Kashmiri doctors have lamented the use of pellet-firing shotguns on protesters after more than 100 people suffered grievous injuries to their eyes in a weekend of ferocious violence following the killing of rebel leader Burhan Wani.
According to local media reports, at least 32 people have been killed and 1,365 others injured in some of the deadliest clashes between protesters and Indian security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir since 2010.
The divisional commissioner, Asgar Samoon, said that 80 percent of the injuries were minor, although the Hindustan Times reported on Tuesday that they had counted 110 people with bullet wounds in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state, alone.
Doctors said that security forces had been deliberately using rubber pellets to inflict maximum physical and psychological damage on protesters without risking further fatalities.
Although rubber pellets are not fatal, when fired by hydraulic pump action guns they can cause blindness, disfigurement and damage to organs.
Sajjad Khanday, a doctor at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, in Srinagar, told Al Jazeera that at least 105 people had come to the hospital with severe eye injuries from rubber pellets.
Khanday said that the hospital had been overwhelmed by injured protesters at the weekend, adding that it was very likely that most victims would suffer permanent damage to their vision.
“We have operated on more than 90 people with injuries to their eyes. Many have multiple injuries with pellets lodged inside their eyes, forehead, back and abdomen. Many need multiple operations. It is very painful and gruesome.”
Khanday, who is an ophthalmologist with 16 years’ experience, said that security forces began using pellets more often from 2010, when the weapon was categorised as non-lethal.
He said he had seen pellet injuries before, given that security forces had often used the method to quell protests over the past five years. He added that the difference in latest protests is the numbers of such injuries.
“Nothing I have ever seen before,” he clarified. “It does not kill, but it is brutal and destroys entire families because people are left with a son, a child who can no longer work, or earn,” Khanday said.
A surgeon at the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences hospital corroborated Khanday’s claims.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the doctor described the use of pellets as “out of control”. He also said it was simply erroneous to call pellets non-lethal weapons, considering how they damaged lives.
Al Jazeera tried without success to secure comments on the issue from the Jammu and Kashmir police department, the state government as well as the ruling Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party.
Colonel Rohan Anand, a spokesman for the Indian army, said it was a matter for the state police to comment on.
On Tuesday, Mehbooba Mufti, chief minister of the Jammu and Kashmir, said in a statement that she felt regret for the loss of life, in what she described as her government’s best attempts to manage the situation. She blamed the violence on unruly elements taking advantage of a sensitive situation.
The chief minister also alluded to an inquiry into the alleged excesses by the security forces. Over the weekend, Indian media also reported incidents of police intimidation at hospitals, with one doctor claiming that police fired tear gas inside a subdistrict hospital.
But Sameer Patil, a security analyst with think-tank Gateway House in Mumbai, said that while he disapproved of the use of pellets, it was important to understand the complex conditions security forces were working under.
“The protests in Kashmir no longer involve just the unarmed stone-pelting civilians. Today they are also seeing participation from some armed militants who use the civilians as human shields to attack the forces,” he told Al Jazeera.
“So it is a very difficult choice. But I agree that their use should be minimised and the security forces need to hone their crowd-control skills and look at other ways to contain the protesters,” he said.
A police officer based in Srinagar told Al Jazeera that security forces used shotgun pellets because they were an effective tool for crowd control.
“In the past we used water cannons, tear gas canisters and other methods for crowd control, but they became ineffective with time … The use of pellets proved to be effective with an added advantage of easily tracing down the protesters when they reach out for medical assistance at the hospital,” the police officer said, on condition of anonymity.
On Monday, UK-based rights group Amnesty International said in a statement that the pellet-firing shotguns were not in line with international standards.
“They fire a large number of small pellets spreading over a wide range and cannot ensure well-targeted shots, so risk causing serious injury to bystanders or protesters not engaging in violence,” Amnesty said.
One victim, Ahmad, 17, receiving treatment for multiple pellet injuries to his eyes, said that police opened fire without any provocation from he protesters.
“We all took to the roads, it was peaceful, but then police fired pellets. The moment I was hit, everything became dark” Ahmad told Al Jazeera from his hospital bed.
On Tuesday, protests continued for a fourth day in parts of Kashmir.
Local media reported clashes in the northern district of Sopore and Srinagar.
Meanwhile, large swaths of Kashmir remained under curfew, with internet and mobile connections in southern Kashmir still suspended.