At Gunpoint: India Tackles an Upsurge in Illegal Arms

Homemade guns have been bought and sold across India for decades, but a string of murders has brought fresh attention to the problem

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Anupam Nath / AP

Indian army officials inspect arms, some handmade, surrendered by Separatist rebels in Indias northeast state Assam,, Jan. 24, 2008.

In a small tent, in a village about 60 miles outside the capital, Salim is putting the finishing touches on his gun. Despite the bright sun outside, the shelter is dark and Salim, who uses only one name, has to bend close to see the homemade pistol he’s been working on for the last hour. Salim, 50, makes pistols and rifles in his clandestine workshop in Jhola, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where many villagers work in India’s illegal gun making trade. Low periods are rare, Salim says, and business gets a major boost during the election season, when local politicians buy in bulk. During those periods, he said, he sells guns for anywhere between $90-$600. “We have been doing this for generations,” he said.. “I worked with my father and now my son works with me.”

Homemade guns have been bought and sold across India for decades, but a string of murders in Delhi has brought fresh attention to the problem. There are 40 million illegal small arms in circulation in the country, accounting for more than half the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation globally, according to International Action Network on Small Arms, Amnesty International and Oxfam. Today, India is second only to the U.S. in the proportion of civilians who own guns, and the number is growing. The Control Arms Federation of India estimates that 5000 people are killed each year in small arms violence unrelated to the country’s domestic insurgencies. “The continuing proliferation of small arms and light weapons in India is not just a threat to public safety but also to the internal security of the country,” said Binalakshmi Nepram who co-founder Control Arms. “Today if you get into a fight in a car, in traffic, you might just be shot.”

(MORE: Is India’s Gun Violence Spiraling Out of Control?)

The potential for further violence has many worried. Large signs in Delhi’s malls and restaurants prohibiting arms and ammunition are a constant reminder of the proliferation of arms in the capital. In October, the Delhi police arrested a 55-year-old man who had been making illegal guns since the 1980s in a factory in Uttar Pradesh and supplying them to buyers in Delhi and a few other states in northern India like Haryana and Punjab. A report released by Delhi police in September stated that most of the murders in the national capital in 2012 were executed with illegal weapons, mostly trafficked from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “Our challenge is two-fold,” says SBS Tyagi, a deputy commissioner of the crime branch of Delhi police. “First, there are often not sufficient intelligence and second, these [manufacturing units] are often in remote areas,” which, he said, makes arrests tough.

Salim works in the hub of India’s gun country, one of the poorest parts of India where other economic opportunities are scant. After a crackdown in the eastern state of Bihar, once the center of India’s illegal gun trade, the production hub moved to a swath of Uttar Pradesh known as the “badlands.” Often equated with the Wild West, the region, which borders Delhi, has become infamous for its gun culture and has become a major headache for the capital’s police force. In some markets in Delhi, the homemade pistols from Uttar Pradesh are available for as little as $30.

(MORE: The Case for Gun Control)

The cheap availability of homemade guns has rendered India’s gun law, which prohibits anyone below 21 or with a conviction to possess a gun, all but irrelevant. In September 2008, Soumya Viswanathan, a 26-year-old journalist, was shot and killed with a homemade pistol for resisting another car’s efforts to force her to pull over while she was on her way home from work. In 2011, video footage of two men gunning down a young tollbooth operator in Haryana was televised throughout the country. In another incident this year, a 23-year-old man from Delhi went on a shooting rampage, killing his ex-girlfriend, her landlady, her father and sister, before killing himself.With such crime on the rise, many in India are now not averse to arming themselves for the sake of protection.The  gun rights lobby argues that by making it harder to get a legal gun license and making ammunitions and guns prohibitively expensive, the government is stoking the illegal trade. “If somebody commits a crime, there is a law,” says Congress parliamentarian and pro-gun rights advocate Naveen Jindal. “Guns are only protective instruments that can be used by women and elderly people to protect themselves.”

The United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime shows that gun crime in India is relatively low with 7.6% of all murders in 2009 committed with guns as compared to, say, Mexico, where gun crime accounts for 54.6% of all crimes. Gun violence was 9% of the 241,986 crimes that were reported from the country in 2010. But with crime on an upward swing in India – there’s been a 25% leap just in the last decade – the need to arrest the growing acceptance of illegal guns is becoming increasingly urgent. Creating more jobs and economic opportunity in the hub of the gun trade will be crucial. “Poverty drives them to this trade,” Nepram says. “India’s challenge is to provide them alternate income and to empower the 500 million living below poverty level so that they don’t pick up guns.”

And this transition might already be underway in Jhola through the efforts of the panchayats, or village councils, that encourage the younger generation to move away from this illegal trade and instead engage in agriculture. Young people like Salim’s son, who has joined him in the illegal guns trade, might eventually find an alternative. “The young generation is on the path of change,” Mehboob Alam, a panchayat member from Jhola says. “Sugar cane cultivation and sugar production provides good-paying jobs and is the main source of income for many households now. “

— With reporting by Sushil Kumar/Jhola
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