Lethal Mindsets

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After 64 deaths and more than 700 injured, the state is arming forces with ‘non-lethal’ weapons for managing protesting crowds. However, experts say the lethality of the weapon is directly related to the mindset of the person wielding it. Haroon Mirani reports.

As the women of Anchar Soura cry in horror and wail over the killing of Omar Qayoom, 17, it renders the debate over police using lethal or non-lethal weapons, useless. The former have caused many deaths and the latter being projected as a ‘humane’ weapon which won’t cause any more casualties.

For Omar, both kind of weapons did not matter. None of these was ever used on him. He did not receive any bullet, teargas or even the latest pellets. When Omar was arrested on August 20, 2010 the posse of police and CRPF men thrashed him right in front of his helpless relatives and neighbours.

Doctors at SKIMS termed the beating as violent. Not satisfied with kicking, punching, caning and trampling him, the men in uniform tossed Omar against a shutter. His relatives say, he was arrested in that condition and tortured further for the entire night.

On Saturday, August 21, he was released on bail. Back home, blood gushed out of Omar’s mouth and nose. He was rushed to hospital on August 23

Hospital sources said that none of Omar’s organs looked safe. Forty hours later Omar succumbed to his injuries taking the toll of Kashmir’s latest civil unrest to 64.

Omar’s is not an isolated case as many more have been killed without the use of any weapons – lethal or non-lethal. If Omar was killed after beatings for 24 hours, Sameer’s death took less than an hour.

On August 02, 2010, a posse of CRPF and police while chasing some protestors zeroed  in on 7-year-old Sameer Ahmad Rah at Batmalloo. Even if he was not part of any protest and was simply playing there, the troopers thrashed him mercilessly and according to eyewitnesses, forced a stick down his throat. The frail body of Sameer couldn’t endure anymore and he died within minutes. Sameer is the youngest victim of the 2010 civil unrest in Kashmir, which has already claimed more than 60 lives since June 11.

Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has joined the lethal vs non-lethal weapons debate as he laid emphasis on using non-lethal crowd control measures in Kashmir.

“We need to revisit standard operating procedures and crowd control measures to deal with public agitations with non-lethal, yet effective and focused measures,” the Prime Minister said while addressing the second-day session of the 45th conference of top cops at New Delhi. Stressing on the need to revisit crowd control measures, Dr Singh said, “Despite the curtailment of militant activities in Jammu and Kashmir, the public order dimension in the state has become a cause of serious concern…We need to train our police forces more effectively.”

Asking police officers not to use a single approach for every situation Singh said, “We cannot have an approach of one size fits all. For instance, I understand that instead of a single standard sequence for the use of force, other countries have put in place procedures that vary according to the specific needs in different situations.”

Ironically in Kashmir the single approach of use of force continues unabated. Every situation is dealt with a similar response – disproportionate use of force with surety of civilian causality.

Prof Sheikh Showkat, who teaches law at Kashmir University, believes that the discourse on lethal and non-lethal weapon is just another ploy of distraction from the real issue. “Actually they don’t want to talk the real issue that is Kashmir dispute, so they rake up such petty things,” said Showkat.

“Why do people come out on streets , that issue is not taken care of but they are changing the discourse by taking the topic of weapons,” he further added. “It is sheer absurdity on their part.”

According to Showkat, the government seems desperate to find ways wherein they won’t get blame for the killings. “Practically they are using non-lethal weapons. The Soura incident was due to non lethal weapons,” said Showkat. “Take the case of youths who have been hit by marbles and stones thrown by catapults by the security forces that is also a non-lethal weapon.”

Locals say that police and paramilitaries in Kashmir have a history of converting any weapon into an instrument of killing. They say that it is only in Kashmir that tear gas shells and rubber bullets kill people.
Even the current mass unrest began with the killing of Tufail Mattoo on June 11, who has hit by a teargas shell.

The teargas shell fired by police smashed open Tufail’s skull killing him instantly. The death sent entire Kashmir into a cycle of protests and more killings from which it is yet to emerge.

Experts say that if there is a will even a lethal weapon can be used in a non-lethal way. Most of the causalities in Kashmir would have been avoided if only the police and CRPF would have fired at protestors below their waist. On the contrary most of the recent casualties were caused by firearms hitting the victims in the head or chest. Locals say they fire to kill.

In the last one month alone at least 26 persons were admitted in SMHS hospital who had been grievously injured as police and paramilitaries had shot them in the head. Besides bullets, pellets, marbles, stones, teargas almost anything used by forces seems to hit the head and upper body parts. Sources in the hospital said that at least 26 people have lost either of their eyes.

At SKIMS, the only tertiary care hospital in Valley, the situation is no different. The hospital has received more than 20 patients who had bullet injuries in their head.

One of the patients admitted at SKIMS is Tariq Ahmad Kantroo, 24, who was shot in the head allegedly by a CRPF officer. While recalling the incident Tariq’s uncle says, “On August 16 Tariq had just ventured out when there was some minor trouble and police chased away a group of peaceful protestors.”

“Tariq was passing by the local hospital at Bala Tral when he was confronted by CRPF commander in civvies, who first beat him and then fired point blank at his head with his pistol,” said his uncle. “Desperately trying to save himself Tariq shielded his head with his hand and eventually the bullet first ripped his arm and then rammed into his head injuring him critically.”

Tariq is on ventilator at ICU in SKIMS. Doctors are not very optimistic about him as he has not shown much progress during the last ten days. “There is a fifty-fifty chance, and he is unable to breathe by himself,” said a doctor examining him.

A first graduate of his family Tariq was the only hope of his labourer parents. He used to work as part time ice cream seller and part time mobile mechanic. “He belongs to a poor background and his income used to help his old parents, now the entire family is devastated,” said his uncle. “That officer could have easily fired at Tariq’s legs but he deliberately aimed at his head to kill him.”

Among the 64 dead during the current civil unrest almost all the people who had received bullets or other firearm injuries had been shot above waist and most of them in their head. “If we see the entire pattern it surely depicts that there was no restraint to save lives, they simply wanted to finish off the person as soon as possible,” said a doctor at SMHS.

If somebody escapes the harrows of the firing then it is mere luck that he or she survives to tell the horror. Twenty-two year old Sumaira of Soura had a similar experience when the CRPF fired at her on August 20, 2010. “On that day I went outside to save my father who was shot by CRPF, they fired straight at my chest,” says Sumaira in a feeble voice as one of her relatives helps her complete the sentence. Doctors at SKIMS termed her case as ‘miraculous’. Her heart was saved by a whisker, as the bullet entered from the front and exited from the back, without damaging any vital organ. On that day Sumaira’s sister-in-law too was shot. Luckily all of them survived.

Prof. Showkat stressed that the real need is to change the mindset of the security forces which looks absolutely lethal. “Non lethal mind is more important than non lethal weapons. Otherwise there is no such non-lethal weapon, as all can kill,” said Showkat. “When mindsets changes, weapons become a subsequent issue.”

“The security forces act with an intention to kill, with whatever they get whether it is lethal or non lethal and they achieve it. So that mindset has to be changed and the real issue has to be addressed,” said Showkat.

According to Showkat the ‘black laws’ prevalent in the state also gives security forces the freedom to kill. “They know that with Armed Forces Special Powers Act and Disturbed Areas Act providing them immunity, no court of law can punish them, unless state gives the rare permission.”

“The real problem is their mindset. They are behaving as if they are in a territory which they have conquered or with which they are at war,” said Showkat. “They don’t perceive Kashmiris, as they claim, as their own people nor do they see them as unarmed civilian masses.”

For the last 20 years, Showkat says, forces have been using every lethal weapon against Kashmiris and justifying it in the garb of militancy.”

According to Showkat, for the first time they are facing a situation where there is no armed adversary. “But such is the mindset which they have developed over the years that they fight with a perception of fighting armed adversary,” said Showkat. “That makes their mind lethal. And every weapon whether that is lethal or non-lethal becomes lethal with such a mindset.”

Non Lethal weapons
Police have inducted at least three different weapons, which they claim to be non-lethal, in their armoury for crowd control.

One of the most talked about is the pellet gun which fires hundreds of high speed metal pellets at the crowd. “One shot releases 100 pellets in the diameter of 2.5 meters, thus affecting maximum of protestors,” said a police officer. “It is basically a non lethal weapon but one has to remain extremely cautious while using it.”

The chance of causality is high if the pellet pierces through vital parts of the body like jugular vein or heart.

Similarly multiple pellet injury to a single person can prove deadly as was observed in the case of Mudassir of Sopore who became the first victim of pellet gun at Sopore on August 20. He had received multiple pellets after CRPF reportedly fired the ‘non-lethal’ weapon from a very close range.

These pellets can also cause permanent disability. The first such victim has again turned out from Sopore. 15-year old Danish Ahmad of Tarzoa Sopore lost his left eye after the pellets fired by CRPF on August 19 near his house at Tarzoo Sopore hit him in the eye.

Another variant of the pellet is rubber pellet, where a bottle cork size bullet is fired and it disintegrates into four rubber pellets to hit at protestors.

The rubber pellet gun is effectively operated at a distance of 30 yards from the protestors and firing from 10 yards can be fatal, the police officer said .

Taser is another non lethal weapon which is popular in the West for nabbing criminals. “The pistol shaped weapon fires a nine volt current at the person, which makes him immobile and easy to apprehend,” said a police officer. “The disadvantages are short range of about 25 feet and high cost of cartridge of about Rs 5000.”

Taser can also prove fatal if fired at persons with heart ailments or having a pacemaker, who will be instantly killed due to the current. “The Tasers are effectively fired below waist as anything above has disastrous effects,’ said a police officer. Firing of Taser at head also runs the risk of killing or long term problems.

The police and CRPF are already using pepper balls, which, when fired, discharge highly irritating fumes that force mobs to disperse. But according to CRPF trials the crowd control by pepper balls has been a failure as it has no visible effect on Kashmiris. They have handed over the gun to state police for further trials.

The pepper gun is an air-gun developed by South Africa. It shoots pepper containing super irritant Capsaicin II (the burning component in chillies) in the form of concentrated dry powder.

The gun, introduced in the first week of July, can be used from a distance of 50 metres and doesn’t require shooting straight at the target. The dry powder creates dust around the target, temporarily blinding him or her for 3-5 minutes within which a suspect can be apprehended.

The biggest problem with these non lethal weapons is that they have to be used at a much closer range than other non lethal weapons like rubber bullets and tear gas. “A tear gas is fired at a distance of 100 metre, but here we don’t have that luxury as the target has to be much nearer for the weapon to be effective,” said a police officer.

With the range of stone thrower much larger than these weapons, experts are keeping their fingers crossed over their outcome. For example with a range of just 25 feet a Taser wielding policeman has to chase a protestors to that effective range even if he runs into the danger of ambush by stone throwers.

As a police officer puts it, “Kashmiris don’t deserve these costly fancy weapons, which like Taser cost thousands of rupees; a bullet costing a few rupees is enough.”

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