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On July 8, three young men huddled inside a wooden hut near Bundoora village in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, bracing for an attack by a team of Indian special operations forces. The state is the subject of a long-running territorial dispute with neighboring Pakistan, which has, in turn, birthed a local independence movement that at times erupts into violence.
The ensuing gunfight lasted barely two hours, and the three men in the hut, all in their early twenties, were killed. One of the dead was Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, a loosely organized group of fewer than 100 armed fighters operating in Kashmir. Wani had become a hero in the eyes of many young, disenfranchised Kashmiri boys since he turned to militancy in 2010, at the age of 15—after Burhan and his brother were beaten by Indian police officers. Wani, known as the Che Guevara of Kashmir, was so popular on social media that he became a household name while he was alive; his death has amplified his cause.
After Indian media reported Wani’s death on July 9, the Kashmir Valley erupted, leading to the worst violence since 2010, when anger against Indian occupation boiled over into widespread protest. At the time, towns in Kashmir were kept under curfew for three months, Internet and phone services were cut, and the hospitals overflowed with a steady stream of injured and dying. Over 110 protesters, most of them young men and boys, were killed—largely at the hands of Indian security forces. Recent weeks have echoed the horror of six years ago: video footage of the current curfews in Kashmir shows neighborhoods cordoned off by barbed wire coils and deserted streets patrolled by police and other security forces. Another 36 people were killed in just six days from July 9 to July 15, and 3,500 more were seriously injured, including 1,500 security personnel.
SAME OLD STORY
Protests in Kashmir have overwhelmed Indian police forces for decades. Often, they result in the intervention of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a national, militarized police force trained in counterterrorism operations. The CRPF was also deployed to Kashmir in 2010, and has a long history of using aggressive and controversial crowd-control methods, from pepper spray and pellet guns to live ammunition.
Yet the CRPF—which is trained for military and counterterrorism operations rather than law enforcement—should not have been required to intervene in the first place. That it was is a reflection of the Indian government’s failure to train and equip police in line with international standards on the proportionate and targeted use of force. As a result of this failure, the CRPF and local police have fired pellet guns and live ammunition indiscriminately into crowds, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries and further inflaming tensions. Citizen journalists and activists in Kashmir have flooded social media with videos and images of injured protesters lying, row upon row, in the local hospitals—most of them wounded by pellet guns.
The use of brutal force to quell unrest in Kashmir is nothing new.
The use of brutal force to quell unrest in Kashmir is nothing new. International human rights observers have long criticized Indian security forces for the use of excessive force against protesters. Pellet guns, however, have become particularly controversial since 2010, when they became a standard tool for the Jammu and Kashmir police in dealing with even minor threats to public order such as stone-throwing. Large incidents in which many are killed or injured are thankfully rare. But demonstrations have become a regular feature of life in Kashmir since 2008, and the regular clashes between pellet gun-armed police and local youth have set the region on a constant low boil.
BITING THE PELLET
The most recent round of pellet gun–related injuries has caused an outcry loud enough to reach ears in Delhi. The Indian government has asked teams of medical professionals, and eye doctors in particular, to volunteer in Kashmiri hospitals to help treat injured protestors. One of those travelling doctors, Dr. Sudarshan Khokhar—an ophthalmologist from the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi—recently told the English-language daily Indian Express, “Pellet guns shouldn’t be used here or anywhere.”
Pellet guns belong to a group of controversial crowd control weapons known as kinetic impact projectiles, or KIPs, originally developed by the British to put down protests in the colonies. International standards on the use of force by law enforcement, as well as the manufacturer guidelines, recommend that weapons like pellet guns should be aimed at the legs, not at vital areas of the body such as the head. “Lethal in Disguise,” a report on crowd control weapons produced by the ACLU, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations, and Physicians for Human Rights, says that KIPs cannot be safely used against crowds. Even pellet gun manufacturers recommend against using their products for crowd control.
That has not stopped police in Kashmir. In recent weeks, doctors at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar have said that they found pellets embedded in protesters’ skin, even though pellets are not designed to cause internal damage. Eye injuries are the most common. More than 100 patients at Shri Maharaja have lost at least partial vision from eye injuries, and out of 117 people admitted to the hospital with eye injuries, 106 underwent surgeries to remove pellet shards. In many cases, the doctors are unable to completely remove the shards, and few people have regained full vision. Five patients lost an eye entirely.
It is notoriously difficult to hit a target with a pellet gun. According to police officials in India, the pellet guns used against protesters in Kashmir fire large cartridges, resembling ball bearings, that contain up to 500 pellets made of metal or composite metal and plastic. When fired, the gun releases the pellets with an indiscriminate spray that is impossible for the shooter to control, particularly when firing from a distance. The weapons’ imprecision partly explains the large number of injuries to vital parts of the body, as well as to onlookers. For example, pellets have found their way through the windows of people’s homes and have struck bystanders running for cover in the streets. In a video report in the Indian Express, a five-year-old girl named Zohra Farooq shows the pellet wounds on her legs, swollen and red, while sitting on her hospital bed. She was shot by policemen outside of her home. In another case, a nine-year-old girl, interviewed by an Al Jazeerareporter in Ganderbal, was watching the protests from inside her home when a pellet came through the window and struck her in the eye.
Throughout India, police forces remain abysmally paid and poorly trained, and they lack the necessary resources to do their jobs well.
Even police have lamented the use of pellet guns, as well as the lack of proper equipment and training that has left them with little in the way of viable options for dealing with protests. In a July 14 article on ScoopWhoop, an Indian website similar to BuzzFeed,five Jammu and Kashmir police officers expressed their fear and frustration with policing riots and the lack of resources they have to do their jobs. One police officer argued that although pellets should be banned, the government must first take steps to provide the police with better alternatives—for instance, less harmful KIPs, and better training in their use.
Throughout India, police forces remain abysmally paid and poorly trained, and they lack the necessary resources to do their jobs well. In Kashmir, these systemic flaws are especially glaring, and an overwhelmed police force is struggling to contain protests with little training and an overreliance on dangerous weapons. Matters are even worse in Kashmir because police there are also charged with combatting terrorism. Broad counterterrorism laws allow for arbitrary detention of Kashmiris by Indian security forces, and local youth are routinely arrested and then coerced into informing on their peers for minor infractions such as stone-throwing. This exacerbates tensions between the police and the local population, and furthers the perception among the latter that the Indian police presence is just one more expression of India’s illegitimate occupation of Kashmir.
The latest round of deaths and injuries is, above all, the result of the Indian state’s failure to respect the rights and dignity of Kashmiris. The indiscriminate violence only begets more anger and violence. Ending this destructive cycle begins with police reform and granting Kashmiris the rights to free speech and freedom of assembly that they have long been denied. In the meantime, a good first step would be to replace the bullets and pellets with less deadly equipment and deploy a better-trained police force.