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You’ve got a hotter spray, Sir

Kamran Loghman, who created pepper spray

New Delhi, Feb. 13: Perhaps emboldened by the safety guaranteed by 12,000km of separation, the creator of the pepper spray has offered Lagadapati Rajagopal a far more potent weapon.

“The member (Rajagopal) should practise Ahimsa and self-control — that is better than pepper sprays,” Kamran Loghman, the creator of the tool that is widely promoted as a non-lethal self-defence weapon told The Telegraph from a snow-battered Washington DC today.

Loghman should know. After helping train law-enforcement and military officers in more than 40 countries, including India, on the use of pepper sprays between 1988 and 2005, he now teaches Indian philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

A former consultant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Loghman said: “Its (the pepper spray’s) use for anger is not justified — it is not for the purpose of controlling other people when you’re angry.”

He added: “The pepper spray was developed for law-enforcement as a low level of force against those who are a physical threat to police officers or bystanders.”

A canister of pepper spray costs between Rs 300 and Rs 500 in Delhi, where some distributors ship out as many as 1,000 cans a month after the December 16 gang rape and murder.

Rajagopal, who represents Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, a state known for some of India’s spiciest cuisine, pulled out a can of pepper spray just before a bill to carve out Telangana state was tabled. Eyewitnesses said Rajagopal released the contents of the can in the air and continued to do so even while some fellow members of Parliament grappled with him.

Pepper sprays typically contain about 10 per cent of concentrated extracts of red chillies — Oleoresin capsicum — diluted with an appropriate solvent and are intended to disable attackers through their near-instantaneous physiological impacts.

A campus safety publication of the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), police department lists the physiological effects of pepper sprays — they can trigger involuntary closing and tearing of the eyes, uncontrollable coughing, retching and gagging. Inflammation and swelling of the throat lining may restrict the size of the airway although it will remain large enough for oxygen flow and survival.

Almost all MPs hit by the spray today spoke of similar problems.

Respiratory functions of people exposed to pepper spray typically return to normal within 10 to 45 minutes, the UCB publication said.

If Rajagopal had indeed used pepper spray — some cried out “gas” and “chemical”— they need not worry too much. A study by the FBI and the US Army had two decades ago determined that pepper sprays have no long-term health effects.

The active ingredients of pepper spray are usually a concentrated mix of compounds called capsacinoids, including one called capsaicin. Capsacinoids can cause pain and burning sensations over exposed area of the skin, eyes, nasal and oral tissues, Theodore Chan, an emergency medicine specialist at the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues wrote in a paper in the journal Forensic Sciences.

Most politicians in India cannot claim to be complete strangers to pre-emptive irritants as they usually undergo baptism by tear gas in their formative years in public life.

But tear gas and pepper spray are not the same. While pepper sprays contain a natural but highly concentrated compound from red chillies, tear gas is a synthetic compound — usually based on a chemical called phenacyl chloride that can cause severe irritation to the eyes, said Rana Singh, founder of Aax Global, which supplies homegrown pepper sprays for retail nationwide.

“Unlike pepper sprays, tear gas is purely a law-enforcement product, it is not available for public use,” Singh added.

The capacity of pepper sprays to temporarily and non-lethally disable attackers has helped them emerge as self-defence weapons, particularly for women. Pepper sprays sales across India, according to suppliers and distributors, have grown over the past decade with a sharp spurt after the December 16 incident.

“It used to be a super-niche market,” said Singh. “But after the December incident, orders went ballistic for nearly a year,” Singh told this newspaper.

A Delhi-based supplier, Mukesh Kumar, said his company procures both imported and domestic pepper sprays and sells them retail and online. “We manage to sell about 500 to 1,000 cans every month,” he said.

Singh estimates the Indian market for pepper sprays is still modest — about Rs 10 crore. “But we see a big change,” Singh said. “Earlier, men used to gift pepper sprays to their friends or wives. Now we see women themselves coming out and buying them.”

Using red chilli powder to overpower a physically or numerically stronger enemy is one of the oldest tricks in the trade.

Indians have had a tradition of using red chilli powder as a weapon. One of the most memorable tales is told in the 1987 Hindi movie Mirch Masala in which a group of women use chilli powder to bring to his knees an amorous subedar (played by Naseeruddin Shah) who pursues a woman (Smita Patil).

In more recent times, the powder is sometimes in the news because petty criminals continue to fool police and escape from custody by sprinkling the tried and tested substance.