The life of Kashmir’s pellet-gun victims is littered with rejection and disappointment, none more than in their quest to marry. Of more than 1,000 injured in the mass blindings that followed the unrest of 2016, only a handful have found partners
MUHEET UL ISLAM & JUNAID DAR
South Kashmir: Manzoor Ahmad Dar, 26, hides an important detail about his life from women and their families in his search for a life partner—that he is blind in one eye.
His long-term girlfriend knew and left him in 2019. Today, when families visit his home in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district to verify his background, he does not tell them that his vision is impaired.
“My current fiancee and her family do not know that I’m blind from one eye,” said Manzoor, stepping down from a tractor that he was driving through highlands covered with colourful autumn leaves. He’s scared that when he eventually does tell her, she will leave him.
Manzoor, a labourer, lost vision in his right eye in an injury caused by pellets fired by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police and Central Reserve Police Force to control one of many protests that broke out in Kashmir in 2016 after the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a young militant commander associated with the Hizbul Mujahideen, an insurgent group. Dar was injured in one such protest on 31 October that year.
More than 1,000 people lost their vision, partially or completely, after being hit by the tiny iron balls fired by police and CRPF pellet guns. The mass blinding gained international attention. “The Indian forces call it a pellet gun, but it is a pump-action shotgun,” Time magazine quoted a spokesman of a UK-based think tank, the Omega Research Foundation, that monitors military technologies as saying.
The guns, designed for hunting, launch pellets at a speed of 1,100 kmph when fired.
The use of pellet guns, introduced in 2010 by Indian security forces in the Kashmir valley, has been strongly criticised by human rights advocates. They were meant as an alternative to assault rifles, to contain protests with minimum casualties after hundreds were killed in 2008 and 2010 unrest.
The wounds the pump-action shotguns inflict are not just physical.
A 2019 study by the Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in Srinagar found that at least 85% of pellet victims in Kashmir had developed psychiatric disorders. People with eye injuries were worst hit, with 92.92% developing psychiatric disorders, the study found.
Many of them struggle to learn basic survival skills. Finding a partner to marry suddenly becomes an insurmountable task. In 2013, the Hindustan Times reported how an early pellet victim married his long-term girlfriend, but it is evident that was an aberration.
Mohammad Ashraf, president of the Pellet Victims Welfare Trust, set up in 2017, said that of the 1,300 unmarried pellet gun victims registered with the Trust, only three people, including him, got married.
The School Sweetheart Who Had To Give Up Her Love
Manzoor was engaged to his long-time girlfriend Isma* In August 2018. The engagement ended a year later when her family found out about his injury.
“I did not hide anything from my fiancé when we were in a relationship,” said Manzoor. “She had decided to tie the knot with me despite knowing the fact I had no vision in my right eye.”
Manzoor and Isma met during their 10th class examination about a decade ago. They became good friends and eventually fell in love. They had many dreams, Dar said, and had promised to support each other through difficult times.
When Manzor told Isma about the damage to his eye, she assured him that she would not leave him. “She accompanied me on many occasions when I had to see the doctor,” he said.
Manazoor said Isma “resisted her parent’s move of breaking the engagement”, but eventually could not go against their wishes.
Before they found out about his injury, Manzoor said, Isma’s family had no objection to their marriage despite the differences in the couple’s educational qualifications.
“I am a school dropout while she was a graduate,” said Manzoor. “All they wanted was to secure her future.”
Looking back, Manzoor said any parent might have done the same thing.
“Prior to my injury I used to earn Rs 30,000-40,000 rupees running a bakery, but now I only manage to earn Rs 10,000,” said Manzoor.
“I want to marry but it seems impossible as no one is willing to give their daughter in nikah with me,” said Manzoor. “Since then I have been trying to hide the truth but at the same time my conscience isn’t allowing me to deceive anyone by staying silent about my blindness.”
‘Marriage Is Not An Option For Me’
Less than 15 km from Manzoor’s home, in the Kooch area of south Kashmir’s Shopian district, we met Aamir Hussain Dar in a small house next to his mother’s home.
Pellets struck Hussain, 24, in his eyes when he joined stone-throwers in the Haal area of Pulwama district on 9 July 2016, after attending the funeral of Wani, killed by security forces in a firefight the previous day.
Hussain, who was then a welder, was hit all over his body, including his eyes. He regained 80% vision in his right eye after multiple surgeries but lost eyesight in the left.
In 2016, the Jammu & Kashmir High Court Bar Association filed a petition in Jammu & Kashmir High Court seeking a ban on the use of pellet guns. The HC rejected the plea in March 2020, saying that “it is manifest that so long as there is violence by unruly mobs, use of force is inevitable”.
Hussain did not want to marry, as he put it, after a “betrayal” by his girlfriend for not supporting him during this difficult period.
Sitting cross-legged in his living room, clad in a traditional woolen pheran, he recalled that both families had agreed and were preparing for the engagement. “But she stepped back at the last moment,” he said, “saying that ‘I cannot ruin my life by marrying a one-eyed person’.”
Hussain had met the woman, whose identity he did not reveal, in 2013, when he visited her village in the Awantipora area of Pulwama district of South Kashmir to install iron fencing at her neighbour’s house.
“It was love at first sight,” he said, reddening while narrating his love story. “I passed on my number on a piece of paper and she called me after three days.” After a month, they were dating.
The couple were together for three and a half years before they separated in 2017, soon after their respective families had given the go-ahead.
“I don’t know what happened to her suddenly,” he said. “She was in the relationship with me for more than six months after the pellet injury and even accompanied me to Srinagar on many occasions to see doctors.”
“Her sister tried to convince her to marry me but she didn't agree,” said Hussain.
Hussain’s girlfriend was not aware of his participation in the protests. “She rebuked me for participating in the protests, when I informed her that I was hit by pellets after a few days,” he said, covering his face with his hands as he wiped away tears.
Later, Hussain’s parents approached many families to find him a wife, but they failed.
“I don’t want to marry now,” he said.
“The truth is that it won’t be possible for me to carry some other person’s responsibility on my shoulders when I am not able to take care of myself,” said Hussain, who is now a manual labourer struggling to meet his medical expenses.
“Now I am mostly confined to my home,” said Hussain. “Under these circumstances I believe marriage is not an option for me.”
A Life Of Disappointments
Ashraf, 30, of the Pellet Victims Welfare Trust said that Kashmir’s pellet victims routinely experience discrimination. Instead of offering victims help to move forward with their lives, people expose them to “a new world of rejection and disappointments”, he said.
“I myself had to wait for three years to get married,” said Ashraf, a farmer.
Ashraf’s engagement to an acquaintance in the neighbouring village was arranged by his parents in 2015. The relationship between the two families, however, ended in 2016, after he was hit by pellets in both eyes.
Before his pellet injuries, Ashraf was hit by a bullet that pierced the left side of his chest in August 2016, during violent anti-India protests in the town of Pulwama. Ashraf claimed he was not a part of the protests.
“I was operated on and had 89 stitches, and two months later, I faced another tragedy by losing vision in my right eye,” he said.
According to Ashraf, the father of his to-be fiance told his family that he would not have objected to the match if Ashraf had not been hit by pellets.
“I heard him say that had I received only a bullet injury, then would have married his daughter to me,” said Ashraf. “But since it was a matter of the eyes, he stepped back.”
“In these years I have learned only one thing,” said Ashraf. “That the life of a human being ends the moment he loses vision.”
Note: The name Isma has been changed on the request of Manzoor Ahmad Dar.
(Muheet Ul Islam is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Sriangar. Junaid Dar is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Srinagar.)