The unceasing use of purported “non-lethal” weapons in volatile Jammu and Kashmir has been causing serious injuries, including death, to civilians.  The most recent victim was a young man from Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed’s constituency of Bijbehara in South Kashmir.

Naseer Ahmad Dar, 30, was hit on the head by a tear-gas shell last Wednesday during clashes with government forces during a demonstration against the killing of another youth the previous week by a mob in Jammu’s Udhampur district over the beef ban.

Teargas is categorised as a non-lethal weapon, used mainly to disperse protestors, but it has killed several youth in the Valley since 2010. In June that year, Tufail Mattoo, 17, was killed when a teargas shell fired by the police blew off his skull. This sparked off an uprising that lasted several months.

So-called non-lethal weapons have been in use in Kashmir since August 2010, when 62 civilians were killed by security forces during protests. Shortly after, an Indian Air Force plane landed in Srinagar with a consignment of teargas shells, US-made Taser guns, Pump Action Guns or PAGs and pepper balls.

The teargas shells discharge smoke that causes discomfort to eyes, forcing people in the vicinity to flee. Taser guns discharge a 9-volt current that momentarily immobilises a person, while the Pump Action Guns fire dozens of pellets at one shot. Pepper balls, meanwhile, discharge noxious fumes.  Of these, teargas shells and pellets are widely used by the law-enforcement agencies to control crowds during protests.

The use continues 

Deploying these "non-lethal" weapons was intended to minimise physical injuries and harm to protesters but their use has not yielded the desired result. Last fortnight, fumes from a stun-grenade fired by the police during protests hit nine-year-old Aamir Ahmed Ahangar. He is currently being treated for burn injuries on his face and arm at a Srinagar hospital. Doctors said that his injuries are a rare case.

Human rights activist Mannan Bukhari has documented the damage caused by pellets in his recently released book, Kashmir – Scars of Pellet Gun. Since 2010, he said, at least 10 people have been killed and more than 1500 seriously injured due to these pellets. “The injured are the ones who needed surgical procedures, 70% among them had damaged eyes,” said Bukhari, who heads the human rights division of the Hurriyat Conference.

“Only the victims and their families know how life becomes hellish for them," Bukhari said. "Their dreams are shattered, they are maimed for life and they are half dead. The brutal pellet attacks are still on their minds and the nightmares of that tragedy are still haunting them. They suffer and due to this problem most of the victims face sleep disorders. Besides these victims, their families are also suffering from severe anxiety and depression.”

In March 2013, three people died due to exposure to pepper gas. At the time, Amnesty International had urged security forces to suspend the use of pepper gas in the state and “revert to previously tested and less potentially harmful methods of crowd dispersal until rigorous independent investigations can be conducted to assess its effects on the public”.

On May 21, after more than 100 pellets hit Hamid Nazir Bhat, 16, during a protest in Palhallan, Aasiya Naqash, junior health minister, belonging to the People's Democratic Party asked her own government to ban use of the pellet guns. “There should be total ban on the weapon," she said. "I was shocked to see his condition. It was so painful.” The government responded by saying that these issues would be resolved with time.

Then and now

While in opposition, the PDP had staged a walkout from the assembly to protest the use of pellet guns. Mehbooba Mufti, the PDP president, had charged the National Conference government with turning the state into a testing field for new instruments of repression, calling the pellet gun as the worst of them, for  having "rendered scores permanently disabled" and dozens losing their vision.

“The government is engaging youth only through brute force and has never tried to reach out to them to understand their frustration with the system," Mehbooba had charged. "It is a cruel irony that this government is projecting introduction of pellet guns and chilli grenades as some kind of a mercy by sparing their life and taking away their vision,” she had said.

But so far, after her party formed an alliance government with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling dispensation has not attempted to check the use of these weapons.

On October 5, the government said that only three people had suffered pellet injuries this year so far. But Bukhari dismissed the claim as “a bundle of lies to obfuscate facts" and pointed out that "at least 15 persons have been critically injured" this year who had to undergo operative procedures, "besides dozens suffering minor injuries due to pellet guns this year”.