War on eyes: pellet guns
By Ahmad Sopori
Masarat Jan was holding her daughter Heeba, a 19 months pellet victim, in her arms as she stepped out of her home to escape the toxic gas fired by the Indian forces to disperse nearby protestors. Barely a step out of their home, a soldier fired pellets towards them, blinding Heeba permanently (Figure 1).
The pellet guns which have otherwise been used to hunt animals were reportedly introduced by Indian paramilitary forces in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) in 2010 to quell growing dissent among the Kashmiri population against illegal Indian occupation. In one burst, more than 600 pellets are released from the cartridge. Pellets travelling at a speed of 150 feet/sec can puncture human skin and other soft tissues like eyes easily and at 200 feet/sec speed the potential to cause bone fracture increases significantly. Pellet guns used by Indian paramilitary forces fire small round shaped metallic pellets at an amazingly high speed of 1,000 feet/sec, which is five times higher than the speed at which pellets can cause bone fracture.1 No wonder that these high-speed pellets have resulted in severe injuries among civilian Kashmiri population varying from permanent disability to death. The magnitude of damage is aggravated when pellets bouncing off the nearby surfaces gain extra momentum (> 1000 feet/sec) before hitting the target.
Eyes are most vulnerable to pellet injuries. Hyphema (82.6% of eyes), corneoscleral tear (78.3% of eyes) and vitreous hemorrhage (47.8% of eyes) are the most commonly seen ocular injuries caused by pellets. A study evaluating the impact of pellet injuries in Kashmiri population revealed a very grim outlook for the pellet victims. The multiple surgical interventions have proved unsuccessful in the restoration of vision in more than 35% cases and in many victims, the delicate soft tissue structure and the high risk associated with surgical interventions even prevented removal of pellets from the eyes. Researchers have found that in 50 percent of the cases, the final corrected visual acuity was less than “6/60” indicating that the pellet victim can see an object only at 6 meters distance which could be otherwise seen by a person with a standard vision from 60 meters distance. The research further acknowledged that 84 percent of victims had blindness of varying degrees raising serious concerns on the non-lethal characteristics of pellet guns.2
The psychological trauma, a direct consequence of these ocular injuries, adds another dimension to the fatal effects of pellets on the civilian population. In a survey performed in Government Medical College, IOK, it was found that 85% of the people blinded by pellet guns exhibited severe psychiatric disorders with high suicidal tendencies.3 Several thousand people have been partially or permanently blinded by these guns. In 2016 alone, more than 80 people were killed by Indian forces with over 15,000 sustaining injuries among which 4500 injuries resulted from pellet guns. Further, more than 352 civilians were partially or completely blinded by pellets. The school-going children were worst hit with much losing vision either in one or both eyes, leaving them incapable to read or play with their peers. In many instances, even the primary breadwinners of the families have themselves been rendered dependent on their families. Post-2016, the rampant use of pellet guns has blinded more than 139 people and injured over 2500 severely with eye injuries reported in over 1459 cases. In fact, in 2018, the then Chief Minister of IOK had herself admitted in the state legislative assembly that 6221 people were injured by these guns.4 Fearing harassment and detention by Indian paramilitary forces, many cases remain unreported. After 5th August 2019, when the Indian Government illegally revoked the article 370 and 35A granting special status to IOK, over 300 pellet injuries were reported in a single day.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in their 8th July 2019 update on the situation of human rights in Kashmir from May 2018 to April 2019 classified pellet guns among the most dangerous weapons used in Kashmir.5 The OHCHR observed that Indian security forces continue to use 12 gauge pump action pellet guns in Kashmir valley, despite a large number of incidental civilian deaths and injuries resulting from its use. Quoting Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, Srinagar data, the report noted that 1253 people have been blinded by metal pellets from mid-2016 to end-2018. The high-handed approach of the Indian Government in dealing with peaceful protests in IOK is evident from the fact that this weapon is not deployed elsewhere in India. Among various recommendations by OHCHR to Indian Government, included “establishing an independent, impartial and credible investigations to probe all civilian killings which have occurred since July 2016, as well as obstruction of medical services during the 2016 unrest, arson attacks against schools and incidents of excessive use of force by security forces including serious injuries caused by the use of the pellet-firing shotguns.” Recognizing the lethal effects of pellet guns, OHCHR asked the Indian Government to immediately put a halt to the use of pellet guns in Jammu and Kashmir. Earlier, Amnesty International in its report “Losing Sight in Kashmir: The Impact of Pellet-Firing Shotguns” in 2017 had demanded that pellet guns be banned immediately in IOK.5
Despite scathing criticism by OHCHR and Amnesty International, the use of pellet guns by India in IOK continues unabated with no regard for human rights. A teenager Asrar Ahmad Khan hit by pellets on August 6, died nearly a month after he sustained pellet injuries.9. The future looks dark and gloomy for not only the pellet victims but the entire valley. The use of pellet guns must be immediately banned to save eyes.