Home / Opinion / Kashmir protests trigger debate on weapons that blind

Several violent protests have taken place in Kashmir following the killing of 22-year-old militant Burhan Wani last Friday. Mobs have attacked the security forces at many places. To disperse the mobs, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Jammu and Kashmir Police are using non-lethal weapons like pellet guns. These pellets can hit the eyes and are capable of blinding the victim for life. The count of people with eye injuries has mounted to—it is being reported by NDTV—more than 100. A team of eye specialists has rushed from New Delhi to Kashmir to help doctors in treating the growing number of patients.

Let’s set the context first. The battles in Kashmir between militants and the security forces are part of asymmetric warfare. And the pellet guns are being fired as a part of what can be called crowd control, which belongs to the more conventional domain of law and order. Now, there are two questions, one on the role of non-lethal weapons and the other on blinding. While there is no play of a symmetric warfare at present in Kashmir—unless Pakistan decides to launch an overt conventional attack—I will first take a long detour into how blinding is viewed in symmetric warfare. This will not just be critical to further understanding but also will be enriching in itself. Going forward, the arguments are based on my reading of an excellent book, Moral Dilemmas of Moral War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Warfare (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by Michael L. Gross which goes into details of such questions and many more.

On 13 October, 1995, Protocol IV entitled ‘Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons’ was adopted to the ‘Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects.’ Apparently, no such blinding laser was even designed before this protocol came into effect. The reason was that states—currently 107 states are party to the protocol—found the use of blinding lasers both inhuman and militarily unnecessary.

Also Read: The message behind the protests in Kashmir

Now, let us understand the argument. The combatants in the war can kill each other but not blind each other. What could be the reason? After all, isn’t blinding an effective way to disable the enemy combatant without killing him? No, because the very possibility of being blinded in a war can be a debilitating thought and hence can deter a soldier from entering the war in the first place. Moreover, its use by one side will necessarily invoke use by the other side, thus rendering a lot of soldiers blind by the end of the day. Hence, both sides have an incentive not to rush down this path. This may not be the same in case of asymmetric warfare where the weaker side may not have access to such weapons or may not be capable of blinding enough people. Moreover, the impact of blinding can be lifelong and hence unnecessary to the purpose of war.

Remember that a combatant in the war has surrendered his right to life but not his dignity. His honour cannot be disrobed. Even if captured, he should be incarcerated for the duration of war and returned at the end of it. He should not be subject to torture. Any such injury, therefore, that outlasts the war is unnecessary and hence inhuman. Again this argument will not apply to an asymmetric warfare where there is usually no end-date to the war. And hence a blinded enemy may be militarily useful.

But there’s a twist to the tale. See Table 1 which Gross imports from Strong Medicine: The Ethical Rationing of Health Care (Oxford University Press, 1990) by P.T. Menzel. Let’s use an example to understand the table. A person who is disabled to the extent that he is confined to the wheelchair and is suffering from moderate levels of stress will rate the quality of his life at 68% of normal life. In other words, he will be willing to trade off 10 years of his current life with no less than 6.8 years of normal life. It is, in fact, very rarely that people with disabilities are willing to reduce the length of their lives considerably. And thereon Gross quotes Anita Silvers, an expert in disability studies, “Sighted people notoriously overestimate the disruptiveness of being blind."

So, should blinding lasers be allowed in wars given that blind people tend to adapt to their disability and wish to live at least a significant portion of their lives? Perhaps, the answer is still no. While blind people more easily adapt to their optical status than sighted people realise, blind people don’t go to war. Sighted people do. And hence they should feel willing to go to war without fear of returning blind.

Coming back to the situation in Kashmir, one part of the problem is solved. If blinding should not be resorted to with an enemy combatant, it surely should not be resorted to with domestic crowds. But there are still two unresolved questions: 1) can blinding be resorted to with militants? and 2) can blinding be justified in crowd control if blinding per se is not the intent? I will leave the first to the individual reader and come to the second. The second question has to do with two things: a) the intention of the security forces, and b) the choice of non-lethal weapon being used.

It seems reasonably clear that the security forces do not intend to blind the protesters. But the choice of non-lethal weapon and the method of operation is such that blindings are taking place on a scale which makes one uncomfortable. There is no objective criteria to determine how many blind people at the end of a crowd control operation are fine and how many are not. This might sound like a heartless argument but we are already in a territory where such conversations have to be had. Remember, the crowd is pelting stones from the other end. So, inaction is out of option.

Changing the choice of non-lethal weapon seems a better option. Chemical Weapons Convention, 1993 provides some guidance. Paragraph 7 of Article II defines a riot control agent—relevant to the context of crowd control in Kashmir—as a chemical “which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure." Clearly, pellets which can cause lifelong blindness do not conform to the spirit of this definition and hence their use is excessive for controlling crowds. However, India is not the only country which uses pellets. Others such as the US, Israel, Argentina, South Africa and Canada use them too. This practice needs to be revisited.

Having said this, I must also point out that there are a range of moral and legal questions on the use of various non-lethal weapons. For example, there are neuro-weapons that do not harm physically but can work on the brain to change the behaviour of a person. It essentially robs the victim of his agency. Can we replace pellet guns with such weapons? Difficult question.

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