The Centre plans to replace deadly pellet guns with supposedly non-lethal plastic bullets in Kashmir to deal with street protests, The Wire reported.

However, according to report a senior scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) who was involved in designing the bullets cautions against considering them non- lethal.

File image of Insha in the hospital (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

“If a plastic bullet hits the face or any vital organ, it is very likely to prove fatal,” The Wire quoted Dr Prince Sharma as having said.

“But one advantage with these bullets is that they can be used for precise targeting you can hit only one person at a time unlike pellets balls, which can target hundreds of people at a time.”

A consignment of these plastic bullets has been handed over to the ordnance factory in Varangaon, Maharashtra for mass production before the Ministry of Home Affairs “evaluates” them for use by the security forces, revealed Sharma.

These plastic bullets, Sharma said, are entirely different but can be fired from AK-47 rifles. “If you aim and hit below the waist with plastic bullets it’s not likely to prove fatal, but the probability of fatality will be more if the bullet hits any vital organ,” reiterated Dr Sharma.

A news report on January 6 said the Centre was planning to replace pellet shotguns, originally designed for hunting animals, with plastic bullets.

“The government has been facing growing criticism nationally and internationally for leaving hundreds blinded and maimed due to pellet injuries in Kashmir,” the report said.

“A plastic bullet’s lethality is 500 times less than pellets. It can be used for targeted shooting in a riot situation,” Manjit Singh, director of the Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL), Chandigarh, which developed the ammunition, was quoted by the media as saying.

The Wire contacted the offices of Singh to get his comments on plastic bullets, but his public relations officer Manoj Atwal said Singh was “out of station”. However, he confirmed they have passed on “samples” of plastic bullets to the paramilitary forces for “tests” after carrying out experiments at the lab level.

These new bullets will be the fifth such supposedly ‘non-lethal’ weapons to be used in Kashmir in recent years. But it is the first time that plastic bullets will be added to the forces’ armoury anywhere in India. “These bullets have not been used anywhere in India so far. Only some lab-level trials have been conducted,” confirmed Sharma.

“From teargas shells and rubber bullets to chilli-based PAVA shells and pellet guns, government forces have experimented with different weapons in the ‘non-lethal’ category in Kashmir,” said the report.

“Every new weapon is being experimented on Kashmiris. We have seen how people in other states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have held massive protests, damaged public property and even killed men in uniform. But they never faced pellets. It is only the people of Kashmir who are treated as guinea pigs,” the report quoted senior National Conference leader and former law minister Ali Muhammad Sagar as having said.

Noted human rights activist Khurram Parvez contested claims about the non-lethality of plastic bullets. “When pellets were first used in 2010, similar claims were made, but today we have a population of young children blinded by pellets and people maimed for their entire life by them,” The Wire quoted Parvez as having said. “Now plastic bullets will kill and maim Kashmiris.”

“This is not the first time the Centre is considering introducing plastic bullets. In April 2017, after the mass uprising gradually faded away, media reports said that more than 12,000 people had been injured, including pellet-blinded victims, in five months of protests – leading to criticism of the government for using pellets,” said the report.

Back then, the Union home ministry claimed that the forces would employ “less-lethal” plastic bullets in Kashmir. Last year, a state home department official said the home ministry again tasked a Central panel to review the use of pellet guns. The director of TBRL was a member and was quoted by the media saying that the plastic bullet was one of the alternatives recommended by the panel.

‘Deadly pellets’

According to a report published by The Wire said that in the past three years, the pellets – essentially small metallic balls fired from pump shotguns with high velocity – have wreaked havoc with young lives in Kashmir. Data collected from Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital shows that more than 1,570 persons including teenagers and young girls have suffered blindness of varying degrees due to pellet injuries.

“Among them is 27-year old Muhammad Ashraf who was hit by pellets in both eyes in October 2016,” said the report.

Eighteen-month-old Hiba Nisar, the youngest pellet victim in Kashmir. Hiba was hit by pellets on Sunday, November 25, 2018 at her home in Kapran village of Shopian.

After six surgeries in his eyes and countless follow-ups, the Pulwama youth has regained only 20% vision in his right eye. “My left eye is as good as dead. Doctors have also given up hope,” the report quoted Ashraf as having said. “And I can only see shadows with my other eye.”

Though the number of injuries have come down, Srinagar hospitals continue to receive such cases each time a protest breaks out somewhere in the Valley. In 2018, SMHS hospital received 363 eye(s) injury cases, according to Greater Kashmir.

“Not only have pellets caused bodily injuries, but they have also proved lethal at times when fired from close-range. There have been 20 deaths reported by the local media due to pellet-related injuries since 2010 – when the pellet guns were first introduced in Kashmir,” the report quoted Parvez as having said.

“The lethality of pellets is also due to the fact that a cartridge – containing 500 to 600 pellet balls – gets spread over a large area when fired,” said the report.

At least 1,726 people have been disabled permanently by pellet guns, Parvez said quoting State Human Rights Commission data, adding there were reports from conflict zones around the world which have established the lethality of plastic bullets.

Once such report was compiled way back in 2002 by the Pat Finucane Center, a non-political and human rights group that advocates non-violent resolutions to the Ireland conflict. It quoted the October 2002 recommendations of a United Nations Committee on Rights of Child report – calling for a ban on the use of plastic bullets in  Ireland – after observing its human cost. Later, human rights activist Marc Thomspon also argued in a column published in The Guardian in 2011, against the use of plastic bullets. He was referring to the UN report he wrote on how plastic bullets were used extensively in the north of Ireland, killing 17 people.

The report quoted Ashraf of Rohmoo village in Pulwama as having said thousands of youth have already been pushed into a “dark world” and their lives have become confined to the four walls of their homes. “A pellet victim is a walking dead body, with no aims and no goals. He dies ten times a day. It is better if they use bullets which kill a person once for all,” said Ashraf.

We’ll welcome any ‘better alternative’, says J&K DGP

The newspaper quoted J&K police chief, Dilbagh Singh, as having said that if there was any “better alternative” [to pellets] they would definitely welcome it. “Who doesn’t want to have better version [of weapon] available which do as little damage as possible – after all, law and order is the reality of the day,” said Singh.

He, too, questioned claims about the reduced lethality of plastic bullets. “It remains to be seen whether such claims are actually based on facts or not,” said the police chief.

Three school girls from a Pulwama village who lost one eye each to the pellets, waiting for their turn in SMHS hospital. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

According to Singh, there has not been any discussion at the official level on the replacement of pellet guns among agencies in J&K, but this didn’t rule out the plan being finalised at the Centre. “If something is taking place in Delhi we will welcome it,” he said.

To a question, Singh said the pellet shotguns were one of the “tools” available to the police and paramilitary forces, and “probably it is good to use only when there is a serious kind of engagement.”

‘Weaponisation’ of Kashmir

Parvez argued that every year, the government introduces new weapons in Kashmir, claiming them to be non-lethal. He pointed out that introducing a new weapon doesn’t mean the end of existing weapon in Kashmir. “It only means the weaponisation of Kashmir. Last year, 70 people were killed by the armed forces, most of them by bullets,” said Parvez. “Will soldiers be asked now not to fire bullets and pellets if plastic bullets are introduced?”

For political analyst Noor M. Baba, the addition of one more weapon to the official armoury in Kashmir shows that instead of trying to address the anger on the ground, the Centre is more interested in experimenting with new forms of crowd control. “And that is more dangerous as it indicates that this year, too, protests will be met with force,” The Wire quoted Noor M. Baba as having said.


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