Inside the ophthalmology ward of Srinagar's SMHS Hospital, the air hangs thick with the odour of disinfectant, defiance, and despair. As I glance through his case sheet, 17-year-old Suhail Ahmed Mir, probably mistaking me for a doctor, half rises from his bed. On hearing that his account is going to print, the tall boy with brownish eyes snatches my notebook and tears the page. The smile with which he had greeted me disappears. With a voice that is a mix of pain and rage, he shouts, "Who will get my sight back? Can you?" Suhail is a pellet victim and belongs to south Kashmir, the epicentre of the ongoing agitation in the Valley, which was sparked by the killing of iconic militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8.
The hospital ward may help to understand why the young generation of Kashmir has been out on the streets for the past month, bursting with anger and shouting, "We want freedom" and "Go India, go back". It presents a dreadful scene: partially or fully blinded victims of pellet injuries occupy all the 32 beds, with two patients sharing many single beds. Doctors say not a single bed has remained empty since July 9 when the patients began arriving. The victims have bruised, swollen faces; their eyes are covered in cotton and surgical bandage. In their teens and twenties, most of them are from south Kashmir. Their future looks as dark as the glasses they are wearing.
Suhail says he was part of a 'peaceful' protest march in his native village of Belloo in Pulwama district. When CRPF troopers intercepted them, he and his associates retaliated with stones. A moment later, the troopers fired bullets and pellets. Two pellets ruptured Suhail's left eye while his torso was riddled with as many as 38 pellets. "I fell and was lifted by some youth to the nearby hospital from where I was brought here," says Suhail. The CRPF and police, he adds, beat them up and damaged the ambulance while on their way to Srinagar. Doctors fear that Suhail may be blinded in his one eye for life, his brother told Outlook. For his part, Suhail is not only unremorseful for taking part in the protest but the prospect of a dark future has hardened him. In a defiant tone, he says the moment he will be discharged from the hospital, "I will go back to the street and join protests." But these protests, he quickly adds, will not make a major difference. "Bandook chu tulun (I have to pick up a gun)," he says. His brother and two young cousins attending to him nod in agreement.
Lying next to Suhail's bed is Aqib Nazir. Also from Pulwama, this 20-year-old minces no words when asked if he was throwing stones at the forces. Aqib is among the first pellet victims of the agitation. He had rushed to Tral, the native town of Burhan, on hearing about the latter's killing in a controversial encounter by police. "I was marching along with tens of thousands of mourners," he says. The police and CRPF fired pellets and bullets on them. Aqib was hit in his right eye. Will he rejoin protests, I ask him. "Of course," he shoots back. "I will continue to resist the Indian occupation. Burhan fought with gun, I am fighting with stones. Stone throwing is a part of the resistance and not fun for us as many would like to believe," he says. The doctors, meanwhile, have assured Aqib that he will get back his eyesight soon.
Not as lucky as Aqib is Javaid Ahmad, 24. Also unlike Aqib, he is not a stone thrower. A pellet hit him in his right eye when he was going with his sister in north Kashmir's Bandipora on July 29. "I had to drop my sister at our maternal home. It was Friday and people were pouring out on the streets after the noon prayers. As the number of protesters swelled, the forces fired tear gas canisters; pellet guns followed it. I ran for cover, and suddenly a pellet hit my eye and I fell down," he says. Some youth removed the pellet partially from his eye while a part of the pellet was still suspended inside; it was later removed at the hospital. Javaid has lost sight in one eye. He says that protests and stone pelting will not bother New Delhi. "India is a powerful country. See how its media is projecting Kashmiris, the victims, as villains. I do not think we can defeat India," he says.
The youngest pellet victim in the ward is Aanif Yusuf Bhat, a 12-year-old student. He was bathing in a stream with his friends at Donipawa, Anantnag on July 18 when CRPF troopers were chasing protesters in the area. In the melee, a pellet hit Aanif in his right eye. "I was writhing in pain. I could not figure out what had happened," recounts Aanif. Doctors have twice operated on his eye, and luckily for him he's gradually getting his eyesight back. "I am very eager to play cricket again," he says. The incident has, however, shaken him. "I will not venture out during protests. Now if I will see a soldier, I will run for my life," he says.
Since Burhan's killing, nearly 60 people—aged 13 to 40—have died in police and paramilitary action. Most of the fatalities have occurred in south Kashmir, bastion of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti's PDP. The number of injured is put at a staggering 5,000. Between July 9 and August 5, at the SMHS hospital alone, ophthalmologists have performed nearly 280 surgeries of pellet gun victims. Ironically, the Modi government told the Supreme Court on August 5 that only 51 persons with eye injures were treated in the Valley hospitals. On the same day, 91 patients were received by the hospital and among them, 50 were eye injuries. Of the pellet victims brought to the SMHS Hospital so far, as many as 202 have been operated upon once and 77 twice; 24 were hit in both the eyes of whom four could never see again. The prognosis for rest of the victims is not encouraging, though.
Among the critically injured is 15-year-old Insha Malik who was hit in her both eyes when she was standing at the window of her house in Shopian. Now blinded for life, she was later moved to the AIIMS, New Delhi.
Dr Rashid Maqbool, one of the dozen eye surgeons working round the clock in the SMHS hospital, says the ongoing agitation differs from those of 2008 and 2010. "It would not be an exaggeration to say that all world records have been broken by our department considering the number of pellet injury patients we admitted and operated upon," he says. Dr Maqbool says that he and his colleagues find it extremely difficult to remain focussed given the magnitude of the task before them. "Remember these kids are 10, 12, 15 and 20 years old. When we know they are blinded for life, what can we do? How can we just tell them that the chances of regaining eyesight are bleak?" Dr Maqbool fears that some of these injured boys are so angry that "they will pick up stones again and lose the other eye too".
Indeed, the situation is disastrous, as India's leading retinal surgeon Dr Sundaram Natarajan put it. "This is for the first time that I saw pellet injuries. The eye injuries in Kashmir are unique and more severe than other parts of the world especially in conflict regions," says Dr Natarajan, who headed a three-member team which conducted 46 eye surgeries here since July 26. "Some of the patients will gain eyesight but I don't want to give false hope." Before Dr Natarajan, Dr Sudarshan K. Kumar of the AIIMS was in Srinagar with a team of ophthalmologists following a request by Mehbooba Mufti to the Modi government. Dr Kumar echoed what his local counterparts have been saying since July 9: "We have never seen injuries on this scale."
What Is A Pellet Gun?
The Israeli-style pellet guns or pump-action guns, billed "non-lethal", were introduced during the 2010 agitation in the Valley. A pellet gun unleashes hundreds of small metal pellets that maim and blind their targets. In 2010 alone, around 50 youth lost their sight in one or both eyes, according to a study by the SMHS Hospital. And in the last five years, doctors at the hospital put the number of eye injuries due to pellets at 500; it excludes the current toll. During the tumultuous tenure of ex-chief minister Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti had taken to the streets as opposition leader to protest the use of pellet guns and promised to check their use once in power. But now as the CM, she has expediently forgotten her promise. "Her government is now blinding the people at a rate not seen before," says a Greater Kashmir editorial.
So huge is the anger over devastation caused by the use of pellet guns that the J&K High Court has blamed the Modi government for not treating Kashmiris as its own people. "They are not aliens, they are your own people, and you don't treat them as your own people. They have not descended from outer space," the court told the Union government's counsel. The court also wanted to know why most of the victims had injuries above the waist, often in the eyes.
Meanwhile, the people remain cooped up indoors. On the streets, it's the writ of young protesters like Suhail and Aqib that runs large. Walls and roads are covered with anti-India, pro-Burhan and pro-Pakistan graffiti. Curfews, protests, clashes, and siren of ambulances are the order of the day here in Srinagar, where four civilians have died, and other parts of the Valley since July 8. Mosques reverberate with pro-Pakistan and revolutionary songs, a throwback to the early '90s when the armed militancy was at its peak. The separatists are issuing weekly programmes on the lines of 2010 agitation and they're receiving overwhelming response. Shops remain open from 5 am to 9 am and reopen, on alternate days, after 6 pm. On August 7, as curfew and restrictions continued for the 30th consecutive day, people in many areas responded to the call of 'United resistance leadership' for sanitation drive in their respective localities. Residents were seen voluntarily cleaning roads and lanes removing the piled up garbage.
At the ground zero in south Kashmir, massive azadi rallies are held on a daily basis. The region, a police officer told Outlook, resembles a liberated zone. "Militants no more hide in the forests," he says. "They stay among the people, in the towns." Reports say militants are greeted as heroes during the processions. On August 2, for example, two armed militants addressed a rally of around 10,000 people at Kaimoh town of Kulgam district. "We have left comfort zones, we are fighting for you," they told the gathering. The atmosphere turned emotional when the masked militants said, "There's no problem if you do not support us, but please do not deceive us, do not inform on us." As the militants were leaving, they raised pro-Pakistan slogans while many people jostled to kiss their hands.
For a clueless Mehbooba Mufti government, another major cause of worry is that pro-India activists are leaving their respective parties like the rats in a sinking ship. This is happening in response to calls of social boycott by separatist leaders of pro-India politicians. Many political activists are publicly resigning while most of them have gone into hiding. The trend is more visible in south Kashmir. Mehbooba's hometown of Bijbehara is "undergoing a tectonic change and the public mood has fast shifted towards azadi,”" says Murtaza Shibli, a London-based journalist who recently was in Bijbehara, his hometown too.
"At the central Jamia Masjid in old town Bijbehara, the lead speaker, who only six months ago had designated former CM and Mehbooba's father Mufti Sayeed as 'Mard-e-Mujahid', today censored the PDP government as tyrannical. He described the PDP leadership as 'zalim' and 'jabir' and likened them to Nimrod. He also prayed for their destruction," Shibli says.
Opposition National Conference leader Iftikhar Misgar, who lost to Mehbooba in the June bypoll from Anantnag, has quit the party and joined separatists. Misgar vowed to "fight for Kashmir's freedom" from "Indian occupation" in a video during a public rally in Anantnag town. In the nearby Khiram area, a joint resignation letter on behalf of many NC activists was read out at the local mosque last Friday. "We won't be associated with any mainstream political party and will extend our all possible support to the ongoing mass movement," the letter read. A week earlier, a PDP sarpanch had announced his resignation from the same mosque stage. In Kulgam district, a BJP leader who unsuccessfully contested 2014 Assembly polls announced his resignation from the party during a protest rally.
The NC is, meanwhile, busy doing what PDP's Mehbooba did during 2010 when young Kashmiris were falling to the bullets with Omar at the helm: politics. On August 8, some NC MLAs staged an anti-government march in Srinagar. They carried placards with messages like 'Stop use of unbridled force', and 'Stop innocent killings'. The move has however failed to strike a chord. As Hilal Mir, editor of daily Kashmir Reader, put it, "It's a role reversal. NC out, PDP in. It can be vice-versa tomorrow. But both parties are puppets and have got their roles well defined. They're there to preside over the killing of rebellious Kashmiris.”"
Mir says that both NC and PDP lack the courage to tell Delhi, "Look, a vast majority of Kashmiris believes you are holding their country against their wishes, with the help of your military. It's been nearly 70 years since Kashmir's accession with you, but we don't have peace here yet. You can't say these are law and order situations. These recurring bloodbaths on the streets of Kashmir carry a message: Kashmir is a dispute, there can't be a forced marriage between Kashmir and India." Mir says that Omar chose to preside over the death of 125 Kashmiris. If the junior Abdullah had any shame, he says, he would have resigned after the first few killings.
"Similarly, Mehbooba is so far silently watching the killing of young Kashmiris. Just two months ago, she had invoked Islam to condemn militants for killing eight CRPF troopers in Pampore, but like her predecessor she too is blind to the ongoing bloodbath." Mehbooba's PDP, Mir says, is no more a proponent of the self-rule. "Pellet rule has replaced the self-rule slogan," he adds.
On the other hand, Mehbooba and some of her ministers did try to reach out to the people after remaining unmoved for nearly two weeks. Slogans and stones greeted them, though. PDP's MLA from Pulwama, Khalil Bandh, suffered serious injuries when his vehicle was attacked in Pulwama town. Senior PDP minister and government spokesman Naeem Akhtar's house in uptown Srinagar was attacked with petrol bombs. Earlier, Akhtar's cavalcade was pelted with stones in his native town Bandipora. [Incidentally, when the death toll in the ongoing agitation reached 56, it brought to memory the 2010 agitation when Omar, in the chair, had completely lost the plot like Mehbooba. Over 120 died in the 2010 agitation, and when the 56th civilian killing had taken place, Naeem Akhtar wrote on Facebook 'Ab tak chhappan'.]
As the agitation hardly shows any sign of ebbing anytime soon, the number of victims, particularly of the pellet guns, is only mounting by the day. Young boys like Suhail are walking out of the hospitals as one-eyed survivors, just another statistics of the 'Kashmir dispute'.
—With reporting by Aasif Sultan