SRINAGAR, India — Indian authorities call the shotgun shells filled with hundreds of small metal pellets a “non-lethal” weapon for crowd control, but that does not make them harmless. They’ve inflicted a permanent toll on hundreds of Kashmiris hit by them.
Their faces are scarred. Their eyes are damaged or simply gone, replaced with prosthetics. And their psychological wounds run deeper still.
“What I miss most is being able to read the holy Quran,” says Firdous Ahmad Dar, 25, a Kashmiri man who lost vision in both eyes after being shot with the pellets during an anti-India protest in the troubled Himalayan region.
The pellets have been in use here since 2010. Soldiers are trained to fire the shotguns below protesters’ waists, causing immense pain but — in theory — no permanent injuries. But a police official acknowledged that the rules are “more or less not followed because of the intensity of stone-throwing protests. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.
The latest wave of protests began in early July after Indian troops killed Burhan Wani, a young and charismatic militant commander. As government troops cracked down on angry street protests in the Kashmir valley, shotguns were their weapon of choice.
Health officials say that in the past five months more than 6,000 people, mostly young men, have been injured by shotgun pellets, including hundreds blinded in one or both eyes. Police and hospital officials say the pellets have killed at least eight people, though a prominent local rights group, Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, says the death toll from the pellets is 18.
International groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for an end to the use of shotguns, which shower pellets widely. In July, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh cautioned security forces to minimize use of the weapons, but that warning had little apparent effect. As recently as last week, at least 30 people were injured when troops fired shotguns to quell rock-throwing protests.
Some of those injured were protesters, others just bystanders.
Insha Mushtaq Malik, 14, was standing by the window of her village home watching protesters and troops skirmish when more than 100 pellets hit her face. She lost both eyes.
“Everything looks dark and black,” she says, as smiles and sadness take turns flitting across her face. Five months after she lost her eyes, Malik is still learning how to deal with her loss, both emotionally and practically. She needs help with everything, including climbing the stairs, going to the bathroom and getting dressed.
Photojournalist Xuhaib Maqbool ended up losing vision in his left eye as he shot images of protesters chanting anti-India slogans and demanding “azadi” — freedom from Indian rule.
He says he clearly raised his camera to show the soldier who shot at him that he was not a protester.
“I want to ask him why,” he says.
A cycle of violence is repeating itself constantly in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Angry protests are quelled by force that in turn feeds more simmering rage.
But sometimes all it leaves behind is pain and helplessness.
For Dar, it means being completely dependent on the family he once supported by driving an autorickshaw.
“My dream was to educate my young siblings, but now they are helping me,” he says.
The rest of his family is busy in the courtyard preparing for his sister’s wedding. Dar now has no role to play. “Very old men are now looking after young men.”