To Muhammad Ashraf Wani, 28, the often-used phrase, “life of pain”, sounds like some kind of joke. He know’s better than anyone else what real pain is all about. There are 635 tiny pieces of lead embedded in his body and the vision in his right eye is completely gone, the young Kashmiri man lives through hell every waking moment. “If I stay at home, I will commit suicide,” says Wani. “The same thought occurs to every other person whose eyes were smashed by pellets. Though we are able to walk and talk, we are dead bodies,” he tells Outlook at a small room in Srinagar’s signature Lal Chowk.
So, Wani had to find a reason to live. That gave birth to the Pellet Victims Welfare Trust, an organisation he formed in early 2017 to help hundreds of others who have lost vision, partially or fully, to pellets fired by security forces across the Kashmir valley. Wani was hit by a hail of pellets on October 31, 2016, months after security forces killed Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, triggering an unending spate of violent street protests across Kashmir. Security forces retaliated in full measure against the stone-pelting protesters, leaving more than 100 people dead in one of the worst phases of violence in the Valley.
Ashraf Wani became just a footnote in the story of Kashmiris caught in the crossfire between security forces and militants. As did hundreds of others who were hit by lead pellets—about 2 mm each—the so-called “non-lethal” measure used to curb street protests. The former PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir said in November last year that an estimated 1,725 people suffered pellet wounds during the period of unrest in the Valley in 2016. Unofficial estimates, however, put the number at around 6,000 people, out of which more than 1,200 have suffered permanent eye damage. Some of the victims are less than 10 years old. Most of them will live the rest of their lives with pellets lodged in their bodies as they are too tiny to be removed. Doctors only attempt to remove pellets from the eyes to try and ensure that the victims do not lose vision.
“The forces have committed murder by firing pellets at our eyes, but no one has taken cognizance of this mass murder,” says Wani, an arts graduate from the Degree College in Pulwama. Every morning, a friend gives him a ride from his home in South Kashmir’s Rohumu village to the trust’s office. Another friend, a government employee from the same village, gives him a ride back home in the evening.
Wani founded a trust to help others like him who had lost vision, fully or partially, to pellets fired by security forces.
This week, as trust members—now around 1,200—entered the room one by one, tales of pain and suffering started to emerge from the motley group; strangers from different parts of the Valley brought together by circumstances to share their experience of a disrupted life. The trust’s office room, on the third floor of the building, is owned by a lawyer of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. In 2017, the lawyer handed over its keys to the youngsters. “This trust is all about talking to each other. If we can talk to three people in a day, we can live,” Wani says. “Some of our members face indifference from even close relations...from parents, from friends. Life is not what it used to be. Here, we talk to each other. Only two years ago, we had normal eyesight, now we are blind. A normal person cannot understand this pain,” he says.
He adds that they have deliberately avoided including any “normal person” in the association. “We know we have been turned blind by the forces. Even if we have some vision in one eye, we are as good as blind. It will take us a year to do any work which a normal person can do in a day. Still, we want to do it ourselves.” The camaraderie of the group is visible when Ejaz Ahmad Malik, a 30-year-old pellet victim with only partial vision in his left eye, says the walk up the flight of stairs had put a big strain on him. The others admonish him for not calling them on their mobile phones for assistance.
Malik is, however, still full of life, ever smiling, always in good spirit. “I am a good counsellor. I make them (other victims) understand that stepping out of their homes is important. I tell them education is necessary. And I have motivated many to live life normally,” says the Baramullah district president of the trust who was hit by pellets on the bitter cold night of December 28, 2017 when security forces fired at protesters in the Pattan area of Baramullah. A diploma holder in computer application, he is now jobless but visits villages in his district to counsel youth who have lost their eyesight in the past couple of years. Wani feels that if any youngster blinded partially or fully stays at home, he or she will turn a mental wreck and think of committing suicide with time.
Bilal Ahmad Bhat, a class 11 student from Batpora in Sopore, was blinded in the right eye and is left with only partial vision in his left after pellets fired by security forces hit him on July 13 last year. He says the trust’s work is important for the psychological health of pellet-hit youths. “We come here to chat. It helps a great deal,” says the handsome young man.
Wani, like most others with eye injuries, wears dark glasses. He is wearing blue jeans and a bright T-shirt. There’s a laptop before his table but it’s switched off as he cannot see properly. “I try to look as normal as I could.” Only he and his friends in the room know that he cannot stand in the sunlight for more than five minutes as most of the pellets are inside his head. “I cannot tell you what happens to us when we are exposed to sunlight. It is as if someone has put a firepot on your head,” he says.
From July 8, 2016, when the uprising started in the Valley, to August 17, 2016, the CRPF alone fired around 1.3 million pellets at the protesters. The paramilitary force revealed the data before the state high court in response to a petition that sought a ban on pellet guns. In August last year, a seven-member expert committee headed by the joint secretary in the home ministry and tasked with finding an alternative, said there would be no blanket ban on the use of pellet guns as it felt that the security forces could then become “sitting ducks” for protesters and militants.
The extensive use of pellet guns in Kashmir, the only place in India where security forces are given this weapon, has been condemned by human rights organisations for the sheer number of people maimed in the Valley. Global rights group Amnesty says that despite being dubbed as a non-lethal weapon, at least 20 people have lost their lives in Kashmir by pellets since 2016.
Wani’s story is all the more incredible as he had earlier survived a police bullet to his chest in the middle of the 2016 unrest. He was rushed to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) where he remained admitted for one-and-a-half months. He was discharged in mid-October and returned home. On October 31, according to Wani, security forces barged into the village and his friends feared he could be harmed or arrested. They were taking him to another village when the forces spotted them and fired pellets at the fleeing villagers, hitting Wani and several others. It was at the SMHS Hospital, where he was admitted for the second time, that Wani met other pellet victims and developed friendship with other youths. “We were all sufferers. We knew what had happened to us. We decided to remain in touch with each other and later formed this association,” Wani adds.
Anyone with a pellet injury to the eyes has to bear around Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 worth of expenses on medicine fortnightly. “There are people in society who help us. We don’t go to anyone to seek monetarily help, but we advertise the trust’s account number on social media,” Wani says. As 60 per cent members of his association have police cases against them, the trust intends to fight their cases as well. “Every month new members join us as the pellet firing has not stopped,” he says.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar