Pellets and pepper gas make the valley go blind with rage

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Blindsided Muzamil Rather was injured while watching protests from his house
Blindsided Muzamil Rather was injured while watching protests from his house
Photo: Faisal Khan

IN A reflection of the grim toll taken by the widespread use of pellet guns to quell riots in the Kashmir Valley, a study by the Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar says that 45 youth have permanently lost their eye sight in the 2010 unrest. In the fresh turmoil triggered by 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’s hanging, the hospital has received 12 more cases of youth with damaged eyes whose recovery chances are bleak.

“We conducted this study through the five-month-long 2010 unrest,” says Dr Manzoor Ahmad Kang, head of the Department of Ophthalmology at the hospital, adding that the figure didn’t include the injured admitted at other hospitals in the Valley.

Aamir Kabir Beigh, 21, of Baramulla is one such victim. On 18 September 2010, he was visiting friends when he was hit by pellets. He was admitted to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar before being referred to AIIMS, New Delhi, where he was operated upon. He was subsequently taken to Indore and Chennai where the doctors finally gave up on him. “They refused to operate. They said veins of my retina are damaged,” he says.

Uwais Ahmad Dentho, 16, from Srinagar suffered a similar fate. “In 2010, he was going to his tuition centre when the forces fired pellets at some stone-pelting youth. My son, 13 at the time, was hit in the right eye,” says his father Muhammad Amin. Dentho was also taken to AIIMS and later to a private hospital in Amritsar, but the sight in his right eye couldn’t be restored.

Though deployed as non – lethal weapons for riot control, pellet guns have caused injuries to more than 300 youth since 2010. “Around 100 civilians were injured in Baramulla alone in the clashes between the protesting youth and the security forces, with a majority of them hit by pellets,” says Chief Medical Officer (Baramulla) Dr Abdur Rashid. Even though pellet injuries have not caused any death, the doctors have warned of muscle and internal organ damage, besides bruising and lacerations.

Another riot-control agent that has wreaked havoc is pepper gas. Elderly people with chest problems and children are the worst sufferers.

On 8 March, Hajira Begum, 60, an asthma patient, was at her home in Srinagar when a pepper gas blast exacerbated her breathlessness. She was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was declared dead on arrival. Similarly, a 50-year-old man from Bemina was hospitalised for bleeding profusely from the nose when he was exposed to the gas. Doctors said he was suffering from Epistaxis, which is “usually caused due to blunt trauma, foreign bodies, acute respiratory tract infections, chronic sinusitis, allergic rhinitis or environmental irritants”.

The scenario has generated a huge outcry from human rights and civil society outfits who want the authorities to explore alternative means of riot control like water cannons and teargas. “The use of pepper gas also harms passersby and the entire neighbourhood,” says a report by Coalition of Civil Society, an NGO.

The State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has also cautioned the government against excessive use of the spray. “For the sins of a dozen youngsters, thousands of peace-loving people can’t be punished and their rights enshrined in the Constitution cannot be violated under any circumstances,” says the SHRC. “The authorities should exercise restraint in the use of pepper gas on humans.”

However, police say they are exercising maximum restraint despite facing a tough situation. “More than 100 securitymen have been injured in the clashes, some of them grievously,” says an officer. “But our effort has been to handle the situation in a way that doesn’t lead to deaths.”

MEANWHILE, THE growing public resentment over the “indiscriminate use of pellets and pepper gas” has forced political parties to pay heed. On 11 March, the PDP staged a walkout in the Assembly demanding a ban on the practice. The PDP claimed that pepper gas was exacerbating severe ailments like asthma due to its large-scale use.

Rural Development Minister Ali Muhammad Sagar has expressed concern over the use of pepper gas, saying he will take up the matter with the CM and the DGP. But will the government open its eyes to the unfolding madness?

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