The events in Kashmir following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8 have been keenly tracked and debated by the Indian media and of particular concern has been the use of so-called non-lethal pellet guns to control protesters.

This term for the weapon seems to have been coined by the Indian defence establishment, dished out by officials and accepted wholeheartedly by the media. It has been repeated so many times in the past fortnight that it seems as though there is some unique and harmless weapon of this sort in existence in Kashmir.

On Thursday, for instance, even as Home Minister Rajnath Singh had said that Centre would look into the use in these weapons in Kashmir, Central Reserve Police Force Director General K Durga Prasad claimed that the authorities do not have an alternative to pellet guns.

But in the two weeks since the Valley erupted in protests after Wani's death, clashes between security personnel and protestors have killed at least 43 people so far – the list of the injured runs into thousands. A morbid subset emerging out of those injured are the hundreds being treated for eye injuries that are potentially irreversible. Many of these injuries and some of these deaths have been caused by the use of the so-called non-lethal pellet guns.

War memories

However, a cursory examination of images of these guns presents a different picture. These are actually 12 gauge pump-action shotguns manufactured by the Indian Ordnance Factory at Ishapore. They have been in production since the 1990s and are crudely copied from the American Mossberg 500 series.

The Mossberg 500 series is in use by armed forces in many countries – it was employed by the US Marines in the Gulf war, Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan.

Since their first use in trench warfare in World War 1, American-designed pump action shotguns have been known to be extremely lethal for close-quarter combat.

Shotguns were primarily designed for hunting, and can be used to kill a wide variety of animals and birds. Depending on factors such as size and distance of the quarry, cartridges with different pellet or shot size can be used from the same gun.

Lethal at close range

While the external appearance and internal design of the cartridge remains the same, the size and quantity of the lead shot or pellets inside varies. For instance, 9-mm sized pellets (called LG in the UK or Double O Buck in the US) fired from a shotgun have been regularly used in the past to kill tigers, leopards and other soft-skinned animals in India.

Smaller pellets (called birdshot) have been designed to kill small animals and birds, and are denoted using numbers. This numerical nomenclature is inversely proportional to the size of the shot or pellet. Also, the bigger the pellets, the fewer of them are needed to fill the cartridge and vice versa. So, a No. 1 shot is the largest pellet size and the smallest number of these are used in a cartridge, while No. 12 is smaller and more numerous.

The cartridges being used against protesters in Kashmir are said to be No.6 (about 300 pellets of 2.79 mm each) and No.9 (about 600 pellets of 2.30 mm each). These have an effective range of 35 to 45 meters and can shoot down birds like partridges and quails while in flight.

But at close range, they can be much more devastating.

When birdshot is fired, the pellets leave the barrel as a compact group and begin to spread out after travelling a few meters. By the time they’ve covered 30 to 40 metres, the pellets have spread out enough to cover anything within a one-metre diameter.

But within a few meters of leaving the barrel, the pellets are still in a compact group and moving at very high velocity. At this close range, birdshot is extremely lethal, enough to blow a human skull to bits. Within 5 meters, the mortality rate in humans is 85-90%, shows research.

Moreover, its capacity to blind and maim remains effective for more than 50 meters.

So, when armed forces in Kashmir use shotguns with birdshot against protesters, the only way to make the weapon “non-lethal” is to shoot at a range of 50 meters and more – and even then it can still cause irreversible harm. Second, that discretion has to be made by a soldier who is often at the receiving end of the stones being hurled at him by protesters.

Lessons not learnt?

In recent years, the use of birdshot against protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain has been widely criticised. In Bahrain, at least 11 people were killed by birdshot during a crackdown on protests in 2011, resulting in international outrage. But India doesn’t need to go that far in search of an example. This weapon was first used in Kashmir during the 2010 protests after a steadily rising death toll compelled the government to search for non-lethal weapons to control mobs. However, since that year, at least 10 people have reportedly been killed by the use of the shotgun with birdshot, and 1,500 injured.

For the Indian government to assert that “non-lethal pellet guns" are in use is patently false. This has succeeded in confusing everybody into believing that something akin to rubber bullets, paint balls, or an air gun is being used when what’s been employed to curb protests is, in fact, a conventional weapon designed for armed combat.

Akshay Singh is a cinematographer and has been a junior national-level trap shooter and Government of India-certified "renowned shot".