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Feature: Kashmir’s first pellet-blind is haunted

Mr Kamalang- - 
Amir Kabir Beigh was holding his 5-year-old son in hands, tossing him up and down in the air. The face of his son was blurred. Beigh was sure, though, it would be a reflection of his own childhood. Next moment, he opened his eyes but couldn’t comprehend where he was. After a while, he realised that it was yet another dream. The dreams of longing have intensified since his first child was born, in August 2015. Sometimes, they recur every other week. The metal-pellets, which pierced his eyes more than a decade ago, have upended his life ever since.
On 18 September 2010, Amir, then 18, had gone to a sub-district hospital in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district to buy medicines for his ailing mother, when a police jeep came towards him. He was hit by a cartridge of pellets. “It felt like I was shot at in my head, I didn’t understand what it was,” Beigh recalled. He tried to walk a few steps ahead before “it was dark everywhere.”
The protestors in 2010 were the first in Kashmir to face the metal-pellets, which the government had introduced as a “non-lethal” alternative to other fatal weapons that the government forces frequently used. That year, two persons – 14-year-old Irshad Ahmad Parray and 20-year-old Mudasir Nazir – succumbed to shotgun pellet injuries.
Since 2010, more than 6,000 persons have been injured in metal-pellet firing, and at least 1000 were hit in their eyes. Beigh was the first Kashmiri to lose complete eyesight to the “non- lethal” weapon. “That [police vehicle] was the last thing that I saw with my eyes,” Amir said with a laugh.
After an entire cartridge hit his face, Amir was assured by the doctors in Kashmir that he would get back his eyesight. He underwent a surgery in Srinagar’s premier tertiary care health centre, Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. Next year, he went to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), in New Delhi, for his second surgery.
He asked his mother, Jehan Ara, to visit him in New Delhi. Her face was the first thing he wanted to see after regaining the eye-sight. When the bandages were unwrapped from his eyes, slowly, he looked around … in darkness. Ara hugged him. “My wish of seeing my mother died there. I could feel her but not see her,” Beigh recalled. “We both cried.”
The forced impairment upended his life; the initial three years were the most terrible, he said. Daily life chores became more difficult. “It is difficult even now,” he said, “but with time, you just get used to it.”
In the darkness, however, the most haunting are the colorful dreams; the most frequent being walking through the lanes of the old town of Baramulla as his friends congratulate him for regaining his eyesight. He would dream about the days of his life; the places he visited; the colors and faces he saw. “Most of the time, I would dream about getting back my eyesight,” Beigh added. “But after waking up, it would be tormenting for me.”
A study by the Government Medical College, Srinagar, titled “Psychiatric Morbidity in Pellet Injury Victims of Kashmir”, claimed that at least 85 percent of the people who were blinded by metal-pellets in Kashmir also suffer psychiatric problems. “85% of 380 pellet victims examined during this post-2016 uprising period were found to be suffering from various psychiatric disorders,” the study noted.
After he got married in 2013, however, he said his life changed. Two years later, the couple gave birth to a son, Annas. During the pregnancy, Beigh was hysterical as he kept thinking about the moment he would hold his child in his arms. He starkly remembers holding Annas for the first time: “I put my hand on his head. I obviously couldn’t see him. … I don’t know what he looks like exactly, but I have created my own image of his.”
Six months ago, they had another child, Inaaya.
An understanding of Beigh’s inability was realised by Annas at a young age. Sometimes, Annas – dressed up in new clothes – would walk up to Beigh and ask him, “How am I looking?” “He [Annas] took my hand and rubbed it across his clothes,” Beigh recalled. “He had realised that I can’t see. He is a wise kid and understands everything.”
At times, Beigh would narrate his ordeal to Annas. To which, the son would often assure his father of “revenge”. Unlike the time when he would venture alone on unknown paths and heights of the mountains nearby, Beigh is now dependent on other people for basics. The fondness of painting is behind him too as the brushes, dusted and dried up, lie somewhere at home.
“One should never lose hope,” he added. Over the years, he has learnt to recognise people by their touch – and even smell. Beigh, looking back at his life, said that he was able to bear it all because he got inclined towards the Quran, where he “found most of the support”.
During the summer of 2016, after the killing of a popular militant commander Burhan Wani, the metal-pellets became the go-to method of crowd dispersal for the government forces. In their action, more than 100 civilians were killed, thousands more were injured. It was the world’s first mass blinding.
On 11 March 2020, Jammu and Kashmir High Court, via a division bench of Justice Ali Mohammad Magrey and Justice Dhiraj Singh Thakur, dismissed a PIL seeking a ban on pellet guns. The bench said: “It is manifest that so long as there is violence by unruly mobs, the use of force is inevitable.” Nonetheless, he attends every meeting, or worksop, related to the pellet survivors. If it had been up to him, he would “visit every survivor and sympathise with them”. “But some things are just not possible,” Amir added.
Whenever Beigh listens to the news of pellet firing, the haunting memories rush back. And it is an ordeal all over again. Eleven years on, Beigh still craves for the first ray of light in the morning. Every morning, he said he wakes up and there is a strange feeling of loss. “My day would start with that ray of light. I haven’t seen it falling on my face for eleven years,” he said. “Now the day and night are the same for me. It is darkness everywhere.”

 

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