While talking with people over snacks, there is so much that I learn about this place and its surrounding areas. The topic of gun license came up when I was interacting with parents of a girl, whom I teach in a school here at Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh (UP). It sparked from another discussion on the concern around safety and security of households. The father immediately expressed his thoughts on the hold that has been put on issuing gun licenses in UP. Here, we need to know that, according to the data with Union Home Ministry, UP tops the list among Indian states, with 12.77 lakh people having a gun license.
This girl’s father was planning to get a licensed gun for a long time now. This is despite the fact that he already has one at his house in his father’s name who has been the Pradhan of the village at some point of time. On asking him about the need for another gun, he said that it is for the safety of his family members, and that it is a symbol which makes people think twice before causing any sort of “trouble”. He also talked about how it would ensure safety of guests in his house.
By now, I was really curious about his thoughts on government’s step to hold new gun licenses. He was definitely not okay with it, and went on to explain his understanding of why they would take this decision at the center. Next, he asked if I knew about the Muzaffarnagar riots that took place in 2013. Answering in affirmation, I told him “Yes, the severe clash between the Hindu-Muslim communities of Muzaffarnagar, right?” He retorted by saying, “Actually it all started with Muslims. They began the fight attacking Hindus first.”
Here, I could clearly sense his Hindu identity speaking on behalf of him. Religion here, is so strong that people can go to extreme levels to protect and defend their identities. In this case, even though he was not involved in the riot in any way, he was determined to put forward the safest bet for people with the same religious identity.
Continuing with the conversation, he said, “You know! After the riots, the District Magistrate (DM) of Muzaffarnagar was transferred to Hardoi because some sort of involvement was suspected from his side”. Hardoi is around 6 km from where I was sitting. “He was, thus, in-charge of issuing the licenses. In our country, it is the DMs responsibility. They check detail such as religion, caste, if anyone of the family members has previously owned any arms, whether or not they have criminal records, if the person has any mental illness, based on which they issue the license.
“A trend was noticed that among Hindus, gun license was mostly given to people from the upper castes. But now, when religious mobilization was at its peak, the district magistrate started permitting licenses to all Hindus despite their caste. However, any Muslim who applied for it did not get an approval. The district has a high number of licensed guns.”, he said. Here, we see the role played by one’s religious identity. It also dictates the power that one community wants to gain in order to marginalize another community.
We, Indians, seem to be playing the social game of divide and rule, pretty well on our own, something we probably learnt from our colonizers. When it comes to religion, we further divide ourselves with castes and sub-castes. When it’s one religion versus another, we take marginalization to a whole new level.
Later in the conversation, I came to know that there have been several incidents where people have been killed due to open firing of guns. However, in some case, police has taken minimal or no action which could be because of several reasons, two of which are as follows:
- First, there is fear of people who own guns. If the police or their families stay in the same or neighboring village, they are always scared that they would have to see worse times if they get involved in the matter of powerful people. Here, it is important to note how gun becomes a symbol of power. Anyone who owns it, rises up in power dynamics in the community.
- Second, the role of caste politics and identity, which is fundamental in the political rural life of Uttar Pradesh. A police officer of a certain caste may refuse to file any complaint against someone from the same caste. This sense of brotherhood and identity comes in the way of imparting justice. Sometimes, even if they file the complaint, no serious investigations are done in further stages.
It’s common to bribe the policemen if crime is committed by the wealthy. The people in the village do not speak due to dual fear, one of wealthy people and another of police who are on the side of wealthy because of their personal benefit.
At times, there is no effort towards investigation because a lot of people own unlicensed guns, locally known as katta. These are obtained through black markets and do not require paperwork. One of my student explains the process, “Some person gets a huge box of guns and keeps it in his house secretly. He sneakily asks people around if they are in need of a gun and thereafter, sells it to those who want to acquire the weapon.” According to another local, the ratio of licensed to unlicensed guns is around 1:5 in Hardoi. This adds to problem of unreported crimes, and increased violence in these areas.
This conversation has put before me, a tinge of identity politics that exists at the community level. I can now see how thoughts on religious intolerance are brewed, which at times get aggravated to major instances of communal violence involving several unreported crimes.