BANGALORE, India — It could be Gandhi’s dream come true. A weapon that wouldn't kill or maim a single person but could paralyze a mob all the same — and would most certainly cause copious, stinging tears.
The secret? Why, the world's hottest chili pepper, of course.
Inches-long and fire-red, the bhut jholokia chili (which literally means "ghost chili") has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most pungent chili pepper. For centuries it has been used in Indian cooking in the northeast, and now scientists around the country are devising ways for it to add even more spice to life.
Repelling animals and raising the body's temperature in frosty climes are among potential uses scientists are now exploring in places like Assam state in the northeast, where the chili is widely grown and used as spice.
But perhaps the most zesty prospect of all is the chili being used inside hand grenades and smoke bombs.
“It cannot kill but even the slightest contact with a chili weapon could immobilize crowds and put people in unbearable pain for several hours,” said S.K. Gogoi, deputy director at the Defense Research Laboratory in Tezpur, Assam.
Gogoi said milder forms of the bhut jholokia spray could make an effective weapon of self-defense in the hands of women, much like mace or pepper spray which is already widely used in the West and a more recent addition to urban India.
Gogoi's laboratory had distilled the capsaicin, the heat-producing compound from the chili. A product with 1 percent of the compound could be an effective commercial product.
Defense laboratories elsewhere in India are using the distilled substance to develop weapons.
“The trials of the chili grenades have been successful. The technology is mature and is available,” said Ravi Gupta, director at New Delhi’s Directorate of Public Interface at the Defense Research Development Organization, which is a network of labs and agencies involved in defense research.
One defense laboratory official who asked not to be named said that the chili grenades had been put through several trials and certified as "very effective."
Gupta said the technology has already been transferred to private companies, ready to be put into production on demand from internal security agencies. He said it would be used in the “near future.”
In a land where Gandhi espoused non-violence, the chili bomb could be the perfect strike. It is non-lethal and non-toxic and yet, its scorching intensity could paralyze whole groups of people. Unlike the explosives and grenades now in use, the chili bomb would leave no casualties. But a mild chili bomb is enough to induce stinging tears and stun the target.
“It is the perfect solution to our homeland security needs because, after all, we only want to overpower and not kill our own people,” said Gupta. He said the grenades could come in handy in subduing violent mobs and agitators.
The fiery chili could measure about 1,000,000 Scoville Heat Units, the widely used measure of pungency. As a comparison, regular bell peppers measure zero on the scale and scorching jalapeno peppers range in pungency from 2,500 to 50,000 Scoville Heat Units.
Researchers in a defense research laboratory in the central Indian city of Gwalior have applied for a patent for the grenades but declined to reveal further details saying it was classified information.
Meanwhile, defense scientists in several other locations are exploring other innovative applications.
In one of the labs scientists discovered its animal repellent properties and have offered the powdered chili to the World Wildlife Fund for testing as an elephant repellent. Even a dusting of the powder on a length of rope kept along the wild elephant trails could keep away the animals. This is particularly useful to India’s army which has camps in remote areas that are regular trampling grounds of elephants.
In the world’s highest battlefields, the chilly heights of the Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas bordering China, the bhut jholokia could bring soldiers a respite from the biting cold and snowy blizzards. A product from the chili has been tested and found to raise the body temperature.