The recent use of pellet guns by the Indian army on the Kashmiri populace gained unprecedented global coverage. The controversial killing of Burhan Wani, the 21 year old poster boy of Kashmiri militancy, led to a state wide mourning and protests and the army as a mob dispersal technique, took recourse to the use of pellet guns.

But the question arose as to why the use of “non-lethal” guns led to the loss of life? Wasn’t the very purpose of using such a weapon mere mob dispersal rather than causing fatalities?

To better answer this question, it becomes relevant to know what exactly is a pellet and how does a pellet gun operate and why does its use amount to nothing other than brutality.

Pellets are made up of lead and are round in shape, resembling ball bearings, which may or may not be covered with rubber coating. The pellets recovered from Kashmir were found to be bare pellets. The pellet gun used by the armed forces, also used for hunting, are 12 bore guns armed with cartridges that can shoot 600 pellets when fired. Now it becomes fairly easy to imagine that these guns don’t shoot, but spray the pellets on to the mob, meaning that they can hit anyone around the target as well and also on the target it can hit any part of the body, including sensitive and vital organs such as the eyes causing permanent blindness. Further, the pellets used by the forces were found not to be perfectly round but to have uneven and sharp edges making it even more likely that the bullets go inside the body of the victim, thus making it even more dangerous.

The next question is, apart from serious injuries, can the use of “non-lethal” pellet guns result in death as well? The answer to this again is alarmingly a resounding “yes”. The Standard Operating Procedure for Firing these pellets is that there should be at least a distance of 500 meters between the shooter and the target as otherwise if the shots are fired from close distance and pellets happen to hit any vital organ, then death is a very likely outcome. The pellets used in Kashmir are claimed to have an effective range of 35 to 45 meters, however when shot at a range of within 5 meters the force is so brute that it can blow a human skull to bits and the chances of death are as high as 85-90%, and the chances of getting blind or suffering irreversible damage are there even when the shots are fired from a distance of 50 meters.

Therefore, it is evidently clear that this “non-lethal” gun is well capable of causing fatalities along with irreversible injuries in certain cases.

Next, coming to the legality of the use of pellet guns – the use of this weapon is not in line with international standards and furthermore even so when the use of these guns are not in accordance to the standard operating procedures. As reported by DTE the pellet guns used by the CRPF fall short of meeting the standards set by United Nations on “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials”, despite these standards having been adopted by India in 1990.

International Human Rights organizations have termed the indiscriminate use of pellet guns causing injury to the innocent as a major human rights violation and have called for prohibition on the use of pellet guns and have instead urged the authorities to resort to forces that are less harmful and also more accurate so that the risk of harm can be controlled.

The use of pellet guns was a rare occurrence until 2010, when there were complaints of excess force used by the armed forces resulting in fatalities. The armed forces then used rubber bullets and these were replaced by the present pellet bullets and it was hoped that the round shaped pellets would be a safer option in comparison to the rubber bullets. However, the case has clearly been quite the reverse. An RTI filed by advocate Abdul Manan Bukhari brought to light the fact that from March 2010 till October 2013, there were 91 people who were admitted to hospitals due to the use of pellet guns and out of those 91, 14 had no chance of regaining their eye sight. Thus, the use of pellet guns results in a very high chance of permanent injury,  even death in some cases and it is beyond imagination that how a weapon as brute and dangerous as this is termed as “non-lethal”.

Section 129 and section 130 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 provide the armed forces power to disperse the crowd and under section 132, the forces have immunity from any action taken to fulfil their duty under section 129 and 130. Thus, it is evident that the forces have been cast upon with a huge responsibility wherein their accountability is almost near to null and it is unfortunate that when such a responsibility has been cast with the basic assumption that the armed forces would showcase the utmost care and exercise maximum restraint before firing upon unarmed people, there have been complaints of indiscriminate firings, firing without following the standard operation procedures etc. and judicial probes into these firings, in light of the immunity provided to armed forces, have rarely been found to be adverse for the forces.

Most recently, the Kashmir High Court Bar Association has sought a ban on the use of pellet guns and prayed that the High Court uses its plenary power to safeguard the rights and interests of all people and direct the government to ensure that the dignity and fundamental freedoms of the people are respected.

Thus it is of utmost importance that a balance be brought wherein mob dispersal can also be done and the risk of injury can also be negated. The use of other measures such as lathi charge, tear gas or water cannons should be resorted to primarily and only if such measures fail and there is absolutely no other alternative left, that the extreme measures be taken such as the use of the pellet guns and even then, it should be used after following the due standard operation procedures such as firing from a distance not less than 500 meters and in case of violations, the responsible person must be held accountable. The culture of impunity in such circumstances has to come to an end.