For last 9 months, use of pellet guns has become subject matter of public debate. Legal fraternity apart, common people in cafes, restaurants, social gatherings talk about it. After all, what is this pellet gun and why has it become matter of public concern?
Civil unrest after July 2016 saw unrestricted, unregulated and uncontrolled use of pellet gun.
A pellet gun, also known as shot gun, uses, instead of bullets, cartridges. The cartridges are numbered from 1 to 9. Each cartridge, known as number 9 cartridge, contains 500-600 pellets. Each pellet is made of metal, which may be round or sharp edged. When the cartridge is fired from the gun, it releases pellets. These pellets go in all directions and unlike a bullet, their path is not definite. The initial velocity of the pellet is almost the same as that of sound, but after it travels more than 30 meters of distance, its velocity gets reduced. Up to 30 meters, the pellets cause fatal injuries if they hit humans. The pellets penetrate soft tissues of human body like eyes and damage them, many a times, beyond any repair. The pellets, by taking different directions, can hit any part of the body from head to toe.
Pellet guns are basically meant for duck shooting. When a flock of ducks fly and pellet filled cartridge is shot at them, the purpose is to kill many ducks by a single shot. Till recent times, these guns were not used at protesting crowds because firstly, they were not meant for it and secondly, because of their use, number of injuries on a single body, when hit, could be large.
The think tanks at New Delhi decided to introduce pellet guns as a means of controlling protesting crowds. Records show that their use was introduced in our Valley in 2010. At that point of time, their use was not as frequent as in the year 2016. Their use did not receive attention as it has now.
During the same year i.e. 2010, the State Police Chief Kuldeep Khudda formulated Standard Operating Procedures to be followed while dealing with protesters. No provision has been made in SOP as regards use of pellet gun and the circumstances for its use. General provisions were made for non-lethal weapons which presumably, according to the State Police Department, would include pellet gun.
Repeated use of pellet gun in civil unrest of 2016 after July 8th inflicted on protesters unbearable pain and injuries. Since the pellets do not follow any definite path, they hit bystanders, curious watchers and many others who were not part of protesting crowds. Valleys’ daily newspapers extensively reported the damage caused by pellets. Despite public protests, write-ups in the newspapers, articles and the circumstances attending pellet injured patients, the armed security forces continued shooting at people. The newspapers went on counting injured persons, continued reporting lack of facilities in the hospitals, inadequate experience of the doctors to deal with such patients, particularly those hit in the eyes. When there was no way to stop armed security forces, the Bar Association, being as usual sensitive to public sufferings, in response to the State action, approached the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir at Srinagar and questioned the use of pellet guns as a mechanism of crowd control.
Public Interest Litigation filed by the Association extensively dealt with pellet gun, nature of pellets, cartridges, deaths, injuries and raised the important issues as to the very authority of the State to use pellet guns as a means of crowd control.
The power of the Government to deal with protesters is not absolute. The Code of Criminal Procedure, law enacted by the State Legislature, contains provisions dealing with unlawful assemblies. The provisions do not deal with identification of weapons to be used against unlawful assemblies. The provisions provide for using force but at the same time also restrict use of force. Disproportionate use of force is prohibited. The provisions do not deal with stone pelters. The Court was confronted with the question as to how stone pelters are to be dealt with by authorities. It is noticeable that SOP formulated in Delhi and applicable in the said State specifically make provisions as to how stone pelters can be brought under control. Since there is no such provision in the SOP formulated by the State Police Department, it virtually was free for all security forces to use pellet gun whenever they wished to do so.
During the course of proceedings, list of injured persons identified by the members of the Association on their visit to SMHS and Bone & Joint Hospitals was produced. It was also stated that in first 2 months of July and August, nearly 16,000 persons were injured in the Valley and scores of people had suffered damage in their eyes. Many of them had virtually become blind, some of them partially blind and some of them would take years before regaining their eye sight. In their response, the security forces provided details of the cartridges used during first 2 months. On a rough estimate, more than 1.5 million pellets had been used in first 2 months of the civil unrest. The Court called upon the State authorities as also hospitals located in the city of Srinagar to furnish details. All this is now a part of the record of the Court.
On behalf of the Government of India, it was stated that the Home Ministry of the Central Government has constituted a committee to find out alternatives to pellet gun. Two months time was given to the committee to submit its report. In the month of September 2016, when the petition of the Bar Association was taken up for consideration, it was stated by Assistant Solicitor General of India that he would circulate the report of the committee. Based on the said statement, the Court reserved the case for orders. In the third week of September 2016, when the order was announced, the Court, while rejecting the plea of the Association to ban use of pellet guns, had also observed that the Central Government had not submitted the report of the committee and the issue was being decided without that report. The Court on the one hand, declined to prevent use of the gun and on the other hand, set down the petition for regular hearing.
Aggrieved of the order of the High Court, Bar Association has appealed against it in the Supreme Court of India. The Apex Court directed the Central Government that if there was any report of the committee, the same should be produced before it.
Interestingly, when the Central Government submitted the report in the Court, it did so in sealed cover and at the same time, claimed privilege against its disclosure. The Court perused the report and returned the same to the Attorney General with directions to produce final report and the decision of the Central Government on the issue. The matter is posted on April 10, 2017.
Besides the Bar Association, several victims of the pellet guns have also appealed against the judgment of the High Court.
The victims of the pellet gun, by and large, are our children who are minors or may have just crossed the age of 18 years. Their lives have been endangered by the use of pellet guns. Many of them have been blinded, partially or fully, depriving them of their eye sight for all times to come. Many of them have to undergo surgeries to extract pellets from their body. These pellet guns are selectively but indiscriminately used only in the Valley of our State. There have been many protests in many other States of India on different issues. Public properties worth crores have been damaged or destroyed but in none of those States pellet guns have been used. One can recall recent public agitations in states of Haryana and Tamil Nadu. Why our Valley is used as a practicing field and for target shooting? Why are not our people treated as humans? Why are not laws followed in our State?
During the course of hearing, it became apparent to the members of Association that the perception of reality of the Central Government is altogether different from those who live in the Valley. To the Central Government, it is a sensitive state, a border state and the security forces have to keep agitating crowds under control.But to us, our children and youth are not warmongers. They protest and agitate because they are dissatisfied with the response to their demands. They protest because they are not heard. They protest because nobody cares about them. They protest because the system in place has become defunct and preposterous. They protest because their loved ones have been killed. They protest because their loved ones have disappeared. They protest because they see their parents in misery. They have lost all hope in the governments, in the systems, constitutions, laws. For them, they only exist on paper and have no life.
There are several declarations and covenants at International level which make provisions against use of lethal weapons on protesters. None of the State agencies is willing to abide by International standards. They are not even willing to abide by standards prescribed by domestic laws while dealing with protesters. There is not even a single battalion of armed forces or the State Police forces trained in dealing with civil crowds. They have no knowledge of human rights and the laws governing situations involving civil unrest. They seem to be totally unaware of the regulations that while dealing with protesters, the response has to follow a certain pattern. Against peaceful protesters, no action can be taken. Law allows peaceful protests. It is only when the protesters become unlawful assembly that response is warranted. Firstly, public address system has to be used to urge the protesters to disperse. If the protests continue, mild lathi charge can be ordered, followed by heavy lathi charge, should the situation warrant. If the protests continue and public property is damaged, water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas shells, all in sequence have to be used. If the situation goes completely out of control, in the sense that public property is damaged extensively and/or the lives are endangered, lethal weaponry may be used. But it can be so done only if a senior mature Magistrate, after assessment of the situation on spot, allows use of lethal weapons.
It is a part of our experience, visible to every person in the Valley, that no such protocol is used in controlling protesters. Instead, lethal weaponry is used straightaway. Without proper training of the security forces including State Police, our children, youth and adults will continue to suffer unending pain, depriving them of their life and liberty.
There is no dialogue with the protesters. The only dialogue is between the stones and the pellets. Bullet and the pellet make the news. Humans, humanity and humanism is nowhere seen. Human justice is absent. Respect for human life is on long leave.
It will be interesting to watch how the Apex Court will treat the situation and deal with it. Will it restore us our dignity, prevent deprivation of our life and liberty, protect our children, youth and adults? Will it tame trigger happy security forces and State Police? Will it treat us the way law wants us to be treated? Or will it also ignore our sufferings and pain in the same way others have done?
We will wait, watch and see.