Blinded in Kashmir: Scores of women injured by India's counter-insurgency crackdown

Blinded in Kashmir: Scores of women injured by India's counter-insurgency crackdown
In-depth: Indian troops' brutal use of pellet shotguns against Kashmiri protesters has left thousands partially or fully blinded, including innocent women and children, writes Nusrat Sidiq.
9 min read
26 June, 2018
Women were targeted from their homes as protesters and Indian forces battled in Srinagar [Getty]
After the death of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the tech-savvy rebel commander associated with Kashmir based militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, a massive uprising was triggered in Kashmir. 

Killed by government forces on July 8, 2016 at his native village Tral, Wani's death lead to mass protests, described as the "biggest uprising against Indian rule in Kashmir since two decades."

At least 90 people were killed and thousands more injured during the demonstrations. 

The use of brute force against protesters, particularly the use of pellet shotguns by government forces, left more than 1,724 people partially or fully blinded, according to a report submitted by state authorities to State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) in Kashmir.

The report identified 59 female pellet victims across Kashmir, most of whom were targeted inside their homes.

"Most of these women were not part of the protests, but were still targeted at a very close range leaving them disabled," says human rights activist Ahsan Untoo.

Many of these victims are suffering from depression with no rehabilitation in sight, especially since the medical expenses are too much for them, leaving them disheartened and distorted.

While talking to some of the victims, their stories narrate a woeful tale:

Shakeela Bano

On 9 September, 2016 Shakeela Bano went out looking for her six-year-old son, Faheem Shabir. She had only walked a few steps from her maternal home in Fatehgarh Sheeri, Baramulla, when she was targeted with a pellet shotgun. The ugly incident left her blind in her left eye.

"I was in the kitchen washing up when someone from the neighbourhood came to our house to tell me that Indian Army men and state policemen were searching for some boys who had been part of the protests," she tells The New Arab.

"I panicked and began searching for my son. As I walked out a few steps from the front gate to our house, policemen hiding under a tin roof suddenly fired pellets straight into my eyes," Shakeela adds. She doesn't remember much after that, "I don't even know who took me to hospital."

As I walked out a few steps from the front gate to our house, policemen hiding under a tin roof suddenly fired pellets straight into my eyes

She had to undergo three surgeries; two in Amritsar and one at Srinagar hospital. Her left eye was completely damaged, and she was left with no vision in it at all. The right eye was saved, she says, but her vision is very limited in that eye. 

"My brother had to sell a piece of land to take care of my medical expenses," Shakeela says.

"From Srinagar to Amritsar to Delhi, every doctor told me that there was no hope of regaining vision in my left eye. After three surgeries, my right eye has regained little vision. Now I see this dark world with this little vision."

The medical expenses and frequent check-ups have cost her nearly $10,000, but no compensation or rehabilitation has been provided to her till date.

Shakeela, a divorced mother, says it is hard to find a match for a disabled person like her.  

"No one wants to marry a disabled person. I now just want to live my life for my six-year-old son."

It is not only pellet victims who are struggling with depression and anxiety, but also family members who suffer from the same trauma. Shakeela's mother is also on psychiatric consultation.

"My mother has lost mental balance," Shakeela explains. "Every time she sees me, she says 'who will take care of you... what you will do after I die.' I find myself so helpless. From being a normal person, I have now become disabled and a burden to my family. But I have now become accustomed to the everyday pain and suffering."

Shakeela says she takes anti-depression tablets "to drive herself out of the dark emotions." 

"Allah is watching. One day He will do justice," she adds. 

Kashmiri protesters demonstrate against civilian killings in Srinagar following the death of Burhan Wani [Getty]

Tammana Ashiq

It is not only depression that is affecting the victims and their families. Medical expenses have forced some to sell their homes and other personal belongings to pay for treatment for their loved ones.

Such is the case of teenager Tammana Ashiq.

Like Shakeela Bano, 11-year-old Tammana was also hit by pellets fired by government forces, just three days after rebel commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani was killed.

On July 11, 2016 Tammana was outside playing, when she was hit by pellets in her left eye, forehead and throat. She was taken to Amritsar hospital for surgery. 

Despite living in abject poverty, her mother Shameema Ashiq makes sure that her daughter gets the best medical treatment to help her regain full vision in her left eye.

Despite living in abject poverty, her mother Shameema Ashiq makes sure that her daughter gets the best medical treatment to help her regain full vision in her left eye

"We sold our house, and then I sold my jewellery for her treatment," Shameema says.

"My husband is a labourer and he earns less than $100 per month. Treatment amounting to such high costs was not possible without us having to sell our belongings."

Now living in a tin shed, Tammana's family are struggling to maintain her medical expenses.

"It is hard for a poor family to even afford two meals a day, but with the situation we are in now, I cannot let my daughter suffer any more than she already has," says Tammana's father Ashiq Ahmed.

The family explain that no government rehabilitation or compensation has been provided.

"Since the incident, nothing has been the same," says Tammana.

"The horrible scenes still haunt me and I struggle to sleep properly. Sometimes I wish to watch my favourite cartoon for some more time, but I can't. I am not able to read properly and can't do other things a normal person can do," the 11-year-old continues. 

"There is a lot of stress, and sometimes I feel that I have become a burden for my family. At odd times, my father cannot buy medicine for me, but somehow he always manages to." 

The medical condition of the pellet victims and their dependence on treatment for long periods of time has also affected their education. Some of the victims have had to give up their education due to their disability.

Children have also been targeted by pellet guns fired by government forces in the area [Getty]

Ifrah Shakoor

Ifrah Shakoor, 17, another teenage girl, was hit by pellets when she came out of her house to call her younger brother.

Ifrah, whose house is on the main road at Rahmoo village in Pulwama, was shot in both eyes by the government forces. She was taken to the district hospital Pulwama, after which she was referred to Srinagar's Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital for better treatment.

The young girl lost her father to cross firing in 2007 and now her responsibility lies on the shoulders of her grandfather Abdul Aziz.

He says the present condition of his granddaughter has driven her to depression.

He said at such a young age she has witnessed some of the worst nightmares, first losing her father and then herself to pellets.

Ifrah says she prefers to remain at home alone and wants complete silence around her.

"Nowadays I often have arguments with my family members as I want them to remain silent. I have broken so many cups and glasses in anger, but my family understands me," she said.

The 17-year-old had to drop out of school due to the injury, as she is blinded in her left eye and struggles to see much out of the other. 

The 17-year-old had to drop out of school due to the injury, as she is blinded in her left eye and struggles to see much out of the other

"They have snatched her life," her grandad tells The New Arab. "Ask us how we have managed for the last two years." Aziz says he often goes into depression thinking about Ifrah and her life ahead. 

Insha Mushtaq

Insha was hit with pellets on July 11, 2016, and lost vision in both her eyes.

After 14 months and six surgeries in Srinagar, New Delhi and Mumbai, Insha's world is still dark, but it has not stopped her from pursuing her education.

"I curse the day that incident happened," begins her father Mushtaq Ahmed.

"I wish I could change things for my daughter. For the past two years she has been through a lot, from painful surgeries to severe headaches, but still my daughter has not lost hope. She wants to fulfil her dream of becoming a doctor. I wish this kind of tragedy does not befall on some other parent," Mushtaq adds. 

Insha is one of the very few cases who has been compensated by the government with some medical relief, but the security personnel who fired pellets straight into her eyes has not been punished.

"I was at home when I was hit by hundreds of pellets, mostly on my face," Insha says.

"They even went inside my mouth. I want the forces that fired the pellets to be punished, but I know the state does not care. I have no faith in their system."

Kashmiri men sit next to graffiti that reads 'Martyr Burhan' in Srinagar's Lal Chowk [Getty]

Trauma and depression 

SHMS hospital has received 1,398 patients with pellet injuries from January 2015 to May 10, 2018, with most of them eye-injuries. 

Since July 2016, at least 1,209 people with pellet injuries in one or both eyes have been treated there. Of them, 77 have had both eyes severely damaged while 21 have lost sight in one eye.

Besides those blinded, the indiscriminate use of pellet guns has led to the death of 10 people.

"Pellets are proving lethal day by day," says doctor Bashir Ahmed.

"Since 2016, the use of pellet guns has increased, as has the number of people injured," adding all those hit by pellets in their eyes have been rendered visually impaired and there is dire need of counselling and rehabilitation for these victims.

Ophthalmologists at the government run hospital say that pellet victims are showing signs of depression, with female victims showing more prominent signs of psychological trauma.

Doctor Arshad Hussain, a professor in Psychiatry at the Government Medical College in Srinagar explained that mental health problems in pellet victims was greater than the primary disability and therefore this was aggravating the problem.

"We have conducted a camp in North Kashmir and in the coming months we are going to conduct more to help to reach out to victims who are at a risk of developing post-traumatic stress and depression," doctor Hussain said.

Rehabilitation of pellet victims

The Human Rights Commission of Kashmir has directed the state government to frame a solid policy for the rehabilitation of pellet victims, meanwhile the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in Srinagar is seeking compensation and rehabilitation from the government for Kashmir’s pellet victims.

"It is tragic to see how many young men and women were targeted with pellets at a close range during the 2016 unrest," said Mian Abdul Qayoom, a lawyer and president of the Lawyers Association of Kashmir. Qayoom has filed a petition for pellet victims before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.

"The use of this lethal force has only been experimented with Kashmiris during protests, while in other parts of India such force is not even in question. Kashmiris are being oppressed for protesting, which is part of their democracy guaranteed under the constitution of India," Qayoom said.

"We have sought a ban on pellet guns and are seeking specialised treatment for the victims," the lawyer explained.

"We are also seeking compensation in the form of cash or jobs, so that the victims do not become a burden on their families or society. Pellet guns have already done enough damage in Kashmir and continue to do so."

Nusrat Sidiq is a legal and human rights reporter working for Kashmir Reader. Her articles have also been published in Asian Times and Indian Water Portal.

Follow her on Twitter: @nusratsidiq