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India drops the chili bomb

What has added spice to India's diet for centuries may be the next addition to its defense arsenal.

Indian farmers sort chilies
Indian farmers sort through piles of red chilies in the outskirts of Bhavnagar, south of Ahmedabad in 2006. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

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."