By Jeremy Page
The Times, South Asia Correspondent
Thursday, June 24, 2010
It’s another painfully slow day at the Singh Arms Corporation, a musty, one-room gun shop near Kashmir Gate in Old Delhi that dates to the birth of modern India in 1947. Charan Pal Singh Ghei sits alone at his desk, surrounded by ancient glass cabinets full of shotguns, hunting rifles, pistols and revolvers.
On the wall above hang three Mughal-era matchlocks once owned by the Maharajah of Uppal. Gathering dust in a corner near by is a British Snider Enfield rifle dated 1857 — the year of the Indian Mutiny. “This is a dying trade,” says Mr Ghei, 76, the shop’s owner and head of the All India Arms Dealers Association. “Even my own son doesn’t want to take it over.” The problem, he explains, is that although Indians have had the right to buy and bear guns since 1959, it can take two years to get a shotgun licence, and longer still for a handgun.
Since the militant attack on Mumbai in 2008, the Government has been trying to tighten the law still further. Now, however, India’s gun lovers, once publicity shy, are fighting back — and in the process stirring up an unprecedented national debate over the role of the firearm in the land of Mahatma Gandhi.
In January the National Association of Gun Rights India (Nagri) — established with the aim of lobbying the Government to make it easier to buy and keep firearms — held its inaugural meeting. Headed by Naveen Jindal, 39, a steel tycoon, Nagri is modelled on the National Rifle Association in America and appears to deploy much of the same rhetoric.
“Every human being has the right to protect his or her life and liberty,” said Mr Jindal, also an MP for the ruling Congress Party. “However, without the tools to be able to do so, the recognition of this right is quite meaningless. Self-defence thwarts crime and saves lives.”
Mr Jindal — who studied at Texas University — has an impressive track record. He lobbied successfully to prohibit smoking in India’s Parliament and won a seven-year legal battle to overturn a ban on flying the Indian flag from private buildings.
A keen polo player and clay-pigeon shooter, he owns 40 horses and several shotguns. He has many powerful allies — his mother is the 11th-richest person in India — but he also strikes a chord with many ordinary people in what is one of the world’s least-policed countries. The ratio in India is 130 police per 100,000 people, compared with an international average of 270.
“Without my gun, how can I defend my family and my shop?” asked Satinder Bhagat, 41, who owns a hardware store in a village outside Delhi, and who bought a shotgun last year. “The police are worse than the criminals.”
Unlike in America, the right to own firearms is not enshrined in India’s Constitution. The issue is sensitive, though, as it dates back to 1878 when the British introduced the stringent Indian Arms Act to prevent a repeat of the Mutiny.
Gandhi wrote in his autobiography: “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”
Largely as a backlash to that law, India introduced a new Arms Act in 1959, which allowed citizens to own most guns, except automatic ones and bores used by the army.
Demand was driven by hunting until 1972, when it was banned, and thereafter by the need for self-defence and prestige, especially in rural areas, Mr Ghei says.
Thus, one of the bestsellers today is the .32 Indian Ordnance Factory revolver; a copy of the old Webley & Scott used by the British Army, he says.
In recent years there has also been increasing demand for such guns from private security guards and businessmen in Indian cities — especially since the Mumbai attacks. “The whole world witnessed those attacks and saw how, despite the police, they went on for three days,” said one 27-year-old Mumbai resident who bought a gun last year, but asked not to be identified.
He applied for a licence in December 2008 in response to the militant attack and three recent burglaries at his business. After receiving the licence in August, he paid 400,000 rupees (£5,500) for a .32 Smith & Wesson revolver, which he now carries at all times. “The first line of defence has to be the citizen,” he said.
There is no official figure for the number of gun owners in India, but Nagri estimates that there are four million licensed owners and hopes to enlist another 50,000 in a six-month campaign.
The internet forum “Indians for Guns” already attracts three million page views every year, according to Abhijeet Singh, 37, its founder and a Nagri member.
One of India’s most prominent gun-owners is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the national cricket captain, who received a licence for a 9mm pistol in January — but only after a two-year wait.
The gun lobby also has influential opponents, however. Among them is the Control Arms Foundation of India (Cafi), set up in 2004 in response to rising levels of gun crime in India’s northeast.
It estimates that there are 40 million firearms in India, most of them unlicensed, with 58,000 Indians being killed in armed violence in the past 15 years. It argues that the current law is so weakly enforced that people with political connections, or those willing to pay bribes, can easily obtain licences.
“Our laws are all right, but the implementation is dreadful,” said Arundhati Ghose, a former Indian ambassador to the UN who campaigns for Cafi.
“What Mr Jindal is proposing is going to create mayhem. Guns kill — and even if they don’t, they wound.”
In one incident this year that is likely to inflame the debate, an elderly Mumbai man shot dead his neighbour’s 16-year-old daughter after a dispute over the noise she made doing carpentry at home.
Anti-gun campaigners also cite the case of Jessica Lall, a 34-year-old model shot dead by a politician’s son — using a licensed gun — when she refused to serve him a drink at a party in Delhi in 1999. “What gave him the right to carry a gun — because he was a minister’s son?” asked Sabrina, Jessica’s sister, who led a media campaign to get the killer convicted.
“If he hadn’t been issued with a licence, my sister would be alive today,” she said. “Nobody should possess a gun apart from the police and sports people – like in Britain.”
Mr Jindal counters with government statistics, which show that, of 33,428 murders in 2007, only 1.8 per cent were carried out with licensed guns, compared with 12.7 per cent in which illegal guns were used.
“The fact of the matter is, criminals do not bother with the niceties of applying for an arms licence and purchasing a legal weapon,” he said.
A legal shotgun costs as little as 13,000 rupees and a legal pistol 80,000 rupees, but bribes for the licence can cost from 2,000 rupees in the countryside, to more than 100,000 rupees in a big city. An illegal, home-made rifle costs as little as 1,000 rupees.
So far, the Home Ministry shows no signs of ditching its plans to tighten the Arms Act, which allows state governments to license most guns without police checks.
In December it proposed amendments that include making police checks compulsory, cutting ammunition quotas for each gun owner, and creating a national database of gun owners.
“The proliferation of arms, whether licensed or illegal, vitiates the law and order situation,” it said. “Holding of sophisticated arms by the conflicting parties directly contributes towards lethality of violent acts.”
It invited public “input” by January 10, but has not announced the results, and has declined to comment further.
So, for the moment, the future of the Singh Arms Corporation hangs in the balance, and Mr Ghei has no option but to sit and wait for the first customer of the day.
Dipping a biscuit into a milky cup of coffee, he says that he can see both sides of the debate — but suspects that they may both be wrong. “We can’t have an American system or a British one,” he says. “India has to strike a balance.”
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