Dangerous Tactics

Introduced in the summer of 2010 as a ‘non-lethal’ crowd control measure, pepper gas and chilly grenades were touted to restrain protests without causing any casualties. In absence of any proper guidelines, the indiscriminate use of these weapons has claimed four lives so far, besides causing grave inconvenience to public at large, Wasim Khalid reports.

CRPF personnel playing ding dong  battles with protesters  using stones in old Srinagar city.
CRPF personnel playing ding dong battles with protesters using stones in old Srinagar city.

Hajra Begum, 60, was the third victim who allegedly died after inhaling obnoxious fumes of pepper balls and chilly grenades used by Jammu and Kashmir police and paramilitary forces to curb protests in the old Srinagar city.

Begum, a resident of Aali Kadal, was shifted to SMHS hospital after she complained of breathlessness at home on March 8. She expired while on her way to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital said that she had suffered an asthma attack following a blast of chilly grenades and pepper balls.

“The patient was suffering from chronic obstructive airway disease,” read the hospital prescription. The doctors said the pepper gas complicated the patient’s problem by inducing breathlessness which ultimately led to her death.

Other than Hajra begum, two more persons, Muhammad Yusuf Sofi, 40 and Abdul Rashid Sheikh, both residents of Srinagar, have died reportedly after inhaling the toxic pepper fumes. A pregnant woman, Yasmeena, in Srinagar who had developed complications due to exposure to pepper gas had to abort her five-month-old baby after meeting an accident when she was being shifted to a safer place from her home.

The main cause of deaths and health hazards caused by the pepper and chilly gas are attributed to its indiscriminate use. The police and paramilitary CRPF in Kashmir excessively use this as a weapon to counter unarmed protesters, particularly in down-town areas of Srinagar city. The victims complain that far from impacting the protesters, the harmful gas is taking a toll on the inhabitants, irrespective of age or gender.

In effect, the toxic gases are inflammatory agents. They cause immediate closure of eyes, difficulty in breathing, running nose and cough. The duration of its effects depends on the strength of the gas but the average full effect lasts around 45 minutes, with diminished effects lasting for hours.

Speaking over the ill effects of pepper and chilly gas, a doctor working in the chest disease hospital said the gas can prove lethal for the patients with chest problems. The doctor who wished anonymity fearing reprisal from the authorities said the asthma patients too face increasing risk of breathlessness and in some extreme cases it can lead to their death. “Apart from this, the fumes can also lead to the temporary blindness,” he said.

More than 60 patients have been treated at different tertiary hospitals of Srinagar who fell ill following the intake of these toxic gases in recent protests.

Introduced in mid-summer of 2010 as a crowd control measure, the “non-lethal pepper gas guns” and chilly grenades were specifically used to decrease the number of casualties. The protests in 2010 claimed lives of more than 120 people, mostly youngsters, and left thousands others injured.

Two years down the line, the gas emitted by pepper balls and chilly grenades is proving lethal for protesters and causes grave inconvenience to the inhabitants living in the area where protests have erupted, not only claiming lives but also proving extremely hazardous for the health.

According to the Jammu Kashmir Police Headquarters, entrusted to purchase all kind of armory for the police, the force is not equipped with a single pepper gun. Instead, the force claims to have procured chilly grenades from the Ministry of Defense at the height of summer uprising of 2010.

A senior police official, who was part of the purchase, said a private company approached the state force in 2010 uprising to buy the pepper guns. However, the deal could not be hammered out due to high prices which were ‘unaffordable’ for the government.

“They offered us a single pepper gun at a price of Rs 10 lakh,” the police official said. “It was a too big a price for the state government to afford it. Hence we shelved the idea”.

The J&K police say the private arms company had sold the pepper guns to CRPF in 2010 before approaching them. The union home ministry had purchased it for the paramilitary and dispatched it to Kashmir at the height of unrest.

“Later we approached to Ministry of Defense’s Defense Research Development Organization and asked them to provide us with the latest non-lethal technology available to control the crowds,” the official said, adding, “They offered us oleoresin grenades or chilly grenades. They told us that this technology was very effective as a crowd control weapon.”

The official said the state government had purchased 6000 chilly grenades from DRDO at the cost of Rs 1100 each in 2012 and 2013. The plastic encased grenade contains 25 percent capsicum and tear gas each and the rest are other combined chemical compositions.

“It is hurled with the aid of hand and its impact of fumes remains for half an hour,” the official said, adding, “The technology is such that it leads to throat irritation and induces tears in the eyes. If you use water on your eyes to make it ineffective, it would produce more burning sensations. Or if somebody throws the grenade back with wet cloth like people do with tear gas canisters, its impact would be more irritations and burning sensation on skin.”

Keeping its effectiveness in mind, the J&K police had approached DRDO for guns to fire chilly grenades from a distance. But the organization told them they are yet develop a gun which could be used to fire the grenades.

The Jammu and Kashmir police, however, maintains that there are no harmful effects of such grenades and the DRDO has certified this to them. On the other hand, the pepper guns actually fires pepper balls with the aid of gun. Once fired, the balls explode to emit spicy pepper fumes.

There is hardly any difference in the composition of pepper balls and chilly grenades. Ingredients of the gas are actually the same as used in chilly grenades – Oleoresin Capsicum gas, a lachrymatory agent. The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, which is a chemical derived from the fruit of plants in the Capsicum genus, including chilies. The CRPF officials were not available for the comment.

Owing to its hazardous implications on human health, two lawyers filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Jammu and Kashmir High Court on March 12, 2013, seeking a ban on the use of pepper gas by police while dealing with protests in Kashmir. The matter is still lying with the court. The Amnesty International on Thursday also asked the Jammu and Kashmir government to suspend the use of pepper gas pending ‘rigorous investigations’ on its harmful impacts.

Terming the use of obnoxious gases as a ”chemical warfare”, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences, Prof Geer M Ishaq told Kashmir life that its usage should be stopped with immediate effect. “This collective punishment is an open war crime and people need to be made answerable for this menacing act. Innumerable civilians are either dying or suffering immensely due to this shameless use of force. This obnoxious pepper gas that sneaks into every nook and corner of a locality and leaves all and sundry gasping for breath,” Ishaq said.

He appealed the government to stop suffocating Kashmiris by the use of pepper gas. Ishaq also said the pepper spray stands banned for use in war by Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention which bans the use of all riot control agents in warfare, whether lethal or less-than-lethal. Over 70 countries ban use of tear gas and pepper spray as part of mob controlling tactics.

Concerned over the deleterious effect of pepper gas, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) too has served notices to state home ministry and senior police officials to restrain from excessive use of pepper guns against protesters in civilian population in Kashmir 2011. The police and paramilitary forces were instructed to explore other options to maintain the law and order.

The Police Chief of the State furnished the report on January 18, 2012 wherein he ruled out the harmful effect of excessive use of pepper gas and didn’t deal with the allegations in respect of harmful effect of pepper gas.

“After considering the fresh material placed on record, statutory duties is cast on the Commission to protect, safeguard life, liberty and dignity of the citizens of the state and cannot be mute spectator. State is duty bound under constitution and law to protect the lives of the citizens and in no case are at liberty or have license to adopt such measures which would endanger the health of its subjects in the name of maintaining law and order,” SHRC member Rafiq Fida observed in the order.

However, despite the SHRC order to refrain from using pepper gas, this weapon is still being widely used by police and forces. “The police are giving collective punishment to the inhabitants of the down town by firing these chilly gases,” Rehman Misgar, a 38 year old jeweler from Safakadal told Kashmir Life.

“The moment it is fired, it disperses into every nook and corner of the localities. It causes sneeze, cough, and dry throat. It worsens the complicacies in the aged with known chest diseases. The infants too start coughing. I had to take my newly-born son thrice to doctors after he started coughing due to intake of this poisonous gas.”

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