Use of pellet guns in farmers’ protests another milestone in shrinking space for dissent

Use of ‘non-lethal’ pellet guns in 2024 farmers protests, in Manipur in 2023 and Kashmir since 2010 has left many severely injured, and has been criticised by international humanitarian law and international human rights scholars.

THE use of pellet guns by Haryana police to disperse farmers in the ongoing farmers protest has been widely reported.

Farmers from Punjab and Haryana are marching towards Delhi, raising 13 demands with the Union government, including a law guaranteeing minimum support price for agriculture produce.

The Hindu reported that the Haryana police have used pellet guns against farmers at two locations— Khanuari and Shambhu Barrier— along the Punjab–Haryana border, approximately 200 km away from Delhi.

The roads at the two locations have been blocked since February 13 to prevent the farmers from marching to Delhi.

Although the Haryana director general of police, Shatrujeet Kapur, denied using pellet guns against farmers, the Punjab health minister Dr Balbir Singh has confirmed that three farmers have lost their eyesight from pellet guns.

The use of pellet guns on farmers brings back memories of their frequent use in Kashmir.

What are pellet guns?

Pellet guns are used by police and armed forces to control or break protests. They fire cartridges containing 450–600 lead pellets with sharp edges. When fired, the cartridges burst, spraying the pellets.

Pellet guns are supposedly a “non-lethal” weapon. However, their use leaves protesters maimed and blinded, as is widely reported by human rights organisations. They are also known as “birdshot” or “dove shots” in reference to them being used for the purpose of hunting.

When were pellet guns first used in India and where?

Pellet guns were introduced in J&K by the Union government in 2010, under the cloak of the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir Special Powers Act), 1990.

The Central Police Reserve Force (CPRF) and J&K police use pellet guns as one of the ‘non-lethal’ weaponry in J&K. They argue that the use of such weaponry is necessary to tackle civil disturbance in the valley.

The CPRF says pellet guns are used against crowds pelting stones at it. There is also an argument that a crowd of protestors usually includes young men who have picked up guns against the Indian government and at times it is difficult to distinguish unarmed protestors from armed protestors.

The basic claim of armed forces is that pellet guns are only used against violent protestors.

For example, after the July 8, 2016 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by the Indian army in an encounter, huge civil unrest followed. Massive protests and funeral gatherings reverberated around Kashmir for months.

While some say that the crowd was unarmed but chanted slogans of self-determination against the Indian government, others say that the crowd was pelting stones. To break the protests, Indian armed forces in the valley made extensive use of pellet guns.

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a human rights organisation in Kashmir, reported that around 15,000 persons were injured in confrontations with Indian armed forces. Of the 15,000, around 4,500 were injured due to pellet-firing shotguns.

The association reported that more than 352 civilians were left partially or completely blinded by pellet-firing shotguns including children as young as eight years.

The Hindu reported that 14 percent of those injured by pellet guns in the 2016 uprising were below 15 years of age.

The CPRF admitted to using 1.3 million pellets in the first 32 days of the protest in 2016.

As early as 2014, a study of 20 pellet victims with eye injuries revealed that 33 percent of them did not regain their vision.

In a 2016 study by the Physicians for Human Rights, it was found that the security forces use the 12-gauge shotgun which is “inherently inaccurate, indiscriminate and capable of penetrating soft tissues even at a distance”.

It stated that the 12-gauge shotgun comes under the class of kinetic impact projectiles, which should not be used for crowd management or crowd dispersal. It is because these weapons cannot be used safely or effectively against crowds.

The report further added: “At close range, the lethality and patterns of injuries of weapons firing cartridges of pellets or rubber bullets become similar to those of live ammunition.”

On July 26, 2016, the Union ministry of home affairs constituted an expert committee to explore possible alternatives for pellet guns.

It was also during this time that the J&K High Court was hearing a petition filed by J&K High Court Bar Association against the use of pellet guns. The court rejected the plea on the grounds that an expert committee has been constituted to look into the issue. 

When the Order was challenged before the Supreme Court, it said that pellet guns should not be used “indiscriminately” and should only be resorted to after “proper application of mind”.

The report of the committee is not available online. Despite that, it was reported that the committee suggested using “chili-filled grenades” and “stun LAC shells” instead of pellet guns.

Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, told The Leaflet that the committee never recommended prohibiting pellet guns. They suggested instead of lead pellets, plastic pellets could be used.

The then Union home minister, Rajnath Singh, had said that pellet guns would be used only in the “rarest of rare” cases.

A 2017 report by Amnesty International India suggests that there is no way to control the trajectory or direction of the pellets.

In 2017, the CPRF started using a modified version of the pellet guns, which has a deflector attached to the muzzle end to prevent pellets from hitting above the abdomen region.

However, this also does not help because there is evidence that pellet guns hitting lower abdomen has resulted in permanent injuries and even death.

After J&K, pellet guns were used in Manipur last year against students.

The recent use of the “non-lethal” weapon against farmers suggests that the ‘standard of procedure’ developed more than a decade earlier was not adopted by the Haryana police.

Standard only in name

The Leaflet asked Nair if there is a standard operating procedure (SoP) regulating the use of pellet guns. He said everything about the usage of pellet guns is opaque.

In 2011, the Union ministry of home affairs established an SoP for using non-lethal weapons. This was in the aftermath of the 2010 massive unrest in Kashmir.

The report takes into account the situation in Kashmir and other Northeastern states.

The report was prepared by the Bureau of Police Research & Development titled Development and Testing of Effective Non-Lethal Weapons and Technologies and Tactics for Countering Public Agitation with Minimum Force.

Surprisingly, the SoP does not recommend the use of pellet guns as one of the non-lethal weapons. It only mentions plastic pellets as anti-riot gun.

The SoP states that non-lethal use of force which causes minimum damage should be used to control anti-riot situations and violent protests. Only when the situation escalates, the deploying force could use harsher means to tackle the situation.

In Kashmir, the security forces continue to use pellet guns, often along with tear gas and other “non-lethal” weaponry. There seems to be no care to access the intensity of the crowd because there have been instances were pellet guns have been used on religious processions.

It would not be wrong to conclude that the manner in which the security forces access the use of non-lethal weapons is simply determined by the fact that there is an assembly of more than four or five persons.

What do international humanitarian law and human rights covenants say about pellet guns?

Under international humanitarian law, use of weapons that indiscriminately attack enemy combatants along with civilians directly taking part in hostilities is prohibited.

Weapons that causes indiscriminate and excessive harm also fails the principles of distinction between a civilian and non-civilian target. Moreover, international humanitarian law prohibits attacking civilians.

Further, the principleof proportionality is used both in international humanitarian and human rights law. Under humanitarian law, the use of force must be proportionate to the extent of military necessity.

Under international human rights law, use of force can only be used as a last resort. The principle of proportionality requires that the least restrictive measure should be adopted.

In India, where the right to protest is a fundamental right protected under Article 19(1)(b) of the Indian Constitution, the State can only restrict the exercise of this right through the grounds of reasonable restrictions mentioned under Article 19(3).

Irrespective of which ground the State invokes, the assessment of proportionality is inherent and it obligates the State to assess the intensity of the situation to determine the manner in which the right could be restricted using the least restrictive measure.

The use of pellet guns is expanding and the threshold of their use is being lowered. Consequently, the space for dissent is shrinking.