A young mother who went searching for her minor son at the peak of 2016 unrest was hit by a cartridge of pellets blinding her instantly. Instead of extending support, her husband with whom she had a strained relationship chose to divorce her reports Faisal Ahmed Fazeel
September 9, 2016, at the peak of the unrest triggered by the killing of militant Burhan Wani, Shakeela Bano, 35, was busy in daily chores when she heard a noise outside her brother’s residence in Fatehgarh in Baramulla district. Due to her strained relationship with her husband, Shakeela had been living with her ailing mother and brother.
Shakeela was in kitchen washing utensils. As the tumult of slogans and tear gas shells surrounded her ears, she felt anxious about her 5-year-old son, Faheem. He was playing out in the sun. Mother’s instinct evoked. She panicked and rushed, leaving the vessels uncleaned in the sink. “I left home in search of my son,” Shakeela said.
In her search, she paced quickly. Little did Shakeela realise that the run for her son would end up making her own life miserable. At some distance, a CRPF man emerged in front of her. Police and the paramilitary had intruded the alley of Fatehgarh to chase away the protesters pelting stones.
In the melee, the gunmen targeted a cartridge filled with pellets at her. “He was mere twenty-five metres away from me,” recalls Shakeela.
The pellets cartridge hit Shakeela’s forehead and then busted pellets on her skull, eyes and face. It even penetrated inside her mouth hitting the teeth and tongue. “Two in the left eye and three pellets in the right eye,” she testified. Her scream lasted for a few minutes; then she soon collapsed and fainted.
In the wake of summer 2010 unrest, the streets of Kashmir were full of protests. Intense protest and anti-India demonstrations aroused. That year, to pacify the protest, the law and order machinery used tear smoke, live ammunition and rubber bullets. As the allegations over “disproportionate use of force” dominated the debate, the authorities by the fall of the year introduced a “non-lethal” effective tool called “Pellet Guns”. These are shotguns used for hunting. These “non-lethal” guns fire a cartridge that holds around 500 little iron-lead balls in it. When it’s shot, the pellets scatter in the air, hitting anyone in the range. A single shot fired explodes into innumerable pellets and penetrates the body at several places like abdomen, eyes, intestine, legs, back, or head.
In the fray, action and retaliation are known and familiar. But the consequences faced are exclusive. Shakeela gained her conscience at Baramulla District hospital. Everything seemed dark for her. She wanted to see her son but couldn’t. The pellets had blinded her.
Shakeela was shifted to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar where she underwent surgery. Her eyes demanded special treatment. Shakeela’s brother accompanied her to Amritsar in Punjab. There, doctors operated three more surgeries but failed to restore her vision. “It cost us around Rs 8 lakhs for surgeries and treatment. My brother sold a piece of land to bear my expenses,” she said.
Shakeela was blinded and disabled. The critical condition was conveyed to her husband. The hope was that the person will respond and help her manage the crisis she was in. “He responded saying he wants a divorce, instead,” said Shakeela.
Shakeela decided to fight it all alone. Nature was kind to her. Gradually, the vision recovered. “Now I’ve regained thirty per cent of the vision in my left eye. The other eye is completely blinded,” said Shakeela.
Prior to getting hit by the pellets, Shakeela used to be a carpet weaver. Due to the injury, she is incapacitated and unable to work. The embedded pellets in her eyes deprived her of even entering the kitchen. “I can’t cook anymore. Oil and chilly hurt my eyes,” Shakeela said. Daily chores have been hard labour.
Pellets have made her a liability on her brother. Shakeela’s brother bears all the expenses of Shakeela and Faheem’s school fees. “I stay at my brother’s place; I fail to attend most basic household chores, not even sweeping I can attend to,” she insisted.
Pellets are obstructing her from doing basic chores. She faces difficulty in walking on the streets during low light. Everything looks blurred before her eyes. “I can’t dial accurate phone number nor attend basic household stuff.” The surgeries have severely affected her memories.
But Shakeela’s most painful moment is her interactions with her son, Faheem. “Initially Faheem would fear to come to me. He failed to recognize my bandaged face”. Faheem has caught on to the idea that his mother is blinded. “Who blinded you mummy?” he asks Shakeela. There is no answer that Shakeela can satisfy the child’s curiosity. “I get depressed when I think about me and my son’s future,” said Shakeela.
Shakeela has suffered not only in terms of her health and finance, but she also faced severe distress in her personal life. The scars of her pain and suffering will “pass down generations” in her family.
The pellets were introduced for dispersing crowds. The security grid claimed it as non-lethal. But they turned out to be deadlier, resulting in global human rights watchdogs reacting sharply to it.
Experts insist the shot-guns can be non-lethal if they are fired from a distance but their use from closer distances have led to a lot of blindings across Kashmir. Even some deaths were also attributed to the pellet use.
Now, the Home Ministry has started hunting an alternative to the shot-guns. Reports appearing in a Mumbai based newspaper DNA suggest the MHA is seriously considering using sound cannons, known as Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD). Basically, communication systems, these get converted into a weapon to control mobs and protests.
The newspaper, quoting an “internal note”, said the government is keen to manufacture LRADs within India and the equipment output would be kept under the threshold to prevent damage to the human ear. The weapon will be commissioned only after the medical agencies give it a certificate.
(A student of Manipal University in Karnataka, Faisal Ahmed Fazeel is an intern with Kashmir Life.)