Let not one more eye be subject to darkness

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. Dated: 9/6/2020 11:28:01 PM


#NotOneMoreEye. Sometime in June this year, this hashtag became the emblem of American ophthalmologists aghast by the severe eye injuries, including blindness, inflicted by use of rubber bullets to quell angry protests in the USA in the wake of brutal killing of George Floyd. The American Academy of Ophthalmologists (AAO) released a statement warning against rubber bullets for crowd dispersion and averred, “While classified as non-lethal, they are not non-blinding. These life-altering eye injuries are a common result of urban warfare, rioting and crowd dispersion. We have seen it around the world, and we now see it in the United States.”
Oceans across in Srinagar, faced by the fresh spectacle of young men blinded by pellets, an ophthalmologist at a private hospital, ASG Eye Hospital, Dr A. invokes the AAO’s slogan of ‘using your voice shouldn’t mean losing your sight’. The strong condemnation from American eye-specialists and their campaign helped arrest the trend of rubber bulleting the protestors. The Kashmiri ophthalmologist’s lament, however, is that even as the shotgun metal pellets being liberally used in this part of the world have a far more devastating effect on the targeted civilians, the medical fraternity in the country has yet to even make a feeble murmur about it. Only doctors in Kashmir have been speaking against the use of pellets from time to time. 2016 saw the extremely powerful protest with doctors and paramedics staging a sit-in with bandaged eyes. “This wasn’t even a regular conflict related protest,” the doctor says, “it was a religious procession that was the target this time.” Last weekend over 200 people were injured when police and paramilitary forces teargassed Muharram processions and rained them with shotgun pellets.
Doctors at SMHS hospital in Srinagar have maintained that about a dozen odd cases of pellet victims were shot in the eyes. Two of them who suffered bilateral injuries, now under treatment at a private hospital, may have permanently lost their vision. In the last four years, Kashmiri doctors, aided by noted Indian ophthalmologist, Dr Natarajan, have been struggling to repair the vision of many pellet victims though it becomes a virtually impossible task in the face of the pellets virtually hollowing out some eyes. Some who have been partially cured after multiple corrective surgeries have also suffered vision impairments again. When the pellets damage the sight organ, it is difficult to resurrect, eye being the softest part of the body.
What is shocking is not only the scale of the pellet victims in Kashmir and the high proportion of visually impacted victims, many of them completely blinded, but also how these injuries completely alter their lives and that of the families. The pellet guns which were introduced in Kashmir as ‘non-lethal weapons’ sometime in 2010 began to be used more frequently after 2014. They were liberally used in 2016 when the Valley broke out in a massive outpouring of rage. According to one report, in 2016 1,000 people sustained pellet injuries in the eye and according to SMHS hospital records 80 percent of them were less than 26 years old. About 30 of those injured were 15 years or less, including toddlers. Among the 44 suffering bilateral eye injuries, the eyes of 14 had to be completely eviscerated, leaving behind just two holes.
Last year, British medical journal, The Lancet, had maintained that between 2016 and 2018 about 1250 people had been blinded by pellets in the Valley. The statistic simply reduces human lives to a footnote. It does not tell you about how teenagers and youngsters have lost their future, confidence and independence in the daily affairs of their life. Department of Psychiatry of Government Medical College (GMC), Srinagar, surveyed 380 pellet victims post 2016 uprising. According to the study, titled ‘Psychiatric Morbidity in Pellet Injury Victims of Kashmir’, 85 % of 380 pellet victims examined during this post-2016 uprising period were found to be suffering from various psychiatric disorders. The study revealed depression was the most common psychological disorder diagnosed in the victims (25.79%). This was followed by Adjustment disorder (15.79%), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (9.21%) and Anxiety disorders (9%), according to a news report.
Horrified by the sight of pellet victims last weekend at the hospital, the doctor at a private clinic was reminded not of the similarity of many other familiar patients that have been frequenting hospitals but about the chilling reality of what happened to their lives. T. was barely 15 when he was blinded by pellets in 2018. The doctor vividly recalls the day T. first entered the hospital. “Handsome, with a slick haircut, chiseled jawbone and sporting fashionable dark goggles, as he walked in helped by two family members, he still looked like a style diva. The moment he took off his glasses, I was horrified. His one eyes was a complete hollow,” Dr A. says, revealing that his one eye had been completely destroyed. “There was little we could do. In such cases we try to protect as much as we can through a mix of therapies and surgeries, which are expensive costing anything between Rs 50,000 to 80,000. The tragedy is that most of them come from poor families.” Things are worse when both eyes are impacted, the doctor says.
The pellet victims undergo a complete personality change and grapple with the demons of despair and depression as they see themselves stripped of dignity in the present and a dark future looming ahead. For instance, T., who first appeared unfazed and enthusiastic began having withdrawal symptoms, sought refuge in religion at one time and attempted suicide twice. In a conflict zone like Kashmir, where psychological trauma far exceeds the mechanisms available for healing, the pellet blinded victims remain deprived of effective psychological distress remedies and counseling. So do their families that silently endure the pain, the humiliation and disrupted lives. An ophthalmologist working at Srinagar’s SMHS hospital had told me some years ago, “For a family, if a person is killed, he is gone but a blinded person is a constant reminder of the injustice.”
Trauma is further exacerbated by the legal charges that are often pressed against the pellet victims. Since 2016, cops do regular rounds of major hospitals in the Valley to take note of the pellet victims and follow them up with FIRs against them. In 2016, doctors tried to outsmart the cops by replacing patient’s names in the files with numbers when they realized that the pellet victims began to avoid visiting hospitals. Stories abound in the Valley about how self-trained pellet surgeons have cropped up in different localities who work their way extracting pellets with simple blades and antiseptics.
“Pellet injuries in the eye,” Dr A. reminds, cannot be treated at home, and adds, “which is why through word of mouth we keep appealing pellet victims to contact us.” The blinded victims do not only grapple with a dark world but also often delay in treatment. The Muharram processions were pelleted last Saturday and Sunday. Some cases of pellet eye injuries were received at SMHS hospital by Monday. Dr A.’s hospital received five pellet victims on Wednesday, two more on Wednesday and on Thursday, they received a call from someone who mentioned that there were more pellet victims who needed to be treated. Dr A. who works closely with the pellet victims reveals how it psychologically traumatizes even the doctors. “They need regular treatment and they are a constant reminder of what has been done to them, something that could have been avoided.”
Despite being castigated by human rights groups and despite the court directives for restrained and minimal use of pellets, they continue to be used frequently to quell not just angry street protests but also sometimes benign assemblies of people, in abject violation of Standard Operating Procedures. The pellet shotgun, meant to be used for wild animals, is a dangerous weapon. It emits a cluster of hundreds of metal balls, sometimes even lead balls, at a high speed. While its trajectory is difficult to predict, the security forces that are supposed to aim at the ground level from a distance while firing them, often do it point-blank and at close range, thus targeting the upper portion of the bodies, which is why most victims are hit on the chests and the eyes.
The use of pellet guns is unjustifiable and morally wrong and must be dispensed with. The nation’s tolerance level to this despicable and inhuman practice cannot be whipped up by taking the indefensible plea of ‘violence’ and ‘stone-pelting’. These are not the methods of crowd control known in the civilized world. Vitriolic mob violence is known to happen across the country. Nowhere else are they met with such brutal methods of control. How can then legitimacy be given to their use only in Kashmir whatever the nature of the crowd and mob violence? No country in the world has used shot-gun pellets that blind people in hordes in the name of crowd-control, not even Israel, which once introduced it but was quick to abandon it. In the 70s and 80s, Britain used rubber bullets to tame the crowds of Northern Ireland but had to give it up in the face of outrage by human rights groups and civil society. Few days of rubber bulleting in America against Black Lives Matter campaigns sparked widespread condemnation and its use had to be suspended. Are we as a society any less humane?
(Names have been withheld to protect the identities of people interviewed for this article.)



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