Mumbai/New Delhi: It was 20 July 2016, and Dr S. Natarajan, a Mumbai-based eye surgeon, was speaking to his friend D. Sivanandan, the former Mumbai Police commissioner and Maharashtra’s Director General of Police. Sivanandan casually suggested to Natarajan that he should work in Kashmir for some time, helping the many pellet gun victims there.
A few days later, in the middle of a meeting in Patna, his phone beeped. On one of the many WhatsApp groups he is part of, Natarajan saw a message posted by the Borderless World Foundation, looking for senior, qualified eye surgeons in Kashmir. Natarajan immediately responded, and within two days, the chairman of Mumbai’s Aditya Jyot Hospital was on his way to Srinagar.
At the time, Jammu & Kashmir was seeing a lot of unrest and clashes between protesters and security forces, following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on 8 July that year.
“When I reached, it was like a ghost town. Then, suddenly, someone would throw a stone and the police would fire,” Natarajan recalled.
On that first visit, the surgeon, who is also president of the All India Opthalmological Society, operated on 47 patients injured by pellet guns in three days at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar. Four visits in the next five months took the number of surgeries close to 200, he said.
“From what I hear from doctors in Kashmir, it seems like the incidence of pellet injuries has reduced. But I am willing to go there and treat people if ever my services are required again,” he said.
What a pellet does to a human eye
The Jammu & Kashmir Police first introduced pellet guns in 2010, calling them a “non-lethal” weapon. A single cartridge carries hundreds of pellets which, when fired, disperse in different directions from a single point. These pellets have the potential to damage the soft tissue of the skin, and the eye, being one of the most delicate organs, is the most vulnerable to injury.
“When an eye is injured, it is like a tomato being pierced by a pellet. It tears through the tissue and goes through layers of the retina,” Natarajan told ThePrint.
“The retina is the most important for vision, and if it is damaged, the vision is gone instantaneously. Sometimes, the cornea is injured, the lens is injured. The return of vision after advanced surgery depends on the type of injury and the way in which it is injured.”
It is usually difficult to regain normal eyesight if pellets pierce through the eye from its centre. Those with injuries on the side of the eye, where the retina is intact and optical nerves are functioning, have some hope of vision being restored.
Last month, ThePrint had reported five cases of pellet injuries after the abrogation of Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir, at a time when the entire administration from the state police to government hospital authorities were maintaining that there were no pellet victims and protests had been peaceful. A few of them also sustained injuries in the eye.
‘Most victims young, in the 20-29 age group’
Natarajan, along with other doctors at the SMHS Hospital, documented 777 cases of pellet injury victims in Kashmir from June to November 2016.
Of the 777, 51.1 per cent were in the age group of 20-29 years, while 36.6 per cent were in the 10-19 age group. He also recalls operating on patients who were as young as five and 12.
The surgeon is still in touch with a few of his Kashmiri patients, some of whom also visited the Aditya Jyot Hospital in Mumbai for follow-up treatments.
“A 12-year-old girl, Insha, who had 300 pellets hit her face, was operated on in Kashmir for meningitis, after which we did her eye surgery in Mumbai. Her injuries were severe,” Natarajan recalled.
Letter to PM Modi and Rajnath Singh
Natarajan’s experience prompted him to write a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then Union home minister Rajnath Singh to highlight how many innocent people become victims of pellet gun injures “for no fault of their own”.
“While our security forces are doing their best to contain collateral damage, it is inevitable that such damage will occur. Particularly painful is the fact that many individuals who are not even involved in the unrest have become victims of pellet gun wounds for no fault of their own…” Natarajan wrote.
He also recommended a slew of measures such as arranging for additional experienced vitreo-retinal surgeons to visit Jammu and Kashmir on a rotational basis, supplying additional equipment, modern microscopes, monitors, recording systems and so on to SMHS Hospital, and creating an institute of ocular trauma in Kashmir.
Natarajan, however, did not get a response.
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