Burhan Wani's death and a year of living dangerously

More than a hundred days later

“I was hit by pellets in my eyes while returning home from namaz,” said Majid Ali Sheik, a 16-year-old boy from Kupwara, at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SHMS) hospital in Srinagar. Lifting his blackout goggles to reveal his bloodied and hauntingly still eyes, he continued, “The incident occurred on August 13 when the security forces opened fire on the protesters in Kupwara. I was not part of the protest.”

The unrest in Kashmir has crossed a hundred days since the killing of Burhan Wani, a “commander” of the Hizbul Mujahideen, by the security forces. Following the incident on July 8, tens of thousands of Kashmiris have taken to the streets in the Kashmir Valley to protest. Over 90 people, including two security force personnel, have been killed and thousands injured in the cycle of violence. While the security forces have had to deal with violent crowds, many innocent civilians including children have also been injured by “non-lethal” weapons such as pellet guns, tear gas shells, and rubber bullets.

Majid was one among the eight victims I interviewed towards the end of August, who had been hit by a “non-lethal” weapon. Another was nine-year-old Irfan, who was hit on his head by a tear gas shell while playing cricket. Irfan sat on his bed in the hospital, his face contorted, while his cousin spoke to me. “On August 15, the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) opened fire on the protesters in Bijbehara, Anantnag,” he said. “That’s when a shell hit Irfan’s head. There is no movement in his right leg.” In another round of firing, a day after Wani’s killing, Shamima, 25, was hit by a rubber bullet in her abdomen in Bijbehara. She has undergone two surgeries, her cousin said. Her legs have been paralysed.

Non-lethal weapons?

To control crowds, the police in most countries use weapons that are termed “non-lethal” but have proved lethal in many cases. For one, these weapons fire indiscriminately, because of which the public safety of bystanders cannot be ensured. And two, if fired at a close range or by untrained personnel, these weapons can prove lethal. The 2016 report, “The health consequences of crowd-control weapons”, by Physicians for Human Rights states that international mechanisms have failed to keep pace with the rapid development of crowd-control technologies. International standards addressing the use of crowd-control weapons are limited, and there are no restraints on the types of weapons that may be used to tackle protesters or on the manufacture and trade of these weapons. The report notes: “There is a need to engage in further ethical research and empirical study to develop clear scientific parameters on their use.”

It was during the 2010 unrest that pellet guns were first introduced in the Kashmir Valley. A pellet gun is primarily a bird-hunting weapon and has been used in only a few countries such as Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt. At short range, these can be lethal. Also, when fired, the pellets or iron balls do not travel in one trajectory; they spray in multiple directions and can inflict serious injuries on bystanders.

Maryam al-Khawaja, a human rights activist from Bahrain, noted in a paper that during the 2011 uprising, “a number of children and adults were killed by the use of pellets”. Further, in a study conducted at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences from June to September 2010, “198 patients were identified as having sustained pellet gunfire injury”. The study further noted: “Mortality occurred in six patients”.

In the first week of September, following national and international outrage against the use of pellet guns, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh cleared the use of chilli-filled grenades for crowd control as an alternative to pellet guns. However, there was a caveat: pellet guns would continue to be used in the “rarest of rare cases”.

Crowd psychology

The precursor in the long tradition of crowd psychology is Gustave Le Bon’s work in 1895 called The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which argues that when individuals come together to form crowds, their conscious personalities disappear and are replaced by an uncivilised, irrational, and a potentially barbaric “collective mind”. Since then, sociologists have argued that crowds behave in a far more rational, mindful, and a socially organised manner than Le Bon believed. As David Waddington, in his article “The Madness of the Mob? Explaining the ‘Irrationality’ and Destructiveness of Crowd Violence”, says, “even the most intensely destructive, spontaneous and emotional acts of collective violence are typically underpinned by a guiding and restraining rationality”. The state response to the recent protests in Kashmir appears to reflect the traditional crowd psychology approach. On September 14, while responding to the UN Human Rights chief’s statement on Kashmir, India said that the current violence in the Valley has been “choreographed” from across the border.

In the aftermath of Wani’s killing, an indefinite curfew was imposed in most parts of the Valley and more troops deployed. While the security forces are likely to feel overwhelmed when confronted by violent crowds, their response should not be disproportionate. It may be argued that most of the security forces in the Valley have been trained to deal with militancy, and are not trained to handle such protests. Nor are they adequately equipped with protective gear such as visors and stone-proof armours. The state must take stock of this aspect of the problem.

A political dialogue with all the concerned parties, most importantly the people of Kashmir, is imperative. The people on the streets in the Valley have not coalesced into an irrational and potentially barbaric “collective mind” in the Le Bonian sense. There are unresolved grievances that underpin the seething crowds.

Meha Dixit has a PhD in International Politics from JNU and has taught at Kashmir University.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 1:27:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/More-than-a-hundred-days-later/article16080558.ece

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