After 51 days, curfew has been lifted from all areas in Kashmir valley, except for Pulwama, the latest cutting edge of the disturbance wedge, and downtown areas of Maharaj Ganj and Nowhatta, which have been the most part of that wedge for quite a while now.
The disturbances that erupted on July 9 last will be remembered as the ‘Pellet Times’, for it’s the injuries that the use of pellets for crowd control caused and the widespread indignation that ensued which will remain as the grim reminder of these disturbances. Even the Parliament saw cognition along these lines when Dr Karan Singh made an emotional appeal in the Rajya Sabha for abjuring the use of what he called pellet guns for crowd control.
The term ‘pellet gun’ is a bit of a misnomer, for any pneumatic weapon – usually an air gun – firing pellets, grains or shrapnel of different specifications becomes a pellet gun. The pellets can be of different materials like lead or lead alloy, tin or even plastic. Plastic pellets, of various kinds, are simply spherical balls of plastic that are mostly used in sport. For crowd control, metal pellets are the preferred choice.
The use of pellets in Kashmir is by no means of recent vintage. The British used them for game hunting of duck. Both Walter Lawrence and Francis Younghusband have referred to duck shooting in their books, ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ and ‘Kashmir’ respectively. Younghusband writes that one Mr T. Kennard shot three hundred and twenty-five ducks all by himself during the course of a day, while a Colonel Edwards shot over two hundred birds a day on two different days.
During the disturbances of 2010, pellets were used to scatter stone-throwing mobs when large scale injury to security personnel was apprehended. There were hardly any eye injury reported during that time. The question that needs to be asked is – what changed from 2010 to 2016? While different quarters will, undoubtedly, come up with different explanations and justification for or rationalisation of those explanations, the one-word answer is demographics.
The stone throwers, indeed the agitators, of 2010 were usually men between the age of twenty and thirty-five. In 2016, the actual protesting mobs in the frontline consisted mostly of children in their teens and pre-teens. Picture this – a police post is manned by three or four policemen, children moving around seemingly like children all over the world do, aimlessly, suddenly form a group barely five metres from the post and pelt a few stones they have been carrying on their person. As suddenly, another – slightly older – a group of kids assembles right behind the frontline and starts hurling petrol bombs at the police post. The cops inside know that another police post in a neighbouring area was divested of its munitions only the other day and the policemen grievously hurt by a similar sized and equipped crowd. Rather than wait till the time when they will be forced to use live bullets, they let go with pellets instead. At less than five metres it is impossible for the payload to maintain trajectory within the classical theoretical limits. As a result, we see heart-rending pictures of 10-12-year-olds, eyes bandaged, lying on hospital beds.
Hopefully, the violence accompanying agitation, including the use of stones or brickbats as potentially maiming projectiles in Kashmir is over for now. The home ministry has reportedly recommended the use of PAVA shells as the alternative for pellets. These shells contain Pelargonic Acid Vanillylamide, also called Nonivamide, an organic compound found in natural chilli pepper. On the Scoville scale — which is a measurement of the pungency of chillies — PAVA is categorised as “above peak”, which means it will severely irritate and paralyse humans, only temporarily. Hopefully the need to use this or any other, crowd control measure will not be felt in Kashmir. If it is felt and the use of PAVA is seen in the context of any violent crowd, the reaction to it will be known only after such use. And perhaps, at that, for in 2010 when pellets were used there was no outrage like the one witnessed these past few days. On the other hand, a relatively milder agent like pepper spray was seriously criticised for causing respiratory problems among children, the old and infirm.
The other agent worth experimenting would be Skunk used by Israel since 2008. It’s a liquid made from yeast and protein, is non-toxic but causes an extremely offensive stench that takes many days to wear off, or wash away, from whatever it touches.