'Non-lethal' weapons add to the terror in Kashmir

Police seeks to limit casualties in troubled region but doctors say elderly and children still at risk

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 2:12am


Gasping for breath and confined to her bed, Bilqees Khan winces as she recalls the moment a pepper gas grenade exploded by her home during a curfew in Indian Kashmir's summer capital.

"There was all this dark smoke and then I started to choke," says the 56-year-old housewife. "It felt as if my chest was bleeding from the inside."

The grenade exploded outside her house in the Urdu Bazaar neighbourhood of Srinagar as local security forces patrolled the streets after nightfall.

The smoke from the canister wafted into the family's home, leading Bilqees - who has heart problems - to collapse on the floor of her upstairs bedroom. She spent the next few days in hospital fighting for her life on a respiratory support machine.

Doctors say such stories are increasingly common in Indian-administered Kashmir, where government forces use an array of "non-lethal" weapons to maintain security.

Scores have been injured by weapons including marbles fired from slingshots, pellet guns and the so-called pepper grenades which are packed with chemicals and a capsaicinoid concentrate. Exact figures are impossible to compile as many victims do not report their injuries for fear of being charged with rioting.

Although the weapons are meant to target mainly youthful protestors, doctors say children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the chemicals contained in the pepper grenades.

Hospital sources in Srinagar say at least three recent deaths have been due to the effects of the pepper gas, including that of Hajira Begum, a 60-year-old woman, on March 8.

Violence in Kashmir - a scenic Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both - had waned in recent years after a revolt began in 1989. But tensions have mounted since last month's execution of a Kashmiri separatist over a deadly 2001 attack on the parliament in New Delhi.

Abdul Gani Mir, Kashmir's inspector general of police, defended the use of weapons such as pepper gas and marbles saying his officers "assess the situation for an appropriate response".

"Our focus is to avoid casualties," he said, adding that he had not received any complaints about pepper gas. But doctors who have treated patients for loss of vision as well as skin irritation say its effects should not be underplayed.

"We don't know the exact chemical composition of the gas, but for people with acute asthma or allergy it can be particularly lethal," said Parvaiz Koul, a doctor at the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences.

Tariq Gojri, 18, a street hawker, was blinded in his right eye last month after being shot by a pellet gun as he went shopping in Baramulla, north of Srinagar.

After being hit when police fired at a group of protestors, things got even worse when his neighbours took him to hospital.

"The police came into the hospital and started arresting anyone who had been injured during the protests," Tariq said. "My eye was still bleeding and I had to hide under a blanket in the maternity ward." He later fled to Srinagar.