India: ‘Non-Lethal’ Pellets Blind Dozens in Kashmir

Amin Masoodi and Adeel Shah
Srinagar, India
2016-07-15
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160715-kashmir-pellets-620.jpg Umar Nazir, 11, who was hit in his face and abdomen by rubber pellets fired by security forces, recovers at a hospital in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, July 14, 2016.
Adeel Shah/BenarNews

Clutching her father’s hand at a Srinagar hospital where she is being treated for serious eye injuries sustained from rubber pellets fired by Indian security forces, Insha Mushtaq, 15, awaits a dark future.

“On Wednesday, I was in standing in the veranda when police started firing pellets in the direction of our house. I was hit all over my body, including my eyes,” Insha, a resident of south Kashmir’s Shopian district, told BenarNews at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital.

The team of ophthalmologists treating Insha said she completely lost vision in her left eye and they were struggling to save her right eye.

“We are trying our best to save her from complete blindness. But I am afraid there is a good chance we won’t be successful as the retina in her right eye is badly damaged,” Tariq Qureshi, chief of the hospital’s ophthalmology department, told BenarNews.

“Over the past week, we have performed eye surgeries on 103 victims, a large number of them children. In most cases, the victims have lost their vision in one or both eyes. We are overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims coming in daily,” Qureshi said, adding that his department was forced to refer many of those injured to Delhi hospitals.

Insha is one of at least 120 Kashmiri civilians, a majority of them children, undergoing treatment at the SMHS hospital for severe eye injuries as security forces continue to fire what they call “non-lethal rubber pellets” to quell violent protests following the July 8 killing of Bruhan Wani, 23, leader of separatist faction Hizbul Mujahideen.

As of late Friday, at least 38 people, including a policeman, have been killed and more than 1,600 injured in the weeklong clashes between protesters and security forces in curfew-bound Indian-administered Kashmir, police said.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir, claimed in its entirety by India and Pakistan, has been in the midst of a separatist insurgency since the late 1980s. According to official figures, more than 70,000 people, a majority of them Kashmiri civilians, have been killed since then.

Insha’s father, Mushtaq Ahmad, said he could not understand why security forces targeted his house.

“My daughter is not a terrorist. She is not a separatist. She is not fighting for freedom [from Indian rule]. Why is she lying in a hospital, facing a life of permanent darkness? What is her fault?” a visibly distraught Ahmad told BenarNews.

Recalling the events of Wednesday, Ahmad said protesters had clashed with security forces about a mile away from their house in Shopian’s Sedow village.

“Suddenly, the personnel deployed in our village started showering these pellets at my house, possibly to create terror,” he said.

Father: women and children were not spared

A few beds away, 11-year-old Umar – a thick bandage covering his right eye – was being attended to by a battery of doctors, as his father, Nazir Ahmad, wept uncontrollably.

“On Thursday, policemen were chasing some protesters and found my son standing outside our house. They fired on him from point blank range,” said Nazir, a government employee from Pulwama district. He also said security forces, in their quest to quell pro-separatist voices, were not sparing women and children.

Umar suffered injuries to his face and abdomen.

“Doctors have removed at least five pellets lodged in his abdomen, but they have yet to operate on his right eye, which was hit by three pellets,” Nazir said.

Dr. Sudarshan Kumar said many of the victims probably would never be able to see again. Kumar and a three-member team of ophthalmologists reached Srinagar, which is reeling under a shortage of medical supplies and doctors, on Thursday.

“Most of them have suffered severe eye injuries. It is difficult to say that those whose retina has been damages would regain sight even after surgery,” Kumar told BenarNews, adding he had never seen so many pellet victims in his career.

Even as Kashmir’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which runs a coalition government in the state with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on Friday called for a blanket ban on the use of rubber pellets by security forces, police said they serve a purpose.

“We do not have any other means to disperse violent protesters who have been attacking security installations and our men by throwing stones despite the fact that there is a curfew in place,” K. Rajendra, the state’s director general of police, told BenarNews.

“Acting on government directions, we have been exercising maximum restraint,” he said, while regretting injuries suffered by some innocent Kashmiris. “But the situation in some areas is now gradually returning to normal,” he added.

PDP legislator Ashraf Mir said his party will push to ban pellet guns in Kashmir.

“Pellet guns were introduced in 2010 as a non-lethal alternative to quell violent protests. But clearly, as we can see, these are hardly non-lethal,” Mir said.

Jammu and Kashmir Health Minister Asiya Naqash agreed.

“I am shocked to learn that security forces are indiscriminately firing rubber pellets at protesters. This must stop,” Naqash told BenarNews.

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