India's 'non-lethal' weapon to crush protests in Kashmir takes lives - and those it doesn't kill, it maims permanently.
One September evening ten years ago, Amir was taking a brisk walk through the empty streets of Baramulla, not far from the border with Pakistan in Kashmir, when a group of Indian security forces opened fire at him near the old bridge.
“There had been clashes throughout the day, but it was calm at that time,” says Amir, 30, in the shade of the room where he is sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor. His face carries the marks of the shot that changed his life.
“I have undergone a lot of surgeries all over India,” he says, “but I’m still completely blind.”
Hundreds of metal balls hit him in his upper body, and he lost sight in both his eyes. Amir was the first reported victim of pellet guns in India-administered Kashmir. It was 2010, the year when security forces in the disputed territory were equipped with a new, devastating weapon to crush protests.
Conventionally used to kill animals, it’s not employed anywhere else on humans inside India – outside of Kashmir.
Pellet-firing pump-action shotguns, loaded with cartridges filled with 450-600 sharp lead pellets that burst when fired, with a wide shot radius - have been increasingly used for crowd-control in the Kashmir Valley. According to the protocol, it should be aimed at the ground, yet Indian security forces often aim at the faces and chests of protesters.
Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have repeatedly called on Indian authorities to ban the use of pellet guns to control unrest in Kashmir. Despite being termed as “non-lethal”, pellet guns have been responsible for blinding hundreds of people and killing at least 20 since July 2016, according to Amnesty International, who has profiled dozens in Kashmir who have lost, partially or totally, their eyesight.
Nestled in the Himalayas, Kashmir is at the centre of an unresolved territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, since the two countries were created from the ashes of British India, in 1947. From the end of the 80s, the territory under Indian control has been squashed between the Kashmiri separatist armed insurgency and the brutal repression of Indian security forces, that took a huge toll on the population longing for Azadi, or freedom.
The militancy (morally and logistically supported by Pakistan, historically), has given Delhi a free hand to impose on Kashmir – often described as “paradise on earth” by poets and writers – a de facto occupation, turning it into the most militarised territory in the world.
Kashmir is a place where people get killed (and blinded) even in times of peace and where torture is systematically used against civilians. On August 5, 2019, in the most far-reaching move in the region in the last thirty years, the Indian government stripped Kashmir of its autonomous status, jailed its top leaders and muzzled 8 million people under an unprecedented lockdown.
Violence erupts cyclically in Kashmir. In the summer of 2016, the valley was rocked by a fresh wave of protests. Asif was 9-years-old when he was shot near his house in Anantnag. It was one week after Hizb ul Mujahideen’s famous commander, Burhan Wani, was killed by Indian security forces and the curfew that lasted 53 days had temporarily been lifted.
“I was going to the shop when a police vehicle passed by, and some boys started throwing stones at it. Police shot them, and I’ve been hit by 15 pellets,” says Asif. One pellet hit him in his right eye, where he has lost all sight. Despite the difficulties from his reduced vision, Asif did not drop out of school and kept studying with the help of his friends.
The killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016 thrust the valley into months of unrest. Wani was a young and much-beloved militant, very popular on social media and among young Kashmiris. A generation born in the years when the chokehold of India’s forces on civilians got tighter, pushing many towards resistance.
“Wani’s martyrdom was the spark that lighted up the entire valley. The government imposed a four-months long curfew, while separatist leaders called for a continuous strike,” recalls photographer Camillo Pasquarelli, who has covered the 2016 uprising and met dozens of pellet victims who were blinded that summer, “Hundreds of young boys filled the streets protesting against ‘Indian occupation’. Since July 2016, security forces responded using pellet guns extensively.”
That summer, the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has admitted having fired more than 2000 pellet cartridges to disperse protesters in the two weeks following Wani’s killing. Over 50 percent of the 317 people injured that year, had been hit in the eyes.
The federal police claim pellet guns are the least lethal option to contain violent protests. According to the report “My world is dark” by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a human-rights watchdog in Kashmir, 3800 cases of pellet injuries and blinding have been registered since 2016.
However, APDP believes the number is much higher as many victims are afraid of reprisals. While many people were not involved in clashes with security forces when they were wounded, those who were, tend to avoid speaking out about it, fearing retaliation. Figures and statistics on victims are hardly precise and tend to be underestimated.
Manzoor, 18, was hit during the bloodshed in the summer of 2016. He took 20 pellets to his body, and he can only see blurred figures from his left eye – which forced him to drop out of school.
“Police forces shot me from a distance of less than 10 meters. I still have one pellet in my eye; the doctors said it’s too dangerous to remove it,” he claims.
“In some cases, people injured by pellet shotguns have the metal pellets still lodged in their skulls, near the eyes. Doctors have been afraid to remove them, out of fear it would affect their eyesight, but they are not sure what the long-term effects will be,” Zahoor Wani, a Senior Campaigner at Amnesty International India tells TRT World.
In 2017, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's representative to the United Nations, condemned India’s aggressive use of pellet guns calling it the “first mass blinding in human history.” Beside losing vision, many victims face trauma, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Women and small children too have become victims in this conflict.
“One night we heard some noise coming from outside the house. There were twenty policemen holding two tied-up boys with their face covered: it was a fake encounter [when suspected terrorists or militants get killed by officers in cold blood claiming it was a gun fight],” recalls Shakeela, 37, “I went out and started to shout at a Kashmiri policeman. He hit me with a stick, then I slapped him and told him that he should feel ashamed of what he is doing to his people. After a week, clashes were going on outside so I opened the gate, the same policeman was on the road. He saw me and opened fire. I immediately fainted, but I think I heard him laughing in the last moment.”
Dozens of pellets struck Shakeela in the chest and three in the eyes. Since she was shot from a short distance, the pellets went beyond the retina, leaving her with only 10 percent of her vision.
At the end of November 2019, a 19-month-old toddler was blinded by a pellet gun, reigniting the anger over its indiscriminate use.
According to the second report on human rights in Kashmir by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 1,253 people have been blinded by metal pellets from mid-2016 to the end of 2018. Authorities claim they only use pellet guns when protests get violent, and cops clash with stone-pelters.
The stone-throwing ritual known as kanijang – increasingly likened to the Palestinian intifada - is not new in Kashmir yet in the last decade has become the most significant manifestation of popular outrage. Young boys and adolescents with their faces hidden behind scarves, take up battle against Indian security forces.
When this violence erupts on the streets of Kashmiri cities after Friday’s prayers, it’s often the local charged with subduing the clashes. Many victims have reportedly been blinded by pellets shot by Kashmiri policemen, adding another layer of complexity to the conflict.
“Fearing to be booked as protesters by the government and face retaliation, victims don’t give their real names in the hospital, preventing them from even accessing the chance of compensation. In some cases, they are offered government jobs, but, in the end, no one is accountable for the violence. Kashmiris have lost faith in the judiciary,” explains Amnesty’s Wani.
“The government is trying to solve the problem militarily, but it has only exacerbated the reasons of protesters and radicalised the anti-India sentiment.”
Torture, curfews, shutdowns, mass arrests, firing on civilians, extra-judicial killings have been part of India’s control strategy for a long time, aggravating resentment towards the Indian occupation, that turned into a siege last August. Yet the indiscriminate use of ostensibly “non-lethal” pellet guns by security forces in Kashmir is a relatively new and devastating strategy that, despite having raised international outrage and national inquiries, continues unabated at a massive human cost.
“The government offers jobs to pellet victims,” says Aquib, 18, who dropped out of school after a partial loss of vision, “and in return, it takes our eyes.”
Editor's note: This story is made up of a combination of interviews taken with victims in 2017 and interviews conducted recently. This collection of photos were awarded 1st Prize in the LensCulture B&W Photography Awards in 2018.