An expert panel set up by the home ministry has suggested alternatives to the so-called pellet guns used to disperse crowds in Kashmir. This could be good news. Tiny metal pellets fired in a burst from these shot guns, piercing protestors and bystanders alike, have maimed or blinded hundreds. In Srinagar, 21-year-old Riyaz Ahmad Shah, standing guard outside an ATM booth, died after 300 pellets were pumped into his body at close quarters.
Few other countries have used metal pellets on protesting crowds with such impunity. When 31-year-old Shaimaa’ El-Sabbagh was killed after the Egyptian police sprayed birdshot pellets on the demonstration that she was part of, an officer was charged with “battery that led to death” and sentenced to 15 years in prison in June 2015. Israel banned the use of rubber coated metal pellets after they killed 12 Arab-Israeli civilians in 2000 and a commission of inquiry concluded they were lethal weapons. However, the ban is not observed in the area known as Occupied Palestinian Territory.
After 48 days of protest, the Indian government has woken up to the need to find alternatives, but it must proceed with care. As a report by the Physicians for Human Rights points out, a spate of crowd control weapons have been developed over the past few years, in response to a rising tide of popular protests across the world. These weapons exist in a wilderness, with few regulations or protocols to guide their use and inadequate knowledge of how they affect the human body. The government panel has now recommended a fresh set of non-lethal weapons for Kashmir. Misused, they too could prove to be lethal.
On the whole, the committee seems to recommend a shift from kinetic impact projectiles, such as pellets, to a range of chemical irritants. These are compounds designed to cause sensory irritation, temporarily incapacitate the target and leave no lasting impact. The centrepiece of this new crowd control strategy is PAVA – Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide – shells, the synthetic form of oleoresin capsicum gas, or an extremely concentrated version of hot pepper.
Developed in the United States, it was originally used against wild animals but became part of the crowd control arsenal in the 1980s. The more diluted form of this is the pepper spray, recommended as self-defence for women walking on the streets of Delhi. PAVA shells are significantly more potent but have been declared “bio-safe” and the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, a laboratory under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, has reportedly been developing them for over a year. It has also been recommended that the tear gas shells be muscled up and made more potent.
The Physicians for Human Rights identifies several problems with chemical irritants. First, like pellets, they are indiscriminate, acting on protestor and passerby alike. Second, the effects of chemical irritants may not always be as short term as expected. They can cause serious damage to the eyes, skin, lungs and heart. They can leave lasting respiratory problems, physical disabilities and psychological scars. They can even kill, either through respiratory arrest or traumatic brain injury caused by flying canisters.
Tear gas is banned in warfare under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, signed by almost all countries, including India. But countries across the world use them liberally in domestic riot control.
When the United States erupted in protests after the police shot a black teenager in Ferguson, tear gas sprayed on angry crowds came to be seen as the mark of a repressive state. In Egypt in 2013, irate guards threw a canister into a prison van and shut the door, killing 37 of the 45 prisoners trapped inside.
In Kashmir, the protests of 2010 were triggered by the death of a schoolboy, 17-year-old Tufail Ahmad Mattoo who was walking home when he was allegedly hit by a tear gas shell. This year, an 18-year-old in the Valley met the same end.
But the government has not quite abandoned kinetic impact projectiles yet. Metal pellets in Kashmir could be replaced by CONDOR rubber bullet guns. Protests in the states of the North East have previously been put down by rubber bullets. These bullets would be larger than metal pellets and presumably less lethal, causing only superficial wounds.
The experience of various countries shows that they can cause small fractures and facial damage, and even prove lethal. In 1970, the British developed and used rubber bullets against Northern Ireland. The bullets were fired at the ground so that they would bounce up and injure the legs of protestors. Britain abandoned them in 1975 but other countries kept up the practice.
In Nepal in 2015, the police unleashed them on protestors agitating against the country’s new constitution, and killed four people, including a child. Egypt, Israel as well as the US have used them on civilians, often causing serious injuries.
In its report to the home ministry, the panel of experts is also likely to recommend the use of disorientation devices like stun or flash-bang grenades. Constructed like a regular grenade, this device is flung into the crowd after the key is removed. It sets off magnesium-based pyrotechnical chemicals, which create blinding flares of light and a loud sound.
In the 1970s, the British Special Air Service ordered the manufacture of stun grenades to aid its "counterrevolutionary " operations. Since then, they have been used in combat operations across strife torn countries in Africa and the Middle East. In recent years, it has become a method of crowd control in the USA and Israel.
The device can cause temporary loss of vision and hearing, though it has also been known to rupture eardrums and delicate membranes in the lung. As with tear gas canisters, shrapnel from the grenades can also kill.
No right weapon
The Centre seems to be making its way down the list of non-lethal weapons, in search of that magic bullet which will contain crowds without killing or maiming. But both government and security forces need to consider deeper operational changes.
Deploy enough forces to face a large crowd so that men in uniform do not fire out of panic. Set down a protocol that allows the use of non-lethal weapons as a last resort and recognises the fundamental right to protest. Train forces to use such weapons according to protocol. When there are lapses, hold security personnel accountable.
A simple change of weapon is not the only answer.