For colonial policymakers, it was a weapon that left 'no victim as a martyr'. And for modern world leaders, it's used to crush dissent.

“You have cooked meat on the grill, right? The oil sputters, one drop falls on your hand, and you go ahhh! Now imagine your whole face in that. It gets ingrained in your mind....”

JB—a tall Caucasian 43-year-old man originally from Virginia, USA—was until recently deployed at the Yokosuka Naval Base in the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan. Tottering through his Japanese at a cafe in Tokyo, he recounted his experiences from a Navy boot camp in the US 20 years ago, wherein he had to undergo teargas exposure training. The memory of that experience has stayed with him, even though he has “been there, seen it all” while deployed on various missions. 

JB’s memory is something that scores of people across the world would resonate with. It is fresh in the minds of several farmers in India, who faced teargas in the country’s capital New Delhi on 26 January 2021, as they protested against exploitative laws. It could not have been more ironic that the protesting farmers were met with the Indian state’s might in the form of teargas, on the day that India observed the 61st anniversary of becoming a republic.

Thousands of miles away in Portland, Oregon 24-year-old activist John Doe was out on the streets since 29 May 2020, to protest police brutality against Black people in the US, following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I was protesting for 85-90 nights, and I have faced teargas for probably 60 of those nights,” he said, remembering the nights of protests that shocked him. Fears of being traced and harassed by authorities meant that he could not reveal his real name. 

One broad research that analyzed 31 studies from 11 countries—the US, the UK, Netherlands, France, Finland, Hong Kong, Nepal, India, Turkey, Bahrain and Israel—from 1990 to 2015 found that 5,131 people had suffered injuries from teargas and pepper spray; two had died and 58 had suffered permanent disabilities. The legality of the use of teargas—from being used in WWI and WWII, and then being partially prohibited—has been long contested, based on its chemical composition, with a dose of political manipulation. So how did a military weapon go from being used in wars to streets?

Hands to their faces, two demonstrators run through a fog of tear gas while others lie among tent poles on the ground in a Canton schoolyard, June 24, 1966, after Mississippi Highway Patrolmen used gas to prevent them from erecting tents on the site.
Hands to their faces, two demonstrators run through a fog of tear gas while others lie among tent poles on the ground in a Canton schoolyard, June 24, 1966, after Mississippi Highway Patrolmen used gas to prevent them from erecting tents on the site. (AP)

Chemicals in the Lab

Teargas is a collective term for a number of agents (also termed “riot control agents” or RCAs) known also as lachrymators—from the chemical’s effect of stimulating the lacrimal gland in the eyes to produce tears, and its effect of inducing closure of the eyelids. Within this collective term of teargas or RCA, agents include CN gas (chloroacetophenone), CS gas (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile), OC (oleoresin capsicum or pepper spray), BBC gas (bromobenzyl cyanide).

RCAs are designed to irritate the mucous membranes. They have come to be classified and understood as teargas in common parlance. Teargas is also often referred to as part of a category of non-lethal weapons (NLWs), intended to incapacitate people without causing death or permanent injury, with minimal damage to the surrounding environment.

The use of chemicals in various forms can be traced to ancient history from across the world. In her book Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, historian Adrienne Mayor has written how ancient Chinese writings (dating back to 7th century BC) included directions for preparing irritant fumes: poison gases, smokes and clouds were used to choke and flush enemies out of tunnels and caves, specifically as defensive application. The Romans (80 BC) and ancient Greece (189 AD) used toxic, asphyxiating smokes and clouds (aerosols) in battle.

Undaunted by tear gas bombs and water cannons from police, protesters try to scale the fence of a construction site of a Nuclear recycling power plant in Wackersdorf, West Germany in March 1986.
Undaunted by tear gas bombs and water cannons from police, protesters try to scale the fence of a construction site of a Nuclear recycling power plant in Wackersdorf, West Germany in March 1986. (AP)


CN was first synthesized in 1871 and subsequently used in WWI. Probably the first use of gas in WWI was by French policemen who brought teargas, which they had been using in police work, when they were called to the war. In the first attack of lethal gas, at Ypres in Belgium in 1915, the chlorine used by the Germans came from large cylinders. About 30 substances were used in World War I for their supposed irritant activity but many did not function well, other than CN. Today, CN is sold as Mace, for self-protection. It can be mixed with capsaicin for use as pepper spray. 

Next came CS, in 1928; it continues to be the compound in teargas today. In a 1935 article published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Seth Wiard made the case for the use of “new and improved” gases for use “against civilians under conditions where only the temporary blocking of their activities would be required”. Wiard was formerly an Instructor of Police Science at Northwestern University and later employed with a company that produced chemical weapons. Indeed, after WWI, there were no markets for chemical warfare agents during peacetime as there had been in war.

Henry Moore was a soldier who was attacked in a gas attack at Cambrai in 1917 during WWI. In September 1939, as an artist at the outbreak of WWII, he re-created what he had witnessed in a painting: women half-submerged in a pale-red sea, clad in gas masks, and looking towards France. For Moore, as well as people in Britain, war meant gas masks. In Weimar Germany, Nazis used teargas to suppress radical art and opinion in theatres, even though they were not yet in power then. Nonetheless, its purpose was still repressive.

Some of the chemicals found in tear gas shells today were part of the incendiary bombs used during World War I.
Some of the chemicals found in tear gas shells today were part of the incendiary bombs used during World War I. (AP)

Teargas in British colonies

During WWI, Porton Down—Britain’s primary chemical research establishment—expanded significantly. According to Dr Alex Mankoo from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, public opinion in Britain was hostile towards any use of gas, from the fresh memories of their use in WWI. “What piqued my interest to research the history of teargas, particularly in the interwar years, was that teargas was not permitted for use in war, nor was it then used domestically in Britain, yet it was seen as legitimate for use in the colonies,” he told TRT World over a Skype call.

Accessing the British government’s declassified documents, Dr Mankoo found that teargas featured prominently in three contexts: in colonial settings, for imperial authorities to control political dissent and disturbances; as a tactical weapon, used most notably by the US in the Vietnam War; and as a technology for civil policing and domestic riot control.

“Some colonial policymakers in the 1920s and 1930s put forth that teargas has temporary effect, and is therefore humane. They claimed that it left no victim as a martyr, which led to teargas’ authorization of use in colonial authorities,” Dr Mankoo explained. Perhaps the best example of this is Winston Churchill’s perception of people living in Britain’s colonies.

In 1919, Churchill was the Colonial Secretary of the British government. He famously said, “I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes.” Charles Howard Foulkes, the Secretary of State for India, believed that “tribes are not bound by the Hague Convention and that they do not conform to its most elementary rules.”

In 1922, Churchill had permitted the supply of teargas to the pro-treaty forces in Ireland, to control the “Irish Civil War”. In India, one of the first teargas experiments took place in the Ferozepore District of Punjab, in 1934: police had fired several cartridges of teargas into a house where two criminals were hiding. Police reports acknowledged the status of criminals as experimental subjects; the (British) Government of India deemed it “a complete success”; thus reaffirming the authorization, and even welcome, of teargas in Britain’s colonies. 

However, as Dr Mankoo said, the association of gas and WWI was something Britain couldn’t escape from. Hence, British colonial authorities began to rephrase teargas as “tear smoke” during World War II. When teargas was introduced in the southern Indian city of Madras (now Chennai) in 1940, authorities used the term “tear smoke” rather than teargas, so as to avoid any association with the use of chemical weapons—mustard gas—by the Italians in a cave in Ethiopia in 1939, to quell a local armed resistance against the Italian occupation. 

It is for these reasons that non-lethality became a point of international military scientific research, and this included the development of new forms of non-lethal weapons and teargases; which would be less toxic and more suited for domestic operations. At the September 1958 Tripartite Conference, the US, UK and Canada made a commitment to concentrate on “the search for incapacitating and new type lethal agents”. The Tripartite Conferences were meetings on toxicological warfare that focused on offensive and defensive CBW collaboration between the UK, the US and Canada.

By 1959, Porton Down had determined CS to be capable of causing permanent damage to humans, but British police continued to use it in the colonies until 1965. 

As gas attacks became a norm during World War II, Britain opened up anti-gas schools to teach anti-gas and air raid precautions.
As gas attacks became a norm during World War II, Britain opened up anti-gas schools to teach anti-gas and air raid precautions. (AP)

Vietnam war

CS was adopted for law enforcement purposes in the 1950s in the US because of its efficacy as compared to CN, since it can be dispersed by solution spraying, explosive dispersion or as smoke from a pyrotechnic mixture. Since the 1920s, police forces in the US were already using teargas to combat urban gangster warfare, as well as to disperse mobs. In 1923, the US Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) was given permission to sell teargas to the National Guard, and assisted private commercial suppliers of teargas in manufacturing and marketing them to police departments.

After WWI, the US devoted significant resources to researching CN. In 1962, the US equipped the South Vietnamese Army with non-lethal riot control gases; in March 1965, US Marines used teargas and chemical herbicides in combat. US President Lyndon B Johnson portrayed the use of teargas in Vietnam as humanitarian, and as a standard riot-control item that any American could purchase, and that, “the Chief of Police in Washington [DC] has it now and if in the interest of saving lives and protecting people, it would be used.” When dispersed by helicopter, the 13.7 million pounds of CS gas procured for use in Vietnam was enough to cover some 80,000 square miles; south Vietnam was only 66,000 square miles.

McGeorge Bundy, who was assistant for national security affairs to US Presidents John K Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, later revealed how the use of teargas was authorized in Vietnam: “The initial use of teargas was for situations involving the need to protect civilian lives, in conditions closely analogous to those of a civil riot at home… What happened is what tends to happen quite remorselessly in war: unless there are very sharp and clear defining lines against the use of a given weapon, it tends to be used… The only reliable way to keep chemical warfare off any future battlefield is to keep it off in all its forms.” The US had justified its use of CS in Vietnam on the grounds that it was using gas for military operations that were analogous to riot control in domestic circumstances in the US. Thus, by invoking the justification of ‘riot control’ — as opposed to chemical warfare — the US government claimed that CS use in Vietnam was in the interest of saving lives, in the face of anti-war protests. 

Teargas became one of the main weapons to crush protests during the Vietnam war.
Teargas became one of the main weapons to crush protests during the Vietnam war. (AP)

International treaties

Even though the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 marked the beginnings of the 20th-century chemical weapons taboo, and several nations signed international agreements pertaining to the prohibition of chemical weapons—the Washington Treaty of 1922, the Geneva Protocol of 1925—teargas was classified as distinct and unique, but not categorically banned. 

The international agreements in the early 20th century did not distinguish between permissible and non-permissible gases, or lethal and non-lethal gases. The Washington Treaty of 1922 prohibited “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices, having been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.” However, Dr Mankoo has pointed out the specific phrasing of where teargas use was condemned: the civilized world. 

Today, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1997 is the most important chemical arms control treaty in the world. Beyond prohibiting the use of chemical weapons in warfare, it prohibits the development, acquisition, production, transfer, and stockpiling of chemical weapons. But there’s a catch when it comes to RCAs: in the CWC, “Riot Control Agent” is defined as “any chemical… which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.” One of the four exceptions to ban the use of chemical weapons is “Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.” However, “law enforcement” and “riot control” are not defined in the CWC.  

The designation of teargas as a “riot control agent” has itself been enacted in a number of ways, as seen in history: Britain tied RCAs to colonial policing, US police used teargas in 1965 to suppress the march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, West Berlin police used teargas in 1969 to confront student protests, French authorities used teargas in 1968 to suppress student and worker uprisings. Teargas was, thus, no more a weapon only used in wars. 

Teargas was used as a weapon against protesters from the early 1900s as colonial policymakers didn't want to create 'martyrs' by shooting people dead.
Teargas was used as a weapon against protesters from the early 1900s as colonial policymakers didn't want to create 'martyrs' by shooting people dead. (Teargas was used as a weapon against protesters from the early 1900s as colonial policymakers didn't want to create 'martyrs' by shooting people dead. / AP)

Profits From Firing

Researcher Anna Feigenbaum has extensively written how teargas in domestic riot control is now inextricably linked with protest movements and demonstrations. This has also meant large-scale sale-and-purchase of teargas in various contexts, thus opening the door for commercial trade. Between 1962 and 1964, the UK made £350,000 in export sales of teargas to Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Portugal, Rhodesia and Singapore. As a run-up to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014, the Rio-based Condor secured a $22-million contract as part of the World Cup's security budget, providing teargas, rubber bullets, light and sound grenades, and tasers. In 2013, the group Bahrain Watch launched a campaign targeting Korean manufacturer DaeKwang Chemical Corporation, contracted to supply more than a million canisters of teargas to Bahrain during the anti-government protests in 2011, where over 40 people had died as a result of teargas-related offences. The campaign was eventually successful; DaekWang’s chief said the company was “unlikely” to provide future tear gas shipments to Bahrain. 

In the last few years, there has also been a rise in the inventory of non-lethal weapons among various security forces in India. A 2017 report by a prominent think-tank found that India’s Ministry of Home Affairs had recommended water cannons, teargas shells, stinger and dye-marker grenades, tasers and lasers, net guns, and stink bombs for crowd control during civil protests.

Prior to 1976, police forces in India were dependent on imported teargas munitions for riot control. The Tear Smoke Unit (TSU) was set up in 1976, based on technology developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) of the government of India. The TSU boasts the manufacturing of more than 75 types of munitions; all products listed under “shells” have an addendum: “Should be fired with an angle of about 45 degree to avoid direct hit. It should not be fired into the crowd.”

Yet, in India-administered Kashmir, the experience is far from this cautionary note. “They fire teargas into the compounds of people’s home or their rooftops. Sometimes the fired shell goes under a car; I have seen cars explode. During one protest in Khanyar, not far from Srinagar's city centre, they fired teargas towards the high-tension lines for power supply. The transformer burst, and the whole area did not have electricity for nearly two days,” said Masrat Zahra, an award-winning photojournalist based in Kashmir, who has experienced teargas several times during the course of her work.

Indian security forces have heavily relied on the use of teargas to crush various protests that stem from human rights violations and policy missteps of New Delhi.
Indian security forces have heavily relied on the use of teargas to crush various protests that stem from human rights violations and policy missteps of New Delhi. (AP)

Teargas during BLM in the US

The history of teargas also reflects philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea of the “boomerang effect”—wherein “a whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism on itself.”

John—the activist from Portland who faced teargas during protests following the murder of George Floyd—has a robust mental map of his city of Portland, Oregon; marking corners where he and others could hide to escape from the teargas fired by Portland police, Oregon state police, and federal government. “I never escape the sense of trauma while passing by the Justice Center in the Central precinct, where I faced teargas. It is a landscape of intense memories,” John told TRT World over Zoom, as he recounted how people’s houses in Portland were flooded with teargas, leaving children coughing and choking.

Even though there were demonstrations during the day in Portland, John was able to attend only the evening ones that commenced around 7pm, after work hours. “Even before we would start marching, riot cops would declare that what we are doing is unlawful, for reasons nobody knows. Then they’d fire off impact munitions, teargas canisters, and beat and arrest people. This went on all night. I would leave the protests sometime between 11pm and 1am, but there were people out until 4am,” John said, adding that he and his wife would stick together. Often, he found himself running several blocks away from the police, coughing and vomiting.

When he realized that teargas would be a regular feature, which was impacting his breathing and his eyes, John bought a paint respirator. Others wore sealed goggles. He and his wife worried about possible long-term health impact: “If the lungs are congested, I cannot imagine the horror of what could be happening to my wife’s menstrual cycle and reproductive system.” The impact of tear gas on menstrual health and reproductive health is being actively researched; way back in the 1980s, a UN spokesperson had linked miscarriages in Palestine to tear gas exposure.

A cloud of tear gas rises from the square in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque during clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops in January, 1988.
A cloud of tear gas rises from the square in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque during clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops in January, 1988. (AP)

John subsequently bought a full-face gas mask. “For all my protest gear, I have spent around $650, using money from whatever job I could get. But there are people who cannot even afford a paint respirator that costs $60, and were out only wearing a face mask to protect themselves against Covid. But this does not stop them from protesting. They are so much braver than I am,” John remarked.

John would wear two layers of clothes and follow a specific routine upon returning home from the protests. “I’d strip down completely in my backyard, because the clothes were soaking with so much teargas that it would upset my dog or roommate. If I didn’t wash my hair thoroughly after facing teargas, I could smell the sticky residue for days.”

 Teargas in Kashmir, and recent protests in India

In Kashmir, photojournalist Masrat Zahra’s experience is always the same: violent coughing, burning sensation in her eyes and skin. “Fridays are supposed to be peaceful days of prayers, but you never know when the police and paramilitary forces will fire teargas,” she said over the phone, late one night after work.

During protests, photographers would position themselves close to protesters, and so experiencing teargas is inevitable. “Few seconds after a loud bang, there is smoke everywhere. We cannot see anything, we cannot breathe; the skin begins to itch, and when it mixes with sweat, the skin feels like it's on fire,” Masrat described. Even when she is not covering a protest, she starts coughing if teargas is fired in another part of the city. She has been unable to purchase a “proper mask” because of its prohibitive cost, given her erratic earnings as a freelance photojournalist. Each time she has been out to cover protests, she has had to rely on her head scarf. 

In late 2019, as protests erupted across India against a new citizenship law—which discriminated against Muslims and thus went against the idea of India’s constitutional secularism—teargas was a daily encounter. “I had read about teargas as being common in conflict zones. I had never expected to face it myself near a university,” 25-year-old student Gehna Kapoor told TRT World on the phone. She had managed to escape unscathed. 

In December 2019, the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi—including the library where students were studying—was met with a burst of teargas. Men in army fatigues and armed with guns beat students who were studying; videos later emerged of the space lost in a white cloud and screaming students. Law student Saima Anjum took refuge in the library’s reading room on the first floor, after the ground floor was filled with teargas. The police broke down the reading room’s doors, and beat her classmates. She was nauseous and couldn’t see clearly. Universities across India evolved as the predominant sites of protest against the anti-citizenship law that would marginalize Muslims.

“I don’t know how I found my way out. A friend dragged me; we ran through undiscovered corners of the campus, then jumped the wall and entered the neighbouring mosque. We sat there for about an hour; I called my father. But he couldn’t get to me; the police was still lingering,” Anjum recounted over the phone. She spent the day at a relative’s house in the neighbourhood: going home would have meant encountering the police on the streets. “I imagined that the police might use teargas but never considered it dangerous until I experienced it firsthand.”

According to one historical research from India, due to the nature of public disorder, and close proximity of the police and the public, most often baton charging was used before switching to teargas to disperse large protests. This might explain why 450 teargas shells were fired in just two days in Delhi’s protests in December 2019 (which Anjum escaped); however, one student in Aligarh lost his hand when a teargas shell burst on it. Many students, obviously, were indiscriminately beaten by the batons.

Training for exposure

JB from the US Navy had to be prepared for “chemical warfare” and to know how to combat it. “While deployed in the Middle East, I was sleeping when I once heard the siren. Quickly, I sat up: with just socks, boxers, and a gas mask, because the siren had indicated possible chemical attack. It was some time before we got the all-clear signal to break the gas mask seal and take it off.”  

JB remembered the boot camp from 20 years ago in exacting detail, before his first deployment: “They put 75-100 of us, women and men, wearing gas masks, in a sealed dark room. Pills with the chemical composition of the gas are put on a hot plate, and a portable fan is used to blow its fumes towards our faces. As we removed the mask, the instructors got us to recite basic knowledge: ‘How many siblings do you have?’ That was done to get us talking, so that we would breathe through the teargas and think logically, even as our eyes, mouth and throat burned. The natural instinct was to hold our breath or breathe deeply. But that’s not possible, and so we had to learn how to breathe correctly, and think through panic.”

Once they got out, they had to flap their arms rapidly to get the chemicals off. “We have to blink our eyes a lot, clear our sinuses and nasal passages, and splash our face with water until we feel normal again. It was a miserable experience.” 

JB’s second training of being exposed to a non-lethal chemical weapon was the OC spray at another boot camp, only a few years ago. “OC is a different level of intensity, with strict training protocols for using it. The training involves being sprayed on the face, then disarming someone, controlling your own weapon, and running an obstacle course. With teargas, there is some delay in coughing, like smoking a cigar. OC is like having chillies thrown at your face. You will see it all on YouTube: some of them seem intense, some others just make me laugh as they freak out,” JB explained. 

I watched the videos on JB’s phone: young men, some with cherubic faces, maintaining a strong demeanour, as their eyes water, and they cough, choke, and spit out globs of saliva. “That’s why the military is called voluntary service.... so that they cannot say that they did not know what they were getting into,” JB flatly said.

Source: TRT World