In Srinagar Hospital, Bandaged Eyes Bring Back Bad Memories of 2016

Scores of pellet gun victims from the recent Shopian encounter are proof that despite what the state government claims, the indiscriminate weapon continues to be used in Kashmir.

Srinagar: On April 2, ward number 8 of the ophthalmology department in Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital was packed with nearly 40 people between the age group of 14 to 25 years. All of them had been injured by pellets a day before, following encounters in southern Kashmir’s Shopian district where 13 militants, three soldiers and four civilians were killed, and nearly 150 people injured.

All the injured youth had received pellet injuries above their chest – in their neck, face, forehead and head. Most had been hit by pellets in one or both eyes. Some lay comatose on their beds in the ward, their eyes bandaged after being operated overnight in the trauma theatre. Others with fresh pellet injuries writhed in pain, impatiently waiting to be treated.

“We have received above 40 pellet injured youth from Shopian here and 33 pellet injuries were repaired in surgeries overnight, two among them have pellet injuries in both eyes,” said an exhausted doctor who had been on duty since scores of pellet-injured youth from Shopian were admitted in the ward for treatment on April 1. “More than 70% of these youth in the 14-25 age groups have suffered major damage in one or both eyes. They are sadly going to face vision loss.”

The ward was filled with young men and teenagers from Shopian being treated for pellet injuries. Their anxious, worried family members, friends and relatives surround their beds, looking after their needs, getting tests and X-rays done, waiting anxiously for another round of examination by the doctors.

The security forces said they were compelled to open fire with pellets in order to disperse the crowds that had gathered around the encounter site with the intention of hampering the operation against the trapped militants.

But patients and their families say the firing by the police was indiscriminate. While some admitted to being involved in pelting stones at the security forces – “If they take my one eye, they can then take the other … The day my soul leaves my body is the day I will stop pelting stones”, one young man told Scroll.in – others insist they were simply bystanders or at some distance, minding their own business.

Adil, a 22-year-old labourer from Kachdora village of Shopian, lay on one of the beds in the ward, waiting to be operated. His left eye was badly damaged by pellets fired in Shopian on April 1. He was walking on the road outside his home on Sunday in Kachdora village when pellets were fired in his direction by the CRPF and police personnel, his family said. Injured, lying on the ground, he was quickly picked up on a bike by a local youth who dropped him in a district hospital in Kulgam – from where he was rushed to the SMHS Hospital in an ambulance.

Surrounded by his family members, he kept touching his injured left eye with bits of cotton. His uncle, standing next to him, anxiously waited for the doctors to tell when he would be operated on and if he would be able to see again. “They should tell us soon,” said his uncle, worried about the outcome of his treatment. “Otherwise, we can take him outside the state… He is young and we want his eye to be saved.”

A few beds down, 18-year-old Mushtaq Ahmed, a first-year college student from Shopian town, had gone to attend the funeral of one of the civilians killed in Shopian on April 1 when the government forces fired pellets at the assembled mourners. Ahmed was hit in his face. Pellets tore into his left eye.

An Indian policeman aims a gun towards the protesters during clashes in September. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Nearby, another bed in the ward was occupied by a teenager, 15-year-old Adil Hamid, a class VIII student who had come out of his home in Kachdora, Shopian when the police fired pellets at him, hitting his right eye, informed his mother sitting next to him. “They fired pellets in his direction as soon as he had come out and opened the gate of his home,” said his mother, gently caressing his forehead. “Thank god he is alive…”

A senior surgeon from the ophthalmology department, who operated on hundreds of similar pellet victims during the 2016 uprising in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing, said April 1 brought back the horrors of the summer of 2016 during which about 1,200 people were hit by pellets, causing many to lose vision in one or both eyes. On April 1, he said, their ward received the highest number of pellet-hit youth – about 40 victims from Shopian – on a single day since the summer of 2016. “The majority of these pellet-hit youth from Shopian we are treating in the ward have major eye injuries,” said a doctor who wished not to be named. “Sadly, a majority of them are going to face visual impairment and all of them are under the age of 25-26 years.”

The doctor said a 23-year-old man, who was hit by pellets in his eyes in Shopian last Sunday, became violent and shouted at people around him when he was brought into the ward for treatment. “He was shouting – asking what has happened to him and why he can’t suddenly see anything,” said the doctor. “We had to sedate him and calm him down before we could begin our treatment. It was painful to see him in that condition.”

The doctor said all the pellet injuries in the eyes – even minor eye injuries – can turn serious after weeks, requiring follow-up surgery and treatment for several years. “Many of these young men later face social and economic problems and a lot of difficulties in adjusting back to the normal routine,” the surgeon said. “These injuries also affect their marriage prospects, affecting them physically and psychologically.”

‘Non-lethal’ weapons

Amnesty International India in a report titled ‘Losing Sight in Kashmir: The Impact of Pellet-Firing Shotguns’, which was released in September last year in Srinagar, had called for a “complete ban” on the use of pellet guns in Kashmir. As per the report, the pellet-firing shotguns, which have been used by forces in Kashmir since at least 2010, has “blinded hundreds and killed at least 14 people since July 2016.”

“Authorities claim the pellet shotgun is not lethal, but the injuries and deaths caused by this cruel weapon bear testimony to how dangerous, inaccurate and indiscriminate it is,” Aakar Patel, the Executive Director at Amnesty International India had said while releasing the report last September in Srinagar.

According to the Amnesty International report, when pellet shotguns are fired, a large number of small metal pellets spread indiscriminately over a wide area. “There is no way to control the accuracy, trajectory or direction of the pellets … Due to their inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate nature, the weapons have a high risk of causing serious and permanent injury to everyone in the area.”

A doctor explaining a pellet injury by looking at a CT scan. Credit: Shome Basu

A doctor explaining a pellet injury by looking at a CT scan. Credit: Shome Basu

The state government also recently admitted in the state legislative assembly that “6,221 persons had received pellet shotgun injuries, including 782 eye injuries, between July 2016 and February 2017.”

Union minister of state for home Hansraj Gangaram Ahir recently informed the Rajya Sabha in a written reply that “17 protesters died of pellet gun injuries in Jammu and Kashmir in the past two years.”

The Union minister said the government had constituted an expert committee on July 26, 2016, to explore other possible alternatives to pellet guns as ‘non-lethal weapons’, stating that “the recommendations of the committee have been taken into account by the government for appropriate implementation.

Accordingly, various measures such as using PAVA-Chilli (Shells and Grenades), STUN-LAC (Shells and Grenades) and Tear Smoke Shells are used to disperse the unlawful violent protesters before the use of pellet guns.

However, scores of pellet gun victims from Shopian district admitted in the Srinagar hospital is proof that pellet shotguns continue to be used in Kashmir despite claims by the union and state government that “less lethal weapons” have replaced pellet guns.

Since the 2016 uprising, about 1253 pellet eye injuries have been treated at SMHS Hospital Srinagar alone, 61 among them injured in both eyes, according to data accessed by Greater Kashmir.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.