Feature: Blinded by metal pellets, youth recounts Muharram procession horror

(By Umer Asif)

Sitting on a hospital bed in Srinagar with his right eye shut, 23-year-old Shahnawaz Hussain is now half-blind. But he can recall the evening of Tuesday, when a lead pellet hit his eye, turning his world black.

His face has several pellet marks as a policeman had fired a pellet shell near Jehangir Chowk of Srinagar when Shia mourners attempted to take out a Muharram procession. Wearing a brown shirt, sporting a trimmed beard, and a sharp haircut, Hussain’s uncle pours medicine drops into his eye to give him relief.

On the eighth day of Muharram – a month of mourning the killing of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) grandson, Kashmir’s Shia Muslims take out a procession from Dalgate to Guru Bazar area of Srinagar. But since the armed conflict in Kashmir begun, the processions have been banned by the government with the apprehension of a law and order situation. This year too, the government imposed restrictions on the processions but many attempted to break the restrictions to carry out the procession.

Hussain was one among hundreds who walked from Dalgate and passed through city center Lal Chowk on Tuesday afternoon. As the procession, in parts, passed through the Lal Chowk, the government forces shot tear-gas shells and pellets to prevent them from moving ahead. Several were injured or detained during the clashes.

Running through the tear-gas smoke, people crossed the bridge to reach near Jehangir Chowk, where the heavy deployment of the government forces was waiting to stop any attempts of a procession.

“I was injured when pellets were fired at the procession near Jehangir Chowk,” recalls Hussain, who is now being treated at a hospital in Srinagar.

He says that the police were not allowed to fire pellets at the Muharram procession but they still did. “I was speaking to another person when I was hit. My face was hit by pellets. Some hit my eye and since then I can’t see from my right eye,” he said.

The police, in a statement, later said that “in violation of the government’s prohibitory orders against Muharram procession” in Srinagar, “some people tried to take out processions at various locations in Dalgate-Civil Lines area, while police exercised maximum restraint and tried to disperse them peacefully.” But, the police added, “some miscreants started manhandling the police personnel deployed on duties”.

However, eyewitnesses said that the police used tear-gas shelling and shotgun pellets to disperse the processions. Hussain remembers that it was between 5-5:30 pm near Jehangir Chowk when the pellets were shot at him.

Shahnawaz Hussian 2
At the same Jehangir Chowk earlier in the day, police had beaten up journalists, who were there to cover the processions. At least six journalists The Kashmir Walla spoke to confirmed they were beaten up. The police have now attached three police officials and transferred six others in the incident.

On Tuesday, Hussain was operated upon but the doctors have said that he has to be observed for a week before any further treatment.

“Doctors told us that his retina has been hit and his second surgery has to be conducted outside Kashmir. He works as a daily wager and has four sisters, none has been married yet. It was mainly him who was running the household,” said Hussain’s uncle, who was with him at the hospital.

“My eye has swelling and there is blood in it, which has to stop first. Then I will be taken to Amritsar for treatment,” says Hussain, referring to being taken to a higher eye specialty hospital in Punjab, where over the years hundreds of Kashmiris have gone for treatment after getting injured due to pellets.

According to reports, since the pellet shotgun was introduced in Kashmir in 2010 to crush mass protests, the number of people injured by pellets has been between 10,000 to 20,000. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2020 said that 139 Kashmiris were blinded by pellets between July 2016 and February 2019.

“Time and again, Indian law enforcement’s use of [pellet] shotguns in Kashmir has resulted in shocking, grievous injuries of protesters and bystanders,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at HRW, said in 2020, urging the government to stop the use of the deadly weapon in Kashmir.

“We had even taken him to a private doctor, who said that his retina is damaged. He has to be taken outside for treatment but not sure how he will manage his treatment. When his father heard, he collapsed due to stress. They are very poor as he was the only person in the family working as a street hawker,” said his uncle.

“They just treated the wound immediately, the pellets are still in the eye as it has gone deep inside the eye,” Hussain says.

(Umer Asif is a photojournalist at The Kashmir Walla.)
Courtesy: Kashmir Walla
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