Hundreds of people have been treated for serious eye injuries at a hospital in Indian-administered Kashmir since violence broke out over a month ago in the troubled region.
The Indian Express newspaper reported on Sunday that doctors at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Singh hospital have treated at least 446 patients with injuries sustained from being shot at with pellet guns, which have been used against protesters by Indian forces in the region.
A majority of victims have “multiple structural damage” to their eyes, the state government told the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, according to the daily.
Pellet guns have been widely used to quell protests in Kashmir that erupted after a popular rebel commander, Burhan Wani, was killed in a gun battle with Indian security forces last month.
At least 66 people have been killed in the almost daily anti-India protests and rolling curfews prompted by the killing of Wani on July 8.
The Central Reserve Police Force, an Indian paramilitary unit, told the Jammu and Kashmir High Court that it had used 1.3 million pellets in 32 days, adding that “it was difficult to follow the standard operating procedure given the nature of the protests”.
“It is the first time I have seen so many pellet-injured people. Pellets were also used during the 2010 unrest, but this time they [government forces] are using them on a large scale,” a doctor from Kashmir, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.
“We get, almost every day, people injured with pellets and many of the patients lose their eyesight,” he said.
Police say the pellets are a non-lethal weapon that helps breaking protests without casualty, but rights groups reject that assertion, saying the pellets blind people and must be banned.
“The use of pellets and bullets on civilians in Kashmir is inhumane and unacceptable. In a real democracy, these things should never happen,” Kavita Krishnan, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), told Al Jazeera.
“India has witnessed agitations in many parts, but the pellets and bullets were never used against civilians anywhere in India.
“It is a war against civilians. The government of India should realise it is a political problem and should sit with the people and listen to their demands,” she said.
A senior official from government of Jammu and Kashmir state, when contacted, declined to comment.
The news of eye injuries came as Jammu and Kashmir opposition leaders from the disputed region met Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian President, and asked him to “initiate a credible and meaningful process of political dialogue”.
According to the Indian Express, in a memorandum to Mukherjee, the group said: “The failure of the central government to acknowledge that the issue in Kashmir is largely of a political nature has worsened the already volatile situation.”
“The central government’s refusal to deal with the situation through a political approach is disappointing and can have serious long-term implications on peace and stability in the state,” the wrote.
The meeting of Kashmiri leaders came a day after India’s Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda called for talks with separatist leaders to end the bloody unrest in the region.