In the congested lanes of downtown Srinagar, Peer Wasim was angry. His nephew had gone to a picnic spot in Srinagar when they expected a visitor at home. “What will he see there?” Wasim demanded of the boy’s mother. Sixteen-year-old Farzan Sheikh has lost more than 70% of his vision after being hit by pellets.

Sheikh was hit twice in six months. The first time, the pellets claimed his right eye. The second time, they flew into the left. Craters and cracks in the mud plasters, broken mirrors and shards of window glass around the family living room offer a peep into the young boy’s angry mind.

Sheikh’s case is one among at least 1,726 mentioned in a file lying with the State Human Rights Commission and registered for a hearing at the statutory body. Even though the recommendations of the commission are routinely trashed by the state government, Sheikh’s family have pinned their hopes on it.

A relief policy

After the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by security forces in July 2016 triggered months of protests in the Valley, hundreds of agitating youth were hit by pellets, used as a crowd control measure by troops.

Over the last few months, the state government has spoken of a relief policy for such individuals. In December, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti handed out job appointments to visually impaired pellet victims. “This is in continuation of her earlier measures taken for the rehabilitation of the victims of violence during the unrest of last year,” a government spokesman said at the time. The handout did not specify the nature of jobs given.

In September, the state government reportedly doled out compensation to pellet victims. In November, it told the human rights body that 1,726 pellet victims had been identified and that it would look into the possibility of jobs for the worst affected.

But the hearing scheduled for December 28 was postponed. Officials say it may now be held in February. Meanwhile, Sheikh’s family, unable to afford treatment, desperately waits for some reprieve.

Insha Mushtaq, who was blinded in both eyes by pellets, with her mother in Shopian. (Credit: Waseem Andrabi / HT)

Healing touch?

While the Mehbooba Mufti government has made relief for pellet victims and an amnesty programme that pardons stone pelters who are “first-time offenders” the centrepiece of confidence building measures in the Valley and the People’s Democratic Party’s “healing touch” initiative, many of the intended beneficiaries are in the dark about such schemes or how they work.

Wasim says he was unaware of the policy regarding pellet victims. It was only after a clerk at the police station, where a first information report is lodged against Sheikh, suggested that Wasim approach the State Human Rights Commission that he did so.

“We hope something might happen,” Wasim said, referring to the process pending at the commission. “We heard in the news about people who got jobs or support from the government. But we do not know what the policy is, we have received no communication about anything.”

Sheikh is increasingly frustrated with his situation, Wasim said, pushing aside a plastic bag full of his nephew’s medical documents and certificates of his disability. “He feels helpless sometimes. If something more happens, he says, I will go with them,” Wasim said, moulding his hands to the shape of a gun. In his desperation, the visually impaired teenager had wanted to join militant ranks, the gesture implied.

Wasim, a small-time businessman, has borne the costs of Sheikh’s treatment so far and is now pursuing the case at the human rights commission.

Expressing his frustration, Sheikh said, “Why can’t I go to school without help? I can’t even pick my clothes or take a bath by myself.” He added, “I only want my eyesight back.”

There are many others who are puzzled by the government policy. Ashraf Ganai, a 21-year-old student, and 30-year-old shopkeeper Mohammad Shafi, both residents of Srinagar, had arrived at the commission after being convinced by a neighbour who works there. Neither had any knowledge of a rehabilitation policy or what was to be expected from the hearing. “I am not sure what or how they will help us,” Ganai said. “All we have is hope that something good will come of it.”

Hurdle in reconciliation

Confusion prevails over various aspects of the policy, not least the number of pellet victims eligible for relief. In July, a year after the unrest erupted, the Department of Health Services Kashmir put the number of pellet victims across the Valley at 9,042. It gave out this number in response to a right to information petition filed by a human rights activist. In another instance, the health department provided a figure of 6,000 pellet injuries.

However, the list of 1,726 pellet victims provided to the human rights commission after being routed through the concerned district commissioners is also compiled by the same health department. In November, the government cited this number while saying there were over 2,500 pellet victims but that not all of them had been identified and that data from two districts was awaited. Later, one of these districts claimed it had no pellet victims while the other reported four victims.

Now, health department officials say the number has been pared down to around 1,730 after verification. They did not clarify what this verification process was.

Officials of the health department, not authorised to speak to the press, said the figures were initially inflated due to duplication: a patient was registered at a hospital where he or she received first aid and was then referred to a bigger hospital, where they were registered again. During the unrest, several patients avoided giving their real names, fearing police action for having taken part in protests or stone-pelting. At different hospitals, they often used different names. The health department merely put together all entries and considered them individual cases, the officials said.

All through the unrest, the varying figures provided by the health department led to a high count of pellet victims, further fuelling anger on the streets.

According to health department officials now, there were 1,700 to 1,800 people who were hit by pellets and about 700 of them sustained ocular injuries. At least 23 of this 700 were blinded in both eyes and at least 116 in one eye.

Meanwhile, outside the public announcements, the government maintains a stoic silence on the details of its policy. made repeated attempts to contact government spokesperson Naeem Akhtar, Kashmir divisional commissioner Baseer Khan, Kashmir director of health services Saleem ur Rehman and his public relations officers. None was available for comment on this subject.

The Opposition has now called upon the government to clarify. “We are not sure about the numbers but if the figures were nearly 10,000, I don’t understand how it could be around 1,700,” said National Conference spokesperson Junaid Mattu. “It is up to the government to be very transparent and very forthright if it wants reconciliation. The reconciliation effort has to be preceded by truth. It [the government] needs to be very honest about the damage done, the injuries caused to youth of the state during its tenure.”

Mattu said that unless the government was transparent, the process of reconciliation would be “irrelevant and fictitious”.