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World

Indian Police Injure Thousands Of Kashmiri Protesters With Pellet Guns

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In the Indian-administered state of Kashmir, a piece of ammunition that's not much bigger than a seed has come to signify a summer of unrest. In 10 weeks of disturbances across the valley, the use of steel pellets for crowd control has created anger at India. In the main city of Srinagar, NPR's Julie McCarthy visited the hospital where doctors are treating the most serious eye injuries.

(CROSSTALK)

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Twelve-year-old Muslim Nazir Lone sits on a cot in a government hospital, picking tiny steel pellets out of wounds dotting his arms. Lone's left eye is swollen and red, pierced by a pellet. In the latest upheaval in Kashmir, a disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan, Kashmiris calling for independence have clashed with Indian security forces and been left with severe injuries to their eyes.

Nazir Ahmed Lone says his son hadn't even been part of a protest. He just stumbled onto one and got caught in the spray of a pellet gun. Security forces have protocols on the firing of these pump-action shotguns, but Nazir Ahmed Lone says they are being flouted.

NAZIR AHMED LONE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "The protocol," Nazir says, "is to shoot only below the waist, but they are shooting straight at the eyes, the face and the chest of these young boys," he says, adding, "it's the Indian state's policy to take down the youth of Kashmir. Take their eyes, and take their vision."

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: A bugler sounds retreat at sunset in a post at the Central Reserve Police Force which has more than 30,000 men in the Valley. In response to a plea to ban pellet guns, the force submitted in court that it had fired 1.3 million pellets in a month. Rajesh Yadav commands a battalion and insists this is the least lethal means to control crowds that he says are being incited by Kashmiri separatist groups controlled by Pakistan.

RAJESH YADAV: In every crowd, there's a particular small group or a ring which is leading the stone pelting, sloganeering. And this misguided and misled youth - they start protesting on the roads. They are not clear what they are asking for.

MCCARTHY: Back at the hospital, things are very clear-cut for 25-year-old Omar Bhat who says he caught a pellet in the eye through the window of his house.

OMAR BHAT: (Through interpreter) And all my life I have seen the same thing. It has begun since I have opened my eyes. And we are ready to sacrifice everything for freedom. The only thing we want is that we should be free from this brutality and oppression. I just demand freedom from India, and that's it.

MCCARTHY: Thousands of young men like him want the Indian Army to quit Kashmir and make way for a long-promised referendum to let Kashmiris decide on whether to remain in India, become part of Pakistan or to be independent.

The turmoil in Kashmir dates to independence from Britain, and over the years violence has claimed thousands of lives. In the past two months of protest, over 10,000 people have been injured. Seventy-eight have been killed, including two police personnel. This hospital alone has treated at least 700 people with serious eye injuries from pellets. Such injuries, says psychologist Javid Jeelani, are life-altering and their impact difficult to treat.

JAVID JEELANI: The person who has lost the eyes has lost everything - his hopes, his dreams, everything. And it's very difficult to tell them, OK, it's OK because there is no word which can console them.

MCCARTHY: As Kashmir struggles to cope with the wounds of the summer, the agitation shows no signs of stopping. Even with their damaged sight, the Valley's angry youth are holding fast to their vision of a free Kashmir. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Kashmir Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.