Monday, December 20, 2010

India's own Charlton Hestons

A new lobby group modeled on America's NRA is pushing for Indians' right to bear arms.

By Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng

Editor's note: "India: armed and dangerous" is a three-part series on India's rising gun culture, the proliferation of illegal weapons and the middle-class fight to bear arms. Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng researched this project with the aid of the South Asian Journalists' Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship.

NEW DELHI, India — At a posh farmhouse outside Delhi, a group of gun enthusiasts gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon to compare weapons, do a little shooting and talk strategy. Software professionals, executives and salesmen in their 30s and 40s, they're typical upper middle-class Delhiwallahs. Except for one thing: While liberal India bemoans the gun culture taking over its metropolitan cities, they're fighting to make sure one day every Indian gets the right to bear arms — American-style.

"Everyone’s life is precious. And everyone has the right to defend their life and liberty. And that right is meaningless without the means to do so," said Abhijeet Singh.

With some 40 million guns in civilian hands making India the second-most heavily armed nation in the world and a steady rise in violent crime, the debate over gun control is heating up. Gun control advocates are pushing India to crack down on guns and sign a United Nations Arms Trade Treaty that would tighten restrictions on small arms, while supporters of gun rights are fighting to make the country's gun laws less restrictive. And with both groups citing Gandhi as precedent, at stake is the very identity of India itself.

A 38-year-old software engineer, Singh founded the web forum,, which brought these Sunday afternoon firearm fans together. But in late 2009, his hobby took on a new urgency when the home ministry proposed several amendments to India's 1959 Arms Act that would make it much more difficult to get a gun license and harder to buy ammunition. Already an old hand in disseminating editorials and raising petitions, Singh soon joined forces with another group — the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI) — that's modeled on America's National Rifle Association and led by Haryana's Naveen Jindal, a member of parliament who studied in Texas.

"The National Rifle Association in America is the standard by which all gun owners judge themselves," said Rahoul Rai, NAGRI's semi-official spokesman. "Here is an organization that has protected the fundamental democratic right [to bear arms] which has withstood the test of time. Which has brought gun ownership not just to the United States but to the whole world. For us in India, this is the beacon of hope."

NAGRI held its first meeting in January 2010, and so far few police officials or politicians take the organization very seriously. But that dismissive attitude may be misguided. According to several estimates, there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of Indians waiting for stalled gun licenses or smarting over rejections. In some regions, the desire to own a firearm is great enough that the government population control program dangles the reward of a gun license to convince men to get a vasectomy. With people like these, NAGRI claims, it's already struck a chord.

"The response is overwhelming," said Rai. "From all the corners of India, people have been sending us emails, giving telephone calls and personally meeting us, supporting the cause. ... We are now trying in a lawful and peaceful manner to organize all this energy, organize all these feelings to tell our elected representatives that this [move to tighten licensing restrictions] is wrong."

Already, it's extremely difficult to get an arms license, though many of the existing hurdles are not enshrined in the 1959 Arms Act, and the Indian government has itself argued to the United Nations that India has one of the most stringent gun control regimes in the world. Apart from owners of heirloom weapons, citizens can obtain a license only if they are a competitive shooter or they can demonstrate an imminent threat to life and limb. Prices for legal guns and ammunition are among the highest in the world, due to import restrictions that give a near monopoly to government-owned ordnance factories — which weapons enthusiasts say make some of the worst products on the planet. Licensing bureaus can impose limits as low as five cartridges per year on legal purchases of ammunition. And if all else fails, there's always reams and reams of red tape.

"The whole process of applying for a gun licenses is very humiliating for most people, which is why people who have firearms also decide to sell them and not continue with the tradition of owning firearms in their family," said Singh. "Because it is just so difficult."

But with pressure from the U.N. and arms control advocates, a host of simmering guerrilla rebellions and growing concern over gunplay spilling into the streets, India's home ministry aims to make owning a gun even tougher.

This July, the prime minister's cabinet approved a proposal requiring a "verification report" from the police before a license could be issued. Several more amendments are on the anvil, such as requiring license holders to produce a record of when, where and why they fired their weapon anytime they want to buy replacement ammunition. The ministry's justification for these changes, naturally, is the increase in violent crime and the apparent proliferation of guns. But that's exactly the reason NAGRI says every law-abiding Indian deserves the right to carry a firearm himself.

"How then is the ordinary citizen going to protect himself?" said NAGRI's Rai. "How then is the ordinary citizen going to take care of his loved ones, of his family of his property? This is the reason why there is a need to have legitimate weapons."

With less than one officer per thousand people, India has one of the world's most understaffed police forces. And while it's true that a third of Indian districts are affected by terrorism and the crime rate is increasing, only a tiny fraction of that violence can be attributed to licensed guns. For instance, National Crime Records Bureau figures show that just 574 of 4,101 gun murders were committed with legal firearms in 2008 — while nearly 30,000 murders were committed with knives and other weapons. Moreover, only about 5.5 million of the 40 million odd guns in India are legal.

"If a guy can get [an illegal] katta for 200 [rupees], on what moral grounds can the government deny a law-abiding citizen a license for a gun on which he will blow a packet and [then face] all sorts of restrictions and encumbrances?" Singh said.

Gun control advocates say that the climbing crime graph is all the more reason to crack down further, and cite the U.S. crime data to prove that the most thoroughly armed nation is not the safest.

"We have to leave it to the state to tackle the security of every Indian," said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Federation of India. "NAGRI and the Indians for Guns have to understand the fact that the independence of India was won without firing a single bullet. India gave the world non-violence. [It gave the world] Mahatma Gandhi the epitome of non-violence."

With America replacing Britain as India's primary cultural influence, rethinking India's colonial history may not be so simple, however. Perhaps because India's colonial revolution was achieved through nonviolence, the constitution written shortly after it does not specifically guarantee Indian citizens the right to bear arms.

But in at least one court case, a judge has ruled that "the right to bear arms is embedded in Article 21 of the Constitution," which states "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."

And NAGRI and others point out that the Arms Act itself was not written to restrict the ownership of weapons. It was drafted to repeal British regulations that disarmed the general population after the Uprising, or Mutiny, of 1857 — of which Gandhi himself wrote, “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.”

With that in mind, NAGRI stakes its own claim to the Mahatma's legacy.

"An armed society is a polite society," said Rai. "I think if people are armed, other people will think twice before attacking them. I think if a nation is armed other nations think twice before attacking them. This is how we get more ahimsa. This is how we get less lawlessness. This is how we get a better society."

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