Dispatch

The Ballot and the Barrel

The Ballot and the Barrel

HYDERABAD, India — Election season has been busy for Abbas Hussain, an authorized gun dealer in the South Indian city of Hyderabad. Not because his customers are eager to buy his weapons — but because they are scrambling to return them.

"There was one bugger who called me at the last possible minute," said Hussain, a slight, garrulous 44-year-old who chain-smoked Gold Flake cigarettes from the porch of his spacious home in late March, just days before voting began. "I had to open my shop in the middle of the night, because if the police catch you with a gun the next morning, then God help you."

India has just concluded the largest election the world has ever seen, with 814 million voters eligible to go to one of 930,000 polling stations. And trying to thwart violence during an election of this magnitude has been a challenge, especially given India’s history of disruption at the polls. In 2009, during the last parliamentary election, armed Maoist insurgents bombed polling stations, stole voting machines, and kidnapped election officials, leaving 18 dead in an attempt to discourage voter turnout in the central state of Chhattisgarh. When an estimated 500 people were killed during the 1978 village-level elections in the northern state of Bihar, village-level elections were reportedly not held in that state for another 23 years

This year’s election has not been immune from violence. Leading contender Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party positioned himself as a strong nationalist and pro-business leader, as opposed to the incumbent Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi, who is often seen as feckless. But Modi’s stridently pro-Hindu views and his association with the 2002 communal riots that occurred between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister since 2001, means election authorities have been especially on edge. In April, Maoist rebels killed 14 people in Chhattisgarh in an effort to discourage voters. Around the same time, a 10-year-old boy was killed in Uttar Pradesh state when gunmen allegedly shot at citizens who had voted for a particular candidate, one whose name was withheld by police in order to prevent retaliatory violence. The most tragic incident happened in early May in the northeastern state of Assam, where ethnic Bodo militants murdered 41 Muslims, according to police. The attack happened just miles away from where several days earlier Modi delivered an incendiary speech in which he warned that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were taking over the state.

To help rein in these acts of violence, India’s election laws require security checkpoints, regulation of alcohol sales, and curfews on nightclubs and bars. But a rule requiring licensed gun owners to deposit their weapons with the police or authorized arms dealers may be the most controversial. Critics say that taking away licensed guns throughout the election period, a right granted to the government since British colonial times, is both outdated and ineffective. "You ask me to deposit my gun. But I haven’t committed any crime in my 34 years of existence," said Rakshit Sharma, secretary-general of the National Association for Gun Rights India, an interest group for legal gun owners. "It is a farce, just to make it look to the public like the authorities are doing something." 

During each election in India, roughly three months before voting begins, local police stations contact licensed gun owners within their jurisdictions in order to start collecting personal firearms. Gun owners choose to leave their weapons either at a private armory, like Hussain’s, or at a local police station, and they must show local law enforcement a receipt of their deposit. Sharma said most gun enthusiasts choose the armory because the armory owners take good care of their customers’ often expensive weapons.

Some gun owners are exempt from the law — the Election Commission allows members of the National Rifle Association of India, a group for professional sport shooters (unrelated to the better-known National Rifle Association in the United States), to keep their guns. But in practice, members are often pressured to turn them in anyway, Sharma said. 

Even outside election season, it’s difficult and expensive to buy a gun in India. To procure a license, regular citizens must give evidence that their lives are threatened and require extra security, as legislated in the 1959 Arms Act and the 1962 Arms Rules. In 1986, the central government banned all imports of firearms in response to a violent insurgency in the northwestern state of Punjab. Today, most Indians looking to buy legal guns must choose between arms imported before the law went into effect and the basic handguns and rifles manufactured by the state-run Indian Ordnance Factories, which Sharma says are low quality and overpriced. A used Walther PPK — James Bond’s weapon of choice, which costs around $300 in the United States — can fetch as much as $15,000 in India, Sharma said. His Smith & Wesson revolver cost him half a million rupees, or about $10,000 at the current exchange rate — about nine times what it would cost in the United States. "The owner’s nightmare is to see them rust at a police station for two months," he said.

Gun rights advocates say that such tight control has enabled India’s flourishing illegal arms industry, where guns are cheaper and more readily available, and that the strict regulation is unnecessary because firearms kill relatively few people in India each year. In 2009, the latest year for which Indian data is available, 3,093 people were killed in gun-related homicides, far fewer than the 11,493 people who died in shootings in the United States that same year.

There’s no authoritative tally of the number of guns in India. The best estimate, from a 2011 survey by the India Armed Violence Assessment, a New Delhi-based research organization, says the country has 40 million privately owned guns — the second most in the world, after the United States — with only 6 million of them legal. That’s why Sonal Marwah, a researcher with the India Armed Violence Assessment, which works to measure and analyze the arms industry, thinks taking guns away from licensed holders could be counterproductive. Marwah said that during elections — especially in thinly policed rural areas — politically connected gangs buy up cheap, often makeshift, guns from illegal workshops. The guns are then used to intim
idate voters into supporting a certain candidate — though rarely, she added, for injuring or killing people. "It is the old rationale: criminal behavior," she said, pointing to police reports of gun seizures. "It enforces demand, and you would expect it to peak during election season."

With security forces on high alert, police chiefs said the crackdown on illegal guns peaks during election season — particularly in trigger-happy states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Just before midnight on March 1, a small boat ferried a cluster of undercover policemen across the Ganges River to a rural tract of land in Munger, a small district in the impoverished state of Bihar. Munger is home to a 200-year-old munitions factory — and notorious for its booming illegal gun industry, which supplies sophisticated weapons from hundreds of bootleg factories to customers across the country, according to Munger Police Chief Sudhanshu Kumar. He said his officers raided a cache of 450 illegal pistols and arrested four local manufacturers. Their interrogation of those arrested then led them to the city of Howrah, where they seized an additional 1,500 illegal firearms. "During the election there seems to be a spurt" of illegal guns sold, said the state’s chief of police, Abhayanand, who goes by one name. 

Abhayanand said that between December and March alone, he oversaw the seizure of 1,093 illegal guns. In Hyderabad, on the other hand, police commissioner Anurag Sharma said that his force confiscated just three illegal firearms in the run-up to the elections — proof that India’s diverse cultural and political landscape makes for an uneven playing field when implementing laws.

Still, Sharma insisted that the tension surrounding elections underscored the government’s need to control weapons across the country. "The availability of an arm itself is a temptation" to misuse it during elections, he said. And with all legal guns quarantined in the armories and stations, any weapon still left on the street would most likely be illegal and easy for police to detect, he added.

Back on his porch, Hussain the armory owner said Hyderabad did not have a culture of gun violence but rather a history of respecting weapons — from bejeweled swords to handcrafted rifles — and compared his collection to the thrill of prestigious cars, like a Rolls-Royce.

"I’ve got a Pedersoli 12-gauge. It’s the best type of shotgun. And a .256 Mannlicher-Carcano. They call it a ‘Kennedy Killer’ in the United States," he said when asked about his personal favorites — referring to the 6.5 mm Carcano rifle that Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly used to assassinate U.S. President John F. Kennedy. "But I prefer the shotgun at all times. It’s got multiple uses, whether you’re hunting a partridge or a tiger."

He’ll have to wait a few days to fire them again — even licensed arms dealers are required to lock up their weapons. "Most of the bloody criminals use kitchen knives they bought in the mall anyway," he said. "But the law is the law."