On the cold Monday morning, a small group of youngsters, wearing sunglasses marched towards Press Enclave in Srinagar. But there was nothing routine about the development. The banners identified them as the J&K Pellet Victims Association, perhaps the world’s first such organization. And they were out there to press for justice and ask some tough questions, like why pellets guns are only used in Kashmir when similar situations in other parts of the country, the latest being Jallikatu trouble in Chennai, didn’t warrant their use. They were there also to make some demands.
There were several of these: ban on use of pellet guns and the other lethal weapons, halt to the police harassment of youth, withdrawal of FIRs and the false charges from police stations and punishment to the security personnel responsible for blinding youth. The Association also demanded that the state government should send pellet victims to the best hospitals of the country for the treatment.
“Our eyes have been snatched. Our vision and the world have been blinded by pellets. How can we see our family and world? Our future plans have been put in darkness? Eyes are precious for everybody (sic),” a statement issued to the Association read. “We appeal to the world and civil society to come forward and use your good office to stop the use of these lethal weapons like pellet guns against peaceful Kashmiris”. The statement continued: “Our demand is simple that if these pellets are being used for animals why it has been used against innocent Kashmiris especially against students. Countless pellets have been fired over peaceful demonstrators and protesters. Indian forces have never used these pellets or Pava shells in any other Indian state where people also set fire to government and public property. Why double standard with Kashmirs?”
Over six months of the strife in Kashmir, around 96 people lost their lives, several hundred others have partially or completely been blinded due to the indiscriminate use of the pellet guns, one of the ‘non-lethal’ weapons being used for the crowd control. A cartridge of the gun contains several hundred pellets made of lead, and when fired these pellets disperse in all directions, hitting scores of protesters at once and many of them in their eyes. The blindings have drawn global attention to Kashmir. Though central government had formed a committee to review the use of the pellet gun, it ultimately decided not to ban it.
Debate around the use of pellet guns in Kashmir is akin to the use of the Taser International’s stun guns in US which, according to a study, have killed 540 people between 2001-2013 as against just 31 in lethal police shootings in the period. There is also an award-winning documentrary ‘killing Them Safely’ on the subject. Srinagar’s leading SMHS hospital received hundreds of pellet cases over the 5 month of unrest. The number of people hit and the seriousness of their injuries exceeds anything witnessed in the past. As per the records available with Srinagar’s leading hospitals, the number of the people hit in the eye by the pellets during unrest is at around 1,130, most of them youth and the teenagers. Fourteen people have lost their lives after being hit by the pellets, one of them a Bank ATM guard who was shot at close range by the unidentified security personnel while returning home from his job late in the night.
During the Assembly session, the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti announced Government jobs for the persons “who lost their eyesight during the unrest”. The government, she said, would make the arrangements for education at Delhi and other places for the students “whose eyesight got affected during the turmoil,” adding she had already spoken to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley about this.
But such measures will do little to help the pellet-blinded. At the protest, Altaf Ahmad , one of the victims described how losing the sight meant they had lost everything. “Now, we are dependent. We need help for everything. We cannot read and write, cannot go out or walk on road without help,” he said carrying a placard which read: “Attention, World, We Need Justice”.
“We have formed this Association to help ourselves and bring attention to our plight,” Altaf said. “We are not here to complain but to fight for justice”.