Staring in the dark: Silent struggle of Kashmir’s young pellet victims
On the afternoon of September 18, 2010, Amir Kabir was near the gate of a government hospital in Baramulla clutching his mother’s prescription. All of a sudden, he heard a loud thud and everything went dark forever.
Amir, then an 18-year-old student of class 12, is one of many Kashmiri young men who have lost their eyesight completely to pellets — a so-called non-lethal alternative to bullets introduced by security forces in the Valley in 2010 to quell protests.
When a pellet shot is fired, hundreds of minute metallic particles jet out and penetrate the target. Each cartridge put in the pump gun contains around 500 pellets.
A series of right to information (RTI) applications filed in 2013-14 by Mannan Bukhari, head of the human rights cell of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, reveal more than 300 pellet-hit patients were treated in Srinagar’s government hospitals from 2010 to 2014. At least 16 of them lost their sight completely. Bukhari says the number could be higher.
Without his eyes, Amir lost all possibilities of living an independent life. Five years on, he feels he has been completely neglected by the state and its institutions.
He said people in Baramulla helped his family through the crisis but nothing considerable came from the political quarters. Treatment at hospitals in Amritsar, Delhi, Indore and Chennai strained his family’s finances to the brink, he says.
The family depends on the earnings of Amir’s father, a clothes trader, and his elder brother, who runs a footwear business.
In the darkness that engulfed his young life, Amir found selfless support from wife Nadiya Qureshi, who was his girlfriend from his school days.
Nadiya, a distant cousin, and Amir met in 2007 and instantly fell in love. When he went blind from the pellet wound, there was pressure on her to move out of the relationship. But all along she stood by him and they got married in 2013 after six years of courtship.
“Relatives told me not to marry Amir, explaining that there would be many problems because of his condition. But I stuck to my decision and, finally, after a lot of hassles we married in 2013,” Nadiya said.
In August, the couple was blessed with a boy. They named him Hammad, meaning “praised” in Arabic.
Nadiya is pursuing her graduation in history through a distance learning course from Kashmir University and plans to apply for a job.
Amir now finds solace in religion, spending a lot of time at the nearby mosque.
“After I lost my eyesight, I have devoted my entire life to Allah. I download audio clips of verses from the holy Quran and memorise them, recite them,” said Amir, sitting in his carpeted room in the north Kashmir town with snow-capped mountains making a dazzling background.
Back in high school, Amir wanted to become a singer. In the album that Jahanara Begum maintains of her son, there are photos of him posing with a guitar.
“My favourite song was a Sonu Nigam number from the Akshay Kumar-starrer Sangharsh. I used to love singing that song in school,” Amir says.
But after that autumn afternoon, he has quit singing Bollywood songs. All he sings now are Naats, praising the Allah.
Amir is lucky to be alive. In 2010, when pellet guns were first used, teenager Irshad Ahmad Parray and 20-year-old Mudasir Nazir lost their lives.
Over the years, scores of young boys have lost their eyesight and mobility to pellets. Earlier this year, Hamid Nazir Bhat – a 16-year-old boy from Palhalan in north Kashmir – lost his right eye to pellets. Last week, another 16-year-old, Suhail Ahmad Bhat, was blinded in the right eye when police shot pellets during a protest against the national food security act to be implemented in the state next year.
Like Amir, Farooq Ahmad Malla — a 22-year-old resident of Hajin town in north Kashmir — was completely blinded by pellets on March 17, 2014.
He has a similar story of grief to tell. “Before the incident I used to work as a driver. Now, I do nothing … just sit and pass time,” he says.
Security forces fired pellets to disperse a mob of stone-pelters. Farooq says he was not part of it. He and a cousin had gone out for a stroll when they were shot at.
“We are poor, my father is a daily wage earner and my two elder brothers live separately. My treatment cost around Rs 5 lakh in Srinagar and Amritsar. But my vision didn’t come back,” he laments.
Activists say many pellet victims refrain from coming to government hospitals fearing arrests or they do not disclose their wound for the fear of being branded miscreants.
“Victims are scared because a pellet injury could lead to suspicion that they were stone throwers. Authorities, including hospitals, do their best to cover-up pellet incidents. As a result, official figures of pellet wounds are far from accurate,” senior advocate Aijaz Dar says.
In 2014, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti walked out of the state assembly to protest against the use of pellet guns. A year on, after forming the coalition government with the BJP, her rage against pellets is nowhere to be seen, political observers say.
The writer tweets as @saha_abhi1990