Pellet Injuries

A pellet is a non-spherical projectile designed to be fired from an air gun. Simply put, a pellet gun is a kind of small arms capable of shooting small projectiles in through pressurized air. Pellets are designed to travel at subsonic speeds. High velocities can cause light pellets to overly deform, or even break apart in flight. The transition from subsonic to supersonic velocities will cause almost all pellets to tumble. The closer a pellet gets to the speed of sound, the more unstable it becomes. Therecent violence in Jammu and Kashmir has brought pellet guns into focus. Over hundred people are being treated for severe eye injuries after security forces fired pellet guns to contain violence, Police claim that it is a “non-lethal weapon”, but doctors treating pellet victims say it maims a person forever.

Pellets are loaded with lead and once fired they disperse in huge numbers. They don’t follow a definite path. Pellets penetrate the skin’s soft tissues, and eye being the delicate structure is the most vulnerable to damage. Once the pellet goes inside an eye it shatters tissues and causes multiple damages to all parts of the eye. Normally they are round, but recently doctors have come across sharp edged and more irregular pellets. It was introduced by the state police in 2010 when more than 100 people were killed during the stone-pelting protests. One cartridge of a pellet gun contains a few hundred pellets which resemble ball bearings. The moment it is fired, the cartridge bursts and immediately throws hundreds of pellet from a single point.
Out of 117 cases, 106 surgeries have been performed in which five people lost one eye completely. Pellets were removed from some patients but in most of the cases pellets could not be removed from the eye(s). Some patients make a good recovery, but in most of the cases the patients fail to regain vision. No case has been reported so far in which the doctors successfully restored full vision.

In July 2016, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association had filed a petition seeking a ban on the use of pellet guns by the security forces to deal with violence in the state. However, the high court in its decision in September 2016, declined to ban pellet guns, justifying the use of force by security agencies as “inevitable” while dealing with protesters who take to violence. The court also clarified its disinclination to prohibit use of pellet guns till the expert committee constituted by the Union government to explore an alternative to pellet guns filed its report. The court instead directed health authorities to provide adequate treatment which is something that was beyond the scope of several healthcare facilities.The Union government stated that there cannot be a complete withdrawal of the use of pellet guns in the Valley, and merely suggested that softer material like polymer, soft plastic, rubber and even paper could be used instead of the pellets.The Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association then appealed in the Supreme Court. In the proceedings of this case, the latter demanded an assurance from the Union government that the pellet guns won’t be used ‘indiscriminately’ and ‘excessively’ against the people of Kashmir. The Supreme Court also sought the expert committee’s report from the government.

Even though India has not ratified the UN Convention against Torture, as a signatory to it pellet gun usage can be qualified as torture. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its Article 7 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Accordingly, pellet gun usage is a gross violation of human rights including the rights related to life, personal freedom, livelihood and work, which are all severely curtailed. It is indefensible on the part of the government that it continues to endorse the use of pellet guns.

On March 27, 2017, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to consider effective means other than use of pellet guns to quell stone pelting mobs in Jammu and Kashmir. It asserted that technology-based measures that protect both sides can be used. Whether the latest order by the apex court will be successful in putting an end to the use of pellet guns remains to be seen. Still, the use of pellet guns – or other supposedly non-lethal alternatives having similar capacities to injure – behoves strong opposition by all, especially the larger medical and public health community. Questions and challenges are always raised regarding these tools of crowd control which inflict immense injuries and clearly contribute to the violence in the state, and therefore to the deterioration of people’s health. There cannot and must not be any justification for their use anywhere, by anyone.

Amnesty International India in their article, “Losing Sight in Kashmir: The Impact of Pellet-Firing Shotguns” state that Pellet-firing shotguns, which have been responsible for blinding, killing and traumatizing hundreds of people in Kashmir, must be immediately banned.The briefing presents the cases of 88 people whose eyesight was damaged by metal pellets fired from pump-action shotguns used by the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) between 2014 and 2017.

Strategies do need to be developed to address and manage agitating and violent mobs with minimum force but there are few non-lethal weapons that can do this without inflicting injuries. Not many weapons can cause effects that are temporary and reversible without any medical intervention maybe there are such weapons but they certainly are not pellet guns. The fact that volatile conditions, inaccuracies in the aim of the pellets, over-use of the pellet guns and the perception of their harmlessness exacerbate the damaging effects of these guns. There is an urgent need to debate the use of non-lethal weapons especially pellet guns in crowd management and highlighting their lethal effects and the counter-effect of fuelling more protests which need to be considered to advocate for change in policy on their use. The government uses pretexts likecurbing “necessary evil” or “protecting national interests” to cover up the overwhelming evidence that pellet guns can seriously injure and kill.

The use of pellet guns as a crowd control tactic must be banned. Since 2010, these “non-lethal” weapons have caused serious injury and severe harm to thousands of Kashmiris. These pellets have not only injured the victims externally but also internally, crushes their dreams and abilities to make those dreams come true. Hundreds of innocent kids had to put their education on hold to get the treatment, their parents who already have a modest lifestyle, their livelihood became burdened with the costs of treatments and all kinds of medical bills, the children who would one day become the pride of their parents and the light of Kashmir now struggle to even sustain the light in their eyes, thus crushing not only the future of these parents but also the future of Kashmir.