Former Director, National Security Council Secretariat
As viewers watched the Delhi violence coverage with horror, many would have wondered how the hoodlums and gang leaders involved managed to lay their hands on deadly guns so easily. The average Indian, after all, is not just hamstrung by the red tape that involves getting a legal firearm, but also completely ignorant of how and where to go about getting an illegal one. Not all Indians, though. ‘Gun-crazy’ states like Uttar Pradesh have resisted restrictions on licensed gun ownership for years and the illicit gun racket is alive and well in these states as well as megacities like Delhi.
The Crime in India (2018) report of the National Crime Records Bureau notes that the overwhelming number of seizures in criminal cases was of unlicensed weapons, totalling 71,135 of 74,877. Troublemakers prefer the unlicensed variety for obvious reasons. There are no records, so it is difficult — though not impossible — to trace it back to them.
A katta is not the best weapon in the world. Made of a metal pipe, raw iron, and nuts and bolts, it looks more like a wrench bent out of shape than a recognisable gun. The barrel tends to heat up, and it is not of much good after about 200 rounds. But it is cheap — between Rs 2,500 and Rs 25,000 depending on where you buy it from — and it is delivered at home, without any paperwork or troublesome questions.
The end result is that any cheap hooligan can buy one, and once he's done his first kill, he's a professional killer for hire. Or a kidnapper, or someone who grabs your car and casually shoots you down.
In the present political scene, it also means that furious youth from either religion can go out and get one from markets that have now moved closer to Delhi’s borders, like Ghaziabad and Meerut. What was earlier seen as a law and order problem — and really not on top of the harassed police agenda — has now become crucial in terms of communal disturbances. The kattas have to be stopped, and it is not going to be an easy job.
Illegal gun-making is part of historical lore in places like Munger in Bihar, where skilled workers have been manufacturing these since well before Independence. On order, Munger can produce ornate, beautifully carved pieces apart from the crude ones. Over the years, Munger’s gun-makers have further honed their skills. Its gunsmiths boast of having the ability to produce copies of such special weapons like the Beretta, the weapon of choice for James Bond. If reports are to be believed, they also churn out the dreaded AK-47 on demand.
The problem for illegal weapon manufactures everywhere, however, is the ammunition. A Kalashnikov ammunition magazine is precision itself, and almost impossible to make. The answer is to source these from State-run ordnance factories, primarily from Jabalpur. It’s ironic. Munger's craftsmen are natural gun-makers. Ordnance factories are not. But no one’s ever tried to utilise their skills in the legal industry. Instead, repeated crackdowns have led to a diffusion of these gun-makers to other states, and illegal weapons continue to stream into major cities.
Historical traditions also account for the gun craze in states like Punjab and Haryana, where proud gun owners would have at least four to five licensed weapons in their armoury.
As the threat of small arms’ proliferation came to global attention, the government introduced the landmark Arms (Amendment) Act 2019. It reduced the number of licensed weapons allowed from three to two, in a move that brought a howl of protest from Punjab. The Act also increased the punishment for illegal weapons’ distribution and manufacture, and made it an offence to fire weapons at ‘celebratory’ events, recognised the threat of organised crime, and made weapon-snatching from the police punishable.
This legislation brought the archaic Arms Act up to speed, and would have brought the government accolades, except that it had earlier loosened the Arms Rules of 1962 to the Arms Rules 2016. In a clever sleight of hand, this separate legislation relaxed rules for gun licences for people in terrorism-hit areas, and also for government officials and politicians associated with ‘anti-militant, anti-terrorist or anti-extremist programmes’ and, amazingly, for the ‘mere reason of holding views, political or otherwise…anticipated risk to his life.’
It went still further by also allowing ‘any family member…of a person...who by the very nature of his duty or performance (past or present) or position occupied in the government (past or present) or even otherwise for known or unknown reasons exposed himself to anticipated risk to his life.’
There’s more, and it essentially allows the licensing authority full scope in deciding just who faces an ‘anticipated’ threat to his life. The consequences of loosening licences were soon apparent. The Rajasthan Anti-Terrorism police managed to end one of the largest gun-running operations in Kashmir where just one district of Kupwara had issued a total of some 50,000 licences. Given that all other terrorist-hit districts were also handing out licences at a fearsome rate, the estimated total for such weapons was probably about 11 lakh. Clearly, many had travelled elsewhere for a price.
The ‘domino effect’ of gun proliferation in society has long been learned and analysed and is particularly relevant in the aftermath of the Delhi riots and similar incidents in UP and elsewhere. A surge in illegal weapons invariably leads to a rise in those looking for licensed weapons to protect themselves.
Alongside, the State moves to increase the number of armed policemen. Those who can look back to the 1970s will remember that the average Indian policeman had only the ubiquitous lathi which he used to great effect. Today’s policemen are largely armed, with sometimes disastrous results. The police were never meant to be a fighting force. But with a lot of guns around, that’s what they will try to be, leading to more violence, and more people looking for weapons.
Policymakers need to understand a simple fact. A proliferation of guns of any kind, licensed or unlicensed, means that the State’s ability to control a situation is getting eroded. It also means that it makes it that much easier for your enemies, from within or outside, to put that match to an already inflamed situation. These are small weapons. Their end effect is anything but small.
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