Pellet guns, also known as pump action shotguns with pellets, have emerged as the Centre’s weapon of choice when it comes to crowd control since first being used to control stone-pelters in 2010. The guns were chosen despite not being included on the list of ten non-lethal weapons suggested by the Bureau of Police Research and Development in its document for standard operating procedures to tackle violence. After six years of extensive use in internal security operations and numerous fatal and grievous injuries, the government ordnance factory which manufactures these guns has denied an RTI petition for information on the guns on the grounds of it being “sensitive defence information.”
Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, unsuccessfully sought information from the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), based in Kolkata, about the characteristics and specifications of anti-riot weapons, their sale price and quantum of sale since 2010, as well as evaluation reports about the guns’ efficacy and impact on human beings.
He said that since “the paramilitary forces deployed in Kashmir are organisations notified as partially exempt from the coverage of the RTI Act, so there was no point in seeking information from them directly. As a rule they have refused access to information about their security-related activities in the past.”
Nayak said the OFB circulated his RTI application to several desks and the responses trickled in. One of the responses pointed out that anti-riot weapons are not civilian trade items. It also stated that bore pump action shot guns are a civilian trade item being issued only to the State Bank of India for security purposes. This obviously meant that they were meant for use in internal and local security.
A response from another desk pointed out that the anti-riot weapons are issued to state organisations, so the information sought may not be disclosed under RTI. They also found that anti-riot weapons were primarily manufactured at the plant in Khadki, Pune and transferred Nayak’s application to the Central Assistant Public Information Officer (CPIO) at Khadki.
The CPIO of Khadki Ordnance Factory, however, replied that none of the information sought in the RTI application may be disclosed as it is “sensitive defence information”. However, he did not take the liberty of explaining how information pertaining to anti-riot weapons and ammunition used in internal operations could be classified as “defence information”.
Nayak said though the queries were about weapons and ammunition used against citizens within the country, yet the information was denied by invoking Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act without showing how India’s ‘security interests’ would be prejudicially affected by such disclosure.
He said what he found “even more puzzling” was the denial of any information on the grounds that all the relevant information qualifies as commercial confidence, trade secrets and intellectual property whose disclosure may result in harm to the competitive position of a third party. “It is not clear which third party’s interests the CPIO is trying to protect. I had sought information about anti-riot weapons manufactured and sold by the Khadki Ordnance Factory not by any other entity. So how the disclosure of data about prices, sales and physical characteristics about anti-riot weapons will be attracted by any of the exemptions under Section 8(1)(d) is a big mystery.”
Curiously, Nayak said while information on riot-control equipment was denied, information on several defence equipment is freely available on OFB’s own website. “Let alone civilian trade items like revolvers and sporting rifles which their units manufacture. Specifications about mortars, 155 mm guns, machine guns and the like are found on the OFB’s website,” he said. Pointing to the stark dichotomy, he added that “strangely, there is more proactive disclosure about the specifications of defence equipment than anti-riot weapons and ammunition which are used against citizens within the country.”
The use of pump action shotguns with pellets as ammunition was first allowed in Kashmir in 2010, after over 100 people were killed when police fired on violent stone-pelting protesters. At that point of time the guns were considered non-lethal weapons, but their use over the years has showed their true potential for causing damage.
In the current round of violence in Kashmir, which began after Hizbul Mujahideen’s commander Burhan Wani was killed by Indian forces on July 8, over 700 people have suffered eye injuries due to pellet guns.
Incidentally, the security forces in Kashmir have resorted to extensive use of pellet guns during the months of July and August to curb violent stone-pelting. As Nayak said, the security forces are reported to have told the Jammu and Kashmir high court that 3,000 pellet bearing cartridges and 8,650 tear gas canisters were used to disperse protesters between July and August. As pellet gun injuries started causing many of the injured to lose their eyesight, the clamour for replacing them with other non-lethal weapons started to grow around the middle of July. Subsequently, the union home minister announced the constitution of a seven-member committee to review the use of these guns.
On completing its investigation, this panel suggested replacing the pellet guns with chilli-based pelargonic acid vanillyl amide (PAVA) shells. This despite, similar pepper grenades claiming three lives in the state in 2013. However, as these shells are known to cause severe irritation but not grievous injury, they were seen as the better alternative given the situation.
However a week into their use, the Centre has already received negative feedback on these PAVA shells. The Jammu and Kashmir police and the central forces deployed in Kashmir have, in their assessment on these shells, stated that they have a slow emission rate, low potency and a delayed emission rate on hitting the ground.