Former DGP, Punjab
The recent proposal of the Union Government to reduce the entitlement of an individual possessing weapons from three to one is fraught with uncertain consequences. While the obvious logic behind the move could be to reduce the volume of arms-related crime, it may prove to be a case of barking up the wrong tree. There is already an overwhelming evidence to suggest that only a fraction of the violent crime is committed with overground licensed firearms. The boot being on the other foot, there is, in fact, a greater necessity of unearthing illicit firearms.
One is tempted to look into the historical background of granting arms licences on a large scale. From its inception in the British times, the idea was to arm a class of arms licensees of good moral character to serve as police helpers to counter violent crime like dacoity and robbery in the rural areas, usually away from police stations. It served as an effective deterrent against the depredations of armed dacoits and offenders against property. In the event of a violent crime, the responsibility of the arms licensee was fixed and if his non-intervention was proved, his licence was liable to be revoked. It dealt a severe blow to his social standing which he wanted to protect under all circumstances. Hence, he preferred to be on the right side of law.
The practice of winter village touring which was a part of police station inspection ensured that the licensee carried both his weapon and the licence to the police station for the inspection. It imparted a feeling of confidence to the licensee, inspiring him to play a complementary role in society. If a punitive police post was established in the village, the licensee was expected to play a leading role in patrolling the village and keeping it free from criminal trespassers. An arms licensee was, therefore, a visible asset of the state.
Bran pie system
This is not to discount the fact that illicit firearms were still manufactured by unscrupulous blacksmiths. In some district of Punjab, a system called ‘bran pie’ was introduced wherein criminals possessing illicit firearms were allowed to throw away their illicit firearms on a hay stack in the dark of the night under the promise of legal impunity. This was expected to reduce the number of clandestine firearms in the area without having to go through the protracted criminal justice system. This practice was gradually discontinued as it addressed only the tip of the iceberg. The hardened criminal never parted with the weapon.
As time passed, Punjab witnessed the emergence of ‘Darra-made’ illicit firearms manufactured in the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Even recently, during the two decades of Punjab terrorism in the eighties and nineties, ‘Darra-made’ AK-47s were detected in a large quantity. Contrary to the fire-arms made in the clandestine Darra factories a hundred years ago, the numbering of some of which was put upside down by the illiterate gunsmiths, the recent version of their AK-47s bore a striking resemblance to the original Kalashnikovs and proved equally lethal.
During the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, a large number of non-prohibited bore weapons emerged in the border districts of Punjab, some of which surfaced on ground as a policy of voluntary disclosure.
Legal accountability of the licensee
We need to appreciate the fact that the moment a weapon is entered on a licence, the legal accountability of the licensee is established. The misuse of a licensed weapon in violent crime leads to an open-and-shut case of detection and it is not difficult to point an accusing finger at the licensee having misused his licensed weapon or having allowed its misuse. On the contrary, illicit firearms can be used and thrown away without their source and possession getting proved. The recent move to attribute a unique identification number to each licence makes it easily detectable online.
There is a need to maintain a third line of defence of ex-servicemen, ex-paramilitary and police personnel who can hold long-range weapons and use them effectively for civil defence. Memories are fresh when during war and days of terrorism, resistance groups were constituted who encountered the free run of unlawful elements as they and members of their family had the requisite fire-power in multiple numbers to assist the state. It also made some of the likely victims tough targets.
Punjab is a curious case where the practice of reducing firearm entitlement is likely to prove counter-productive due to the emerging menace of young gangsters and drug suppliers who pose an unprecedented challenge to the law-abiding citizen. By disarming the citizen, we will be eliminating the level playing field between the ordinary citizen and the violent criminal. The above category of criminals can afford to buy sophisticated weapons from the gun-
Runners and smugglers.
Depositing a large number of weapons in malkhanas at police stations and arms dealers’ strongrooms will create a problem in itself. Instead of letting them rust in a police station malkhana or an arms dealer’s strongroom, it is better if they stay with the licensee who is liable for their safe upkeep and renewal. Otherwise, you will soon have to have an army of policemen to safeguard the private arms dealers and their premises.
The Chief Minister of Punjab recently addressed a letter to the Prime Minister on the issue which brings out the rationale of continuing multiple firearm entitlement for crime control and crop protection. The Union Home Ministry is well advised to have an in-depth analysis of the proposal by having a wider consultation with the expert groups. By going in for it without due circumspection, we are likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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