An Unpalatable Truth: The Case Against Using Metal Pellets
A less lethal alternative to replace the metal pellet guns is needed as casualties from pellet injuries in J&K rise.
The casualty figure in the ongoing unrest in Jammu & Kashmir reached 91 with the death of the 12-year-old Junaid who succumbed to pellet injuries. Since July 2016, 91 people lost their lives and several have been injured by the metal pellets used in shotguns by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Jammu and Kashmir State Police.
The Impact of Pellet Guns
The X-ray is of 14-year-old Insha Mallik, on 16 July 2016. The multiple dots in the X-ray indicated that the pellets have penetrated into her head and face. According to her family, Insha was on the first floor of her home when the CRPF in Kashmir shot her with pellets. Doctors say the pellets ruptured her right eye and it popped out. The remaining eye is lacerated, has no perception of light and has no chance of recovery.
According to the Jammu & Kashmir Directorate of Health Services:
- The hospitals and health centres in their jurisdiction in the Kashmir Valley have treated around 8,000 persons in all, including over 4,800 persons with pellet injuries.
- 714 people with eye injuries caused by pellets
- Pellet injuries to children below 15 years of age as high as 15 percent
- A shocking majority of the rest sustained pellet injuries in the upper body injuring vital organs.
While the need to have effective tools for crowd control is important, the purpose behind these instruments needs to be understood. The security forces in Kashmir term the pellet gun as a non-lethal or less lethal weapon. Pellet guns were introduced in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in 2010 after high civilian casualties due to the use of firearms. But these non-lethal weapons are causing very lethal injuries.
Characteristics of Pellets Used in Kashmir
The following are the characteristics of the pellet guns used in Kashmir.
- A pump action shotgun with number 9 metal pellets.
- Each gun can hold up to 600 metal pellets at one time.
- These pellets used in Kashmir are made of lead alloy.
So imagine you are in a group of people being shot at; once the gun is triggered, metal pellets are indiscriminately sprayed in the area. So even if you are not the violent protestor in the group, not even part of the clashes, there is no way to target and control and hence you will be a victim of penetrating multiple pellets, maybe in the eye, in the head or the heart. So at best, the person holding the weapon can choose a direction of the spraying and nothing else will be in his control as several pellets journey through the bodies of people of all ages. They cannot be called non-lethal, cannot be used to disperse protesters, cannot be indispensable ammunition because they might be logistically easy to carry and be sprayed like watering a garden. The consequences are grave, the pain and suffering they will cause for generations is unfathomable, the lives that they have already been blinded and killed by them are proof enough.
The Kashmir Context
All the security forces are bound by standard operating procedures (SOP) while using their weapons for crowd control. So it is a basic expectation that from both the CRPF and the Jammu and Kashmir Police that the atrocious use of metal pellets since July had some reasonable assessment and backing of their standard operation procedure. A copy of the SOP dated 2011 of these procedures do not mention the use of pellet guns as a weapon for crowd control. A copy of the SOP was given to Mr Venkatesh Nayak in response to an application under RTI. The 2011 SOP clearly outlines:
- Minimum necessary force should be used.
- The objective of this force is to disperse a crowd and not to punish them.
- If weapons are used, they should be aimed below the waist and if needed, legal action must follow.
In response to a PIL filed in the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, the CRPF in its affidavit stated that it used 8650 litres of tear smoke shells, 2671 plastic pellets, 1715 rubber bullets and 840 tear smoke grenades and 1.3 million metal pellets between 8 July and 11 August 2016. The CRPF also said that it would have no recourse in extreme situations but to open fire with rifles, causing more fatalities if pellet guns are banned. It also stated that in a dynamic situation, it is difficult to go in for precise aimed firing of a moving, bending and running target. The sheer number of eye injuries when the intention is to fire below the waist and on the limbs is testimony to this helplessness. The facts furnished by the CRPF itself make a case against the use of metal pellets on civilians.
When a force handling a certain kind of weapon or ammunition finds that it is inadequately equipped, trained to use it in a certain scenario, it is a red flag. In this case, it is obvious that the pellets have been triggered from short ranges, considering the high impact and velocity assessed due to the depth of their penetration inside the human bodies.
According to the Indian Express, the Jammu and Kashmir police admitted to the court that it is not always possible to maintain the prescribed distance while using metal pellets. So why then do they consider this piece of ammunition indispensable?
If firing cannot be precise, distances cannot be maintained, what is the pressing need to use them? If it is beyond procedure handbooks, it is then just an equation of the aggressor and the victim.
Additionally, the material of the pellets itself is horrific. The metal pellets used are made of lead. According to The Human Society of United States, lead is a toxic metal for which there is no safe human exposure level. Several studies have also indicated that ammunition made of lead fragments very easily and very far from the actual wound, making it extremely difficult to remove completely. It is appalling that while the rest of the world is worrying about removing lead from paints and water pipes because they indirectly harm humans, we are shooting young men, women and children with lead in their eyes, chest and everywhere else on the body.
What is the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?
In 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) constituted a task force under the chairmanship of the Union Home Secretary to recommend an SOP to deal with public agitations with non-lethal measures. The Director General of the Bureau of Police Research & Development was a member of this task force. The task force submitted its report in 2011with a detailed booklet on SOP to deal with public agitations with non-lethal measures. The was shared in response to a RTI application by Mr Venkatesh Nayak in 2012.
The SOP’s objective as stated in the document is to provide guidelines for dispersal of an unlawful assembly with minimum necessary force and minimum possible collateral damage. The SOP indicate steps to be taken in special situations like the following:
- Stone-Pelting Mobs
- Attack against Officers/Motorcades/Vehicles
- Attack against Government/Police Buildings
- Law & Order problem created by Women/Children
- Stone-Pelting in narrow streets
The SOP indicate several options for crowd control like water cannons, stingers, dye marker grenades, pepper balls, net guns and stink bombs. It will be important then to verify if all the options present were used and prioritised before using the deadly pellets for stone-pelting mobs.
What Did the CRPF say?
The CRPF also says that it was largely outnumbered by the protestors and feared damage to its personnel as well as the stations and public property. While the CRPF resists any restriction on the use of these weapons, the Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda suggested that alternative non-lethal options to disperse the crowds are available like sonic weapons, pepper ammunition and chilli grenades as less harmful options.
Simmering tensions, high casualties and pressure from civic and human rights organisations has pressed the Union government to constitute an expert committee to review the use of pellet guns and the possibility of other non-lethal forms of crowd control. The report has been submitted to the Union government and has not been made public yet.
According to The Hindu, dated 2 September, one of the committee members disclosed that pump actions guns will be weapon the security forces will continue to use for crowd control but the pellets will not be of metal, but of soft plastic, polymer, rubber and even paper.
The committee is believed to have also explored acoustics, Vehicle Mounted Active Denial System (VMADS) but have found them to be unfit to use in the Kashmir context. The committee seems to be in the favour of PAVA shells.
What Are PAVA Shells?
As per a PTI report, PAVA stand for Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide, also called Nonivamide an, organic compound found in chilli pepper. According to Scoville scale, a measurement of pungency and spicy heat in peppers, PAVA has been listed as above peak. Above peak indicates severe irritation like a skin-burning sensation, which gets worse with contact with water in a temporary form. It is believed that PAVA shells have been under testing for over a year at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research in Lucknow.
The review committee stated that this can be categorised as less lethal ammunition and once fired, the shells burst out to temporarily stun, immobilise and paralyse the targets in a more effective way than tear gas or pepper spray.
The Tear Smoke Unit of the Border Security Force in Gwalior will be bulk producing these shells, close to 50,000 rounds for the first lot.
“PAVA shells have the potential to be used in an ‘arbitrary or indiscriminate’ manner. The concentration of chemical irritants should be as low as possible to ensure that they do not cause unnecessary harm, and to restrict the impact to the people targeted. The use must be carefully measured, targeted and controlled, and should take into account factors such as the proximity of schools or hospitals” said Aakar Patel, Executive Director of Amnesty International India.
On the outset, the choice of PAVA seems likes a bio safe and less lethal option. But it might be too early to conclude that this will be game-changer in crowd control for the security forces and a non-lethal option for the people of Kashmir, who have been bruised and wounded by metal pellets. The government and the forces need to understand that they are walking a thin line, another miscalculation could plummet them to a place from where they can never rise again.
Importance of Training
Aakar Patel, Executive Director of Amnesty International India, also expressed his concern on any new weapons being introduced. He said:
Any new weapons or ammunition intended for use in law enforcement should be considered only if they meet operational needs which cannot be met in any other way. If they are assessed as being needed, they must be rigorously tested on their efficacy, including their accuracy, precision and reliability, and the degree of possible harm and other effects they may cause. Security force personnel must receive adequate training and certification as a precondition before being allowed to use new weapons during law enforcement. The training should also sensitise them on the underlying principles on the use of force. The use of new weapons must also be subject to thorough reporting, supervision and control mechanisms in order to continually evaluate their effectiveness, effects and risks.
In fact, the SOP document of the BPR&D also emphasises the importance of training and sensitising the security force in dealing with such situations.
It will also be important to wait and see the expert committee’s report to also understand if any of these latest incidents in Jammu & Kashmir have been video recorded as required by the SOP. This will not only help understand the challenges faced by the Rapid Action unit, the riot control wing of the CRPF but also help analyse the merit of such force being used in a particular situation. It can make both parties involved more accountable for their behaviour in the law and order context. A body camera of some sort that can be mounted without compromising the riot gear of the personnel might help in recording the violent protestors as well as assessing the situation and its perceived need for force.
Human dignity and rights are howling for a chance in Kashmir and the beginning msut be the end of the metal pellet.
(This article was published in arrangement with Factly.)
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