Pellets: Lethal or not?

In Kashmir, more than 180 people are being treated for severe eye injuries because of pellets. Police claim that it is a "non lethal weapon".

A relative of Insha Malik, 14, sitting near her X-ray which shows her injuries. Insha was hit by pellets when she had peeped through a window in the second story of her home in South Kashmir (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

Pellets — round iron balls that have injured hundreds of Kashmiris in recent clashes with Indian security forces— have made headlines, spotlighting the government’s decision to use them.

But how much do we know about these pellets? A recent report from Physicians for Human Rights has shed more light on their controversial use.

They are used against crowds

The pellets used in Kashmir are fired from shotguns. They are ideal for firing at short range while aiming at no specific target. They were first designed by the military in Singapore in the 1880s to enable law enforcement officers to maintain distance from the group they are trying to control. The report classified pellet guns as ‘Kinetic Impact Projectiles’, which are “regularly used in crowd-control settings around the world”.

Pellets can cause a lot of damage

They are smaller than three millimetres in diameter, but they are deadly. According to the standard operating procedure laid out for paramilitary personnel, pellets should be fired from a distance of at least 50 metres. Ideally they should aim for the shoes. If fired at a close range, or aimed at the skull or vital organs, they can be fatal.

They are light, and they don’t follow a clear path when fired. They are loaded with lead, which often pierces the skin and eyes. Once the pellet hits the eye, it often rotates inside, causing severe damage, and even blinding the person.

Some varieties of pellets are coated in rubber, but a doctor at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital in Srinagar said the ones that have been recovered from injured Kashmiris “indicate that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is using bare-metal pellets which are more lethal than the rubber coated pellets.”

The use of pellet guns in Kashmir has increased over the years. This time, however, doctors at local hospitals said the number of cases was “unprecedented.”

Between July 9, when patients began arriving at SMHS, and July 23, the hospital admitted more than 180 people with pellet wounds to the eyes, say doctors. The protests claimed more than 50 lives, but only two people succumbed to injuries from pellets. Many others, however, were critically wounded by pellets.

This isn’t the first time pellets were used in Kashmir

Pellets were first used in Kashmir during the 2010 protests after a rising death toll compelled the government to search for non-lethal weapons to control crowds. Between 2010 and 2015, pellets claimed the lives of at least 10 people and injured more than 1500, according to data from RTI replies.

According to official data released by the Director General, CRPF, by July 24, security forces had fired over 2,000 pellet cartridges in Kashmir to disperse protesters. This was second only to tear smoke shells which were fired over 4,500 times.

Human rights groups have warned governments about them

Last year human rights watchdog Amnesty International asked the state government to stop the use of pellet guns after a teenager from Palhalan in Baramulla, Hamid Nazir, was hit by more than 100 pellets in his face and eyes, making him blind in one eye. In its report, Amnesty International had stated, “because of this high potential to cause unwarranted injury, including to bystanders and others, pellet guns should have no place in law enforcement.”

A global research report published in 2015 said “within 5 meters, the mortality rate in humans because of pellets can be as high as 85-90%.” The report also said, “indiscriminate KIPs that fire multiple projectiles, such as shotgun pellets and other types of ammunition should be prohibited in the context of protest. It is virtually impossible to deploy these safely and effectively against crowds or individuals.”

But the Director General of India’s CRPF recently said pellet guns, often used for crowd control in Kashmir Valley, were the “least-lethal” option available to security forces.

Many activists in Kashmir have called for the use of water cannons, colour grenades and other forms of non-lethal crowd-control weapons. However police have repeatedly said that “these crowd-control measures won’t help in Kashmir” and “pellets are their last resort and used in rarest of the rare situations.” The police say water cannons cannot be used because of the ‘ "narrow bylanes lanes in Kashmir" where most of the stone pelting incidents take place.

Security forces also pepper gas grenades in Kashmir. But it also has resulted in the deaths of elderly patients with respiratory problems.

In an article in Greater Kashmir, Rumana Makhdoomi, a doctor in the valley wrote, “none of the methods used at present in Kashmir for mob control are non-lethal,” and that police need to consult health experts before deciding what weapons need to be used for crowd control.

While the state government hasn’t commented on the issue of banning pellet guns, the police and CRPF have both opposed aban, because pellets are “far less harmful” compared to live ammunition.

However, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on Tuesday said the authorities cannot “justify their actions and make people disabled just because they are angry and protesting.” The high court further asked the government to review the use of pellet guns.