By Fayaz Bukhari
SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – Indian security forces will use shells full of a chilli compound as an alternative to shotgun pellets, to control crowds in Kashmir, the interior minister said on Monday, after widespread use of the weapons wounded thousands and inflamed public anger.
More than 3,800 people have been wounded and one killed by shotgun pellets since protests against Indian rule erupted in the disputed territory in early July, with more than 100 left partially or fully blinded, official figures show.
Doctors say most cases go unreported, and critics want the government to use less harmful ammunition.
“The committee has given its suggestions and the alternative of the non-lethal weapon has been suggested as PAVA shells,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh told reporters as he led an all-party delegation to Srinagar, the summer capital of India’s northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir.
He said security forces would begin using the shells, made of a compound found naturally in chilli powder, after a panel of experts decided they were sometimes a better alternative to pellet guns.
The chilli compound, when fired, is thought to cause severe irritation and temporarily immobilize the target.
“I think that won’t result in the death of anyone. Since yesterday, 1,000 shells have already arrived here,” said Singh, a senior figure in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist ruling party.
Although pellet guns are designed as a non-lethal weapon, police officers have told Reuters that security forces are often forced to use them at close range to protect themselves from mob attacks.
India is struggling to contain the worst unrest in Muslim-majority Kashmir since 2010, and Singh’s trip to Srinagar appeared to make little headway in resolving a crisis that has left 73 people dead, 71 of them civilians.
On Sunday, separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani turned delegation members away at the door of his home, where he is under house arrest.
Singh said India was “pained” by the unrest in Kashmir, but lashed out at separatists for refusing to talk.
Protests erupted in Kashmir after security forces killed a popular separatist leader on July 8, catching New Delhi off guard.
Thousands of stone-pelting locals take to the streets almost every day in the protests, led largely by young people without an obvious leader, complicating Indian efforts to tackle them.
Kashmir, claimed in full but ruled in part by India and Pakistan, has been at the heart of nearly seven decades of hostility between the neighbors.
(Writing by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Douglas Busvine)