India’s Tryst With Guns

Miss, wheeler, mutiny, 1857
Gun laws from the British era continue to reflect India's gun policy. We explore how India's tryst with firearms has been.

In contemporary records of the Revolt of 1857, an engraving stands out. It depicts a British woman besieged on two sides by Sepoys with moustaches. With her arm outstretched, she fires a pistol at one of them – who is thrown into the air with the force of the bullet. “Miss Wheeler Defending Herself Against the Sepoys At Cawnpore” tells two stories when it comes to firearms.

One side of the story of Margaret Wheeler was that she died during the mutiny at Cawnpore, defending herself with a gun and sabre – ultimately killing herself to protect her honour. But other accounts talk of a different Miss Wheeler, one who married her captor (or rescuer – it is not known), a Sowar named Nizam Ali Khan, and settled down with him.

The first account, glorified in visual, shows a bold civilian given the ability to defend herself from a violent attack. The second says that no gun was necessary. The contrasting narratives of both echo the contemporary gun debate in India and the world today.

Today, thousands of women in Punjab line up to arm themselves like Miss Wheeler, buying a lightweight ‘for-women’ pistol manufactured by the Ordnance Factories Board. It was timely marketing, named ‘Nirbheek’, meaning ‘fearless’, in homage to victim of the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape who was also known through a word that meant fearless.

It’s a different matter that very few women will be able to get the gun. Despite having the second largest number of privately owned guns in the world (40 million), India has among the strictest gun ownership laws in the world. And the reason for this goes to the aftermath of the mutiny that Miss Wheeler was victim of.

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In India,1878, with the Revolt of 1857 fresh in the minds of British administrators, Lord Lytton pushed through a law to disarm the Indian populace. The Arms Act of 1878 was passed, barring private citizens from owning firearms without getting a license – and making the acquirement of license a long, tenuous process.

It had been a century since a similar disarmament policy sparked the American Revolutionary War; and Paul Revere rode to alert the Minutemen that the British were coming to take their guns. But in India, the situation played out very differently. The gun laws kept per-capita gun ownership to below a percent, and remained long after the British had left.

The Act had a larger mandate – to disarm not just the populace but also the local arms industries. As David Arnold wrote in ‘The New Cambridge History of India: Science Technology and Medicine in India’:

The British were aware of the part metal-working had played in supporting indigenous powers in the past through the production of arms and ammunition, and, just as they introduced an Arms Act in 1878 to restrict Indian access to firearms, so they sought to limit India’s ability to mine and work metals that might sustain it in future wars and rebellions.

By and large, gun ownership was left in the hands of the British – whose public servants were exempt from the provisions of the act.

An unlikely proponent of private firearms in India was Gandhi, who distributed pamphlets during World War I, stating:

Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look back upon the Act depriving the whole nation of arms as the blackest.  If we want the Arms Act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity.  If the middle classes render voluntary help to Government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn

It was a situation where only the rulers were permitted firearms. But as the scholar Omoniyi Adewoye wrote of colonial Nigeria, “in the hands of the British colonial administration, law was a veritable tool, stronger in many ways than the maxim gun.”

Independent India, dependent firearm-owners

By 1959, the population had been effectively disarmed when the new Arms Act was rolled out. But this new Arms Act kept the red-tape high – and even prescribed the death penalty for those who through the use or sale of unlicensed guns had resulted in the death of someone. Since this included manufacturers, who may or may not be culpable for such crimes, the Supreme Court declared that section of the act unconstitutional in 2012.

The new laws were tight. During election periods, licensed gun owners are usually asked to deposit their weapons at the nearest police station. Owners are restricted from the caliber of weapon they can own (the largest being .32) to the number of cartridges of ammunition they can buy in a year (25). In 2016, the new Arms Rules added air guns to the list of weapons that required a license.

But civilians are still buying weapons – in Uttar Pradesh, citizens have four times as many guns as the police. As a mandated reason for needing a firearm, many cite the defence of agricultural property.

But being powerful is often a good enough reason – in 2012, more than half of Gujarat’s MLAs were licensed gun owners. Indeed, Members of Parliament are allowed to buy ‘prohibited bore’ weapons – that use ammunition far more powerful than what civilians can access. In 2015, 75 members of the Lok Sabha possessed firearms, 65 of which were from the BJP. Yogi Adityanath, now Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, also had a rifle and a pistol in his possession.

Between 1987 and 2012, 756 guns were sold to MPs and VIPS according to an Association for Democratic Reform (ADR) report. In 2011, half of all MLAs in the Gujarat parliament were gun owners according to an Indian Express investigation.

The 2012 Delhi Gang Rape had left its mark on the national psyche. Films like NH10 built on the fear of being alone and unarmed in lawless India – while making a strong point against firearms at the same time.

Nonetheless, the Ordnance factory is just trying to sell its arms to the licensed market. In 2016, the government-owned Ordnance Factory released a new lightweight pistol at a fraction of the cost of existing options. Several online forums serve as an insight into a gun-buying clientele in India. Online portals claiming to be one-stop platforms for gun-enthusiasts or sports shooters to buy their firearms are emerging. But they’re not selling guns online – only facilitating classifieds ads, with no legal checks in place. It’s a loophole, that only highlights the capabilities of markets with technology.

The flip side

The celebratory use of guns remains a deadly phenomenon – one lady was killed and three critically injured after a self-styled godwoman opened fire with her unlicensed pistol at a wedding in 2014. Of the 40 million civilian-owned guns in India, it’s estimated that only fifteen percent are registered. Porous borders and the arms market for India’s many insurgencies have resulted in a market for military-grade weapons in the country.

Sometimes, India’s enemies are better armed than her soldiers. With security forces often armed with the unreliable INSAS rifle, terrorists and insurgents wielding AK-47s were often at an advantage. It led to the Central Police Reserve Force (CRPF) to shun the INSAS altogether in favour of Kalshnikovs.

But civilians remain stuck with domestically manufactured weapons – over which government factories have a monopoly. But banning or restricting the sale or trade of anything usually results in an illegal market emerging to sell it. When workers at Munger’s ordinance factories were laid off, they set up shops using their own private lathes to make everything from AK47s to country firearms.

Altogether, unlicensed guns accounted for 85 percent of homicide deaths in 2014. But this figure needs perspective – only 10.4 percent of homicides in India were performed with a gun, against 60 percent in the United States. The homicide rate, in general, is 3.2 per 100,000 in India, versus 3.9 in the United States.

India’s tight gun laws might restrict civilian freedoms, but it keeps gun-related deaths low. It’s a reminder that though criminals and terrorists continue to access illegal firearms, opening up the arms market to civilians might result in more stupid casualties than lives saved. India might just need to arm its police and soldiers better before she can think of arming her civilians.

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