Kashmir slowly limps towards normalcy as violence ebbs on its streets. The human cost of the unrest since July 9 has been catastrophic, with at least 93 people killed and thousands injured, both civilians and security forces.

Much was earlier made of using “non-lethal pellet guns” as a means of crowd-control. But as deaths of protestors and bystanders mounted, and as reports of grievous injuries caused to many of them by these so-called non-lethal pellets spread, it was gradually revealed that these were actually 12 gauge pump-action shotguns.

Following an outrage over those being treated for eye injuries, caused by pellets fired from these guns, that were potentially irreversible, Home Minister Rajnath Singh on July 26 approved the formation of an expert committee to find alternative methods of crowd control.

The committee in August recommended PAVA shells, comprising of chilli-based smoke, as an alternative.

Security forces on the ground, however, say these shells are only as effective as tear gas and are not a strong deterrent if protests occur in open areas.

Blown away

PAVA – Pelargonic acid vanillylamide – is an organic compound present in chillies that can also be synthetically manufactured. The much hyped alternative consists of the chemical as the payload in shells and is said to be much more potent than tear smoke.

But that is in theory. In practice, Rajesh Yadav, Central Reserved Police Force commandant, said PAVA shells were “like any tear smoke shell. ”Their effectiveness,” he said, “depended upon where they are deployed: effective if used in closed lanes and ineffective if used in open spaces.”

Despite their potency, the use of PAVA shells hasn’t been of much help as security forces have had to tackle mobs in open areas. Unlike the previous unrests, as in 2010 when urban areas were centres of protests, agitations this time have swept rural areas with large fields and open spaces.

Wind direction plays an important role as winds often direct the smoke away from protestors, making the shells ineffective.

“Even with the current potency,” a senior police official told Scroll.in, “the shells are not effective in dispersing the crowd.”

Stone pelting has become a regular activity in the valley, locally known as kani-jung or kani-ladai (stone wars). Over time, experienced stone pelters also learn to pick up and throw back the tear smoke shells at the forces.

The slow discharge from the shells makes it easier for the pelters. “They throw it back as it starts discharging,” the police officer added. “That is a disadvantage.”

Yadav, however, pointed out that these smoke shells are fired using launchers over distances of 100-130 yards.

“Even if the shells are thrown back, the wind might take them back towards the pelters,” Yadav said.”They [Stone pelters] can, at the maximum, throw them some 30-40 yards towards us.”

Based on feedback from forces, the Central government is said to be considering a reconfiguration of the PAVA shells to enhance their potency and effectiveness, PTI reported.

No alternative?

The ineffectiveness of the PAVA shells and other non-lethal weapons that were tried during the unrest leaves security forces with no better alternatives amid the mounting injuries caused due to pellets fired from pump-action shotguns.

The unprecedented upheaval in the initial days of the protests in July saw angry mobs attacking security forces camps. Countless incidents of stone pelting on security forces were reported across the valley.

The CRPF in its affidavit to the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in August said “In case, this (pellets fired from pump-action gun) is withdrawn from the options available with the CRPF, CRPF personnel would have no recourse in extreme situations but to open fire with rifles, which may cause more fatalities.”

It also informed the court that 3000 pellet cartridges were used in a span of 32 days, between July 8 and August 11. These so-called non-lethal pump-action guns were introduced in the valley after the 2010 unrest in which at least 120 protestors were killed.

Since July 8, at least four civilians, including a minor girl, have lost vision in both eyes while dozens have been blinded in one eye or left visually impaired due to pellets.

Two minor boys, not part of violent mobs, have been killed by pellets. On August 4, an ATM guard was killed by pellets fired at close range. More than 300 pellets were found in his body.

The Jammu and Kashmir High Court on September 22 declined to ban these pump-action guns. “So long as there is violence by unruly mobs,” the Court said, “use of force is inevitable.”