By Prathamesh Mulye:
Specifications of defence equipment like mortars, shells & light machine guns, is available on the Government’s website, but fierce secrecy is maintained over pellet guns.
When 13-year-old Junaid Ahmed succumbed to pellet injuries, taking the death toll up to 89 in the unrest in Kashmir that was triggered by the death of Hizbul Mujahideen Commander Burhan Wani. The boy was hit by pellets fired by security forces on October 7. This was the second instance where a child was killed due to pellet injuries.
Despite the anti-riot weapon inflicting serious injuries on the protesters, pellet guns have emerged as the Government’s ‘weapon of choice’ to control the crowd. Pellet guns which are part of the standard operating procedure issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, are only widely used in Jammu and Kashmir against the protesters.
The image of Kashmiri youth with bandages on their eyes has become a common sight this year. As the protests peak, hospitals are filling up with victims of pellet injuries. By maiming and blinding scores of protesters, pellet guns have caused irreversible damage.
First introduced in 2010, the pump action guns have caused fatal injuries to Kashmiris. After using them extensively for six long years, the Government has refused to divulge information on the anti-riot weapon, rejecting an RTI application, which sought details about the manufacturers of pellet guns and the guns’ efficacy.
Venkatesh Nayak, the Programme Coordinator at the Common Wealth Human Rights Initiative, had filed an RTI, seeking information from the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) about the buyers, manufacturers, sale price, efficacy and specifications of the pellet guns. Ordnance Factory Board, which works under the Ministry of Defence, regulates the working of ordnance factories across India. He had also sought information on evaluation reports and impact of pellet guns on the humans. However, the OFB refused to share the information, claiming its ‘defence sensitive information.’
The RTI query was shot down under section 8 (1) (a) of the Right To Information Act, without stating how the disclosure of the information on pellet guns would “prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India and the security, strategic, scientific and economic interests of the state.”
While the information on pellet guns was denied, data on other defence equipment is freely available on the website of OFB. “Specifications of weapons like light machine guns and mortars, which are used by the army is provided on the website of OFB, but details of anti-riot weapons like pellet guns are kept under the wrap,” laments Nayak.
After the RTI application had been filed, it was forwarded to several desks by the OFB. The initial reply also stated that anti-riot weapons are not civilian trade items; hence the information on pellet guns can’t be revealed.
Response from another desk said that bore pump action guns are only issued to State Bank of India and State organisations, so the information on it can’t be revealed.
9 mm sized pellets which are being deployed against protesters in Kashmir are used in countries like UK and US to kill tigers, leopards and other soft skin animals. The lethality of the pellets is denoted by using numbers. Smaller the number, less the lethality of the pellets.
When security forces use shotguns against protesters, the only possible way to make them non-lethal is to fire from a distance of more than 50 meters. Research shows that “at a close range pellets are extremely lethal. If shot within 5 meters, the mortality rate in humans is 85-90 percent.”
The deployment of pellet guns by authoritarian Governments in the Middle East during the Arab Spring had also triggered massive outrage. In Bahrain, 11 protesters were killed by pellet guns in 2011, sparking global condemnation. Well-known Egyptian activist Shamia al-Sabbagh was hit on the head by the pellets fired by the police. Al-Sabbagh’s death has raised questions about the non-lethality of the guns globally.
The Kashmir Blind Spot Campaign, an initiative by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society claims that 300 cases of eye damage have been reported in the valley due to the use of pellet guns by security forces. From 4-year-old Zuhra Majeed to 14-year-old Insha Malik, pellets have caused irreversible damage.
Outlining the case of Insha Malik, a resident from South Kashmir’s Shopian, was blinded by pellets fired by security forces on July 12. Nayak said, “A girl looking through a window is not a part of your mob. These anti-riot weapons you are using against your own people. Several of the injured are not even participants in the protest.”
So are the pellets tested by Indian Government before being deployed against protesters? Nayak asserts: “If you are selling something like a riot control weapon, the objective is to control the riot. The primary goal is to prevent the deaths. You are firing on your own citizens. If you are selling something in the market saying that these are less lethal weapons, then you must be able to justify it.”
Pointing out that the taxpayers’ money is used to buy pellet guns, Nayak adds: “Efficacy of all other anti-riot weapons is mentioned in the standard operating procedure except for pellet guns. If somebody is selling wafers or coke, unless it is tested by some authority if it’s fit for consumption, it won’t be released in the market. However, there are no studies on the use of pellet guns in Indian condition.”
But despite the large-scale suffering, the Indian government has refused to do away with the use of pellet guns. The panel set up by the Home Ministry had suggested replacing pellet guns with pepper grenades (PAVA shells). The reason given for replacing pellet guns with PAVA shells is that they cause severe irritation to the eyes but doesn’t cause serious injuries. However, in 2013, three people were killed by chilli powder grenades. A week into using pepper grenades, the J&K Police had complained that PAVA or pepper shells may not be the ideal substitute for pellets.