of Israeli prime minister and its defence forces, David Risner during his Tel Aviv visit.

“He (Risner) almost taunted India for using lethal force against unarmed civilians in Kashmir,” Gilani writes. “Firing directly at unarmed stone throwers is spiteful and should be avoided at all costs… We developed new systems to meet the new threat… We use a device that emits penetrating bursts of sound that leaves targets reeling with dizziness and nausea,” Gilani quoting Risner writes. Gilani was further told that the Israeli forces have been advised to identify instigators and fire only on their feet unlike in Kashmir.

“One of Israel’s top strategists Prof Eyal Zisser lamented,” Gilani writes, “that ‘more people are getting killed in Kashmir and world does not attend to it’.”

But now, with global watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International calling for pellet ban in Kashmir, Delhi constituted a team headed by a joint secretary to explore alternatives to pellet guns. But a security expert has already alarmed the valley with his assertion: Pellets are only being used in Kashmir as crowd-controlling firearm.

“In 2010,” says a senior cop, “J&K police even had a plan to use Tasers [a “non-lethal” weapon used to stun people by electro-shock pulses], but its use was shelved off for some unknown reasons.”

Now, says Dr Zameer Ali, an Orthopaedic surgeon, government should understand that it hasn’t been able to contain protesters by using these so-called “non-lethal pellet” guns since 2010. “The use of pellet gun should not be encouraged and some other measure should be sought for controlling agitated protesters in order to prevent an epidemic of fatal injuries.”

Artist Masood Hussain's pellet portrayal.
Artist Masood Hussain’s pellet portrayal.

But as pellet continues to blind Kashmiris, SMHS hospital remains a desperate fire-fighting theatre.

In its Ophthalmology ward No 8, all eyes are stunned to see a young man, crying: “Mouji, dagh hai cham…” (Mother, I am in pain). Rising up and down from his bed in pain, his relentless cries make air even more mournful. His sole attendant identifies him the man from Kulgam hit by a pellet on his left eye. With pellet pain touching his raw nerve, the ‘mission blind’ seems unabated across valley.

Meanwhile, another pellet-hit teen has arrived. Unlike others, he has been rendered completely sightless in a vicious pellet attack at Kupwara. His family background makes it absolutely clear that it is the ‘haunting comeback’ of another Amir Kabir — only in different time, in different space.

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