By Venkatesh Nayak*
Readers may recollect my despatches from September and December 2016 describing my efforts to find out details about the sale and the efficacy of anti-riot weapons- particularly, pellet guns, which have caused severe injuries to hundreds of youth in various parts of Jammu and Kashmir. Both the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) and the First Appellate Authority (FAA) of the Khadki Ordnance Factory (OFK) rejected my request for information about the quantum of sale of anti-riot weapons such as pellet guns to security personnel on grounds of national security and commercial confidence. The FAA clearly stated in his order that OFK was not manufacturing the pellet guns being used by security agencies across the country but only the ammunition. He also held that OFK did not have any reports about the efficacy of such ammunition, especially, their impact on human beings. Now the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) which actually uses such weapons for dealing with protesters has denied access to all information about the action taken in J&K since July 2016.
CRPF holds that information about pellet-guns is not related to human rights violation
After reaching a dead end with the OFK, in December 2016, I sought the following information under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) from the CRPF about its operations in J&K since the unrest erupted:
“Apropos of the operations undertaken by the CRPF in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) since July 2016 in aid of civilian authority to maintain law and order, I would like to obtain the following detailed information under the RTI Act:
1) A clear photocopy of the Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) required to be used by the CRPF to disperse stone-pelting mobs in J&K;
2) A clear photocopy of the SoPs required to be used by the CRPF to disperse large assemblages of people other than stone-pelting mobs in J&K;
3) The name and postal address of the vendor(s) from whom the anti-riot weapon popularly known as “pellet guns” and relevant ammunition were procured for use in J&K;
4) The number of anti-riot weapons popularly known as pellet guns and the quantum of pellet ammunition actually used in J&K from 01 July, 2016 till date;
5) The rank-wise number of CRPF personnel who have suffered injuries while conducting operations in aid of civilian authority in J&K from 01 July, 2016 till date (names are not required);
6) The rank-wise number of CRPF personnel injured during operations in aid of civilian authority in J&K who have been paid ex gratia or compensation since 01 July 2016, till date, along with the amount of monies paid;
7) The rank-wise number of CRPF personnel who have been promoted to higher ranks in recognition of their performance while acting in aid of civilian authority in J&K since July 2016. Please provide the erstwhile rank and the rank to which each CRPF official or officer was promoted subsequently (names are not required).”
The CPIO has replied that there appears to be no human rights violation made out in the queries in my RTI application, so the request is being rejected.
I was pursuing the following objectives in this RTI application:
1) The SoPs developed by a Government-convened expert committee after a similar period of civilian unrest in J&K in 2010 (which I obtained under the RTI Act in 2012), do not make any mention of allowing the use of pellet guns for dispersing stone pelting mobs even though an entire section was devoted to such mobs in open areas and narrow lanes and streets. So para-military forces like the CRPF are perhaps using a different SoP that authorises the use of such severe measures (known euphemistically as “less-lethal measures”). To the best of my knowledge, these SoPs are not available in the public domain.
2) As the FAA of OFK clearly stated that they were not manufacturing the pellet guns, CRPF was obviously buying them from some other manufacturer. As these weapons are purchased using the taxpayer’s money, every citizen has the right to know from where they buy such weapons.
3) Both the Central Government and the J&K Government repeatedly pointed out that the well armed CRPF and other security personnel had suffered badly at the hands of the protesters (who mostly pelted stones), I sought to know the number of CRPF personnel who had suffered injuries and who had been paid compensation. I had clarified that I did not want the names of such injured personnel.
4) As it is common practice in most security agencies to promote personnel for their performance on the field, especially in situations like J&K, I sought to know the number and rank of CRPF personnel who had been promoted for duties performed in J&K since July 2016. Again I clarified that I did not want any names.
What is problematic in the CRPF’s reply?
1) The CRPF seems to think that the SoP for controlling both stone-pelting and non-stone-pelting mobs have no relationship at all to allegations of human rights violations. Despite case after case of innocent bystanders including very young boys and girls injured severely by pellets fired by security personnel being highlighted by the media, the CRPF does not want to own up responsibility. When SoPs are kept a secret, how can victim bystanders assess whether the actions taken by the CRPF personnel were excessive or not; how can they make a case for compensation and demand accountability of security personnel who caused them injury for no fault of theirs?
2) The CRPF seems to think that the injuries caused to their personnel by stone pelting mobs also do not amount to a violation of their human rights. So why are the Central and State Governments making these injuries such a big issue when the CRPF itself thinks that the human rights of their personnel have not been violated? Numerous bleeding-heart panelists on prime time TV must take note of this and direct their shrill voices at the contradictory statements of these governments instead of heckling human rights avdocators who talk about injuries sustained on both sides of the conflict.
The CRPF’s reply comes as no surprise, because, in 2014 also, the CPIO said in response to another RTI application of mine that the death of its personnel while on election duty due to blasting landmines allegedly planted by militant groups in Chhattisgarh and Bihar, also did not constitute human rights violation. So while civilians and security personnel are dying due to conflict, the CRPF seems to think that none of these amount to violation of human rights on either side of the conflict. Perhaps the fundamental right to life guaranteed under Part III is indeed becoming hollow.
CRPF Board’s recommendations for out of turn promotions
The CRPF also does not want to disclose how many of its personnel were rewarded for their performance in J&K in recent months. There is an urgent need to make such information public for the following reasons:
On 22 July, 2016 i.e., within two weeks of the eruption of unrest in J&K, a Board of Officers of the CRPF gave detailed recommendations regarding the criteria for awarding out of turn promotions to CRPF personnel who showed “extraordinary courage/displayed gallant action during fighting with anti-national/extremist elements”. These recommendations refer to the “valiant performance” of CRPF personnel in areas like J&K apart from areas affected by Left Wing Extremist militancy and the need to give them out of turn promotions to boost their morale and recognise their gallant action and courage. Till date such out of turn promotions were apparently being given only for excellence in Sports.
These recommendations for granting out of turn promotion pertain to instances of CRPF personnel on whom gallantry awards are conferred or whose actions result in the capture of leaders of militant groups who carry a reward of Rs. 1 crore (USD 147,300) on their heads or where personnel suffer severe injuries or amputations in such operations. Similarly, the Board recommended out of turn promotions for those displaying extraordinary courage and gallantry in high risk conditions such as natural calamities. A committee with representation from a Joint Secretary level officer in the Union Home Ministry will make recommendations for such out of turn promotions. So far so good, but the last para of the recommendations is worth highlighting:
“These recommendations are merely illustrative and not exhaustive. The competent authority may consider to revise, add or delete category of personnel deserving such incentives as the case may be.”
So, in effect the DG, CRPF or any other competent authority could add new categories of personnel who deserve out of turn promotions. It is entirely in the public interest to know whether any personnel have been rewarded with out of turn promotions or other benefits for operations conducted in the areas of unrest in J&K.
According to news reports, 80% of the 635 individuals who sustained eye injuries due to pellet guns since July 2016, are aged below 26 years. While medical experts were airdashed to the valley to provide emergency care to the injured during the initial weeks of the unrest, how will these young victims lead the rest of their lives with partial or complete blindness is a question that both the Central and the State Governments must think about and take remedial action.
Residents of J&K and other citizens must use the RTI Act more frequently to find out whether out of turn promotions are being granted to the CRPF personnel for working in J&K when the Central and the State Governments are not even talking about giving compensation to innocent bystanders who were injured by pellet guns.
*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi