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 — About a year after India's first school shooting, Soumya Viswanathan, a 26-year-old television journalist, was shot and killed on her way home from work. A pretty and vivacious girl with a broad, bright smile, she had stayed late at the station to help her colleagues finish editing a story. At 3 a.m., knowing that her parents worried about her, she called her father to tell him that she was on her way home. She never made it.
"She was not coming," Soumya's father, M.K. Viswanathan, said, remembering that night. "I told [my wife] I would go downstairs and see why she was not coming. And then she said 'No, no don’t go downstairs. It’s 3:15 in the morning."
He stayed in bed. But sensing something was wrong, he kept calling Soumya's mobile phone. After another hour, Madhavi, Soumya's mother, began trying from her handset, as well. "Somebody picked up around 5. They said, ‘Who is on the line? There has been accident.'"
Soumya was less than a mile from her house, within shouting distance of two police stations, when a car full of young men allegedly tried to force her to pull over. Most likely, they wanted to rob her. Or, like too many of Delhi's young men, they saw a girl traveling alone, in the dark, as practically asking to be raped. When she didn't stop, one of them pulled out a country-made pistol and fired.
In a terrible stroke of fate, the simple single-shot weapon didn't misfire or blow up in his hand. The bullet flew true, and Soumya became another of India's ever-increasing multitude of illegal guns.
According to the International Action Network on Small Arms, Amnesty International and Oxfam, India accounts for about 40 million of the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation.
Even more troubling, local experts say illegal factories produce a huge number of pistols and machine guns every year. In many places, police say, a so-called "katta" or country-made weapon, costs as little as $10, and picking one up is as easy as buying paan, the betel nut-based stimulant ubiquitous in the subcontinent.
"If you look at serious crimes for our national capital, the looting of cash vans, bank robberies, house robberies, car jackings — invariably country-made weapons are involved," said H.G.S. Dhaliwal, deputy commissioner of the Delhi police (South District).
After Jigisha Ghose, a 28-year-old IT executive, was killed in similar circumstances, police arrested five men they believe were responsible for Soumya's murder. But more than a year later, her shattered family is still waiting for justice — which in India might take a decade or more.
"Criminals are roaming free," said Soumya's mother. "It is we who are sort of put in a prison somehow. We are frightened and have to stay in the house. That’s the way it’s become. Even in house it’s not safe. Anywhere it’s not safe."
"Criminals are roaming free. It is we who are in a prison somehow. We are frightened and have to stay in the house. That's the way it's become."
- Mother of Soumya, victim of gun violence
In 2008, the year that Soumya was murdered, only 73 people were murdered with guns in Delhi, compared with 292 in New York City — which now has one of the lowest crime rates of America's largest cities. But as police in the Big Apple are succeeding in bringing down gun murders by taking illegal weapons off the street, their counterparts in Delhi say the number of illegal firearms in India's capital is climbing steadily.
Already, there are eight illegal guns for every legal weapon in Delhi, and more than 90 percent of crimes are committed with unlicensed guns. Most of them are made in secret sweatshops in neighboring states with a reputation for lawlessness and political turmoil.
"There’s a joke in India which says if you want sophisticated weapons, illegal weapons you get it from the northeast of India [where several insurgencies are simmering,]" said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Foundation of India. "If you want really crude weapons you get it from the heartlands like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh. In these parts of India, [the] cottage industry of guns is huge."
In just one rural district, Munger, Bihar — where the current chief minister has cracked down on criminals — police uncovered as many as 65 illegal gun factories last year. They estimate that the trade earns some $4 million a year for the rustic backwater. But reports suggest that there are thousands more such factories in manufacturing centers like Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, across the country.
For nearly 10 years, 27-year-old "Sanjay," who asked that his real name not be revealed, was part of the problem. A short, muscular young man with a close-trimmed beard, Sanjay parlayed a job in a metal shop in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, into a lucrative career as a gun runner between 1992 and 2000. Then one of his own gang members betrayed him, setting him up for an ambush by a rival crew who had placed a false order for a thousand pistols.
"We had been given half the money. On the last day when we were doing all the packing up, they came and attacked us. Three of my men got killed, including our best gun maker, who was their target all along," Sanjay said. "He was a very close friend of mine. He was the one who saved my life. But in doing so he got killed. That's when I decided to stop the business."
In the beginning, Sanjay's crew made cartridges with gunpowder sourced from a local company licensed to make firecrackers and fuses contrived from feathers rolled with carbon and chemicals found in detergent and other household products. Then, he graduated to making .315 and .12 bore pistols in three different barrel lengths: "small," "quarter" and "half" — the same terms used for bottles of local whiskey. His best products, with barrels sourced from Rampur, another district in Uttar Pradesh, could be fired three times in rapid succession without overheating, and they never exploded in a customer's hand. He sold them for between $50 and $100, compared with nearly $2,000 for a simple legal .32 caliber revolver made by one of India's official, government-owned ordnance factories.
"Police and politicians both together help us do business. Nothing happens without their sanction."
- "Sanjay," former dealer in illegal guns
Villagers bought his weapons to show off and protect themselves from wild animals and bandits. Schoolboys and college kids bought them to protect themselves in the cutthroat business of student politics. But most of Sanjay's customers were criminal gangs who enjoyed the patronage of local politicians, who use thugs or "goondas" to influence voters and even capture polling booths during elections. And now with ethnic tensions, overcrowding and scalding temperatures causing tempers to flare, country-made pistols have come to the city, and it's not just hardened criminals pulling guns.
"Earlier guns were used as mostly status symbols," said Rajat Mitra, a psychologist and expert on violence who works closely with the police. "But now guns are seen as a way of solving problems, of resolving issues, of using threats and intimidation that were not considered necessary earlier. And there is a perception among a very large number of young people and even children that having a gun is not morally wrong."
Last year, in a typically petty incident, 22-year-old Himanshu Sharma was shot dead in an altercation over urinating on the street. This June, another 22-year-old was shot and killed in an argument over water, a married couple from different castes was gunned down in an apparent "honor killing" and a government employee shot three security guards, killing one, when they barred him from entering a building in the city's red light district.
In response to this kind of violence, India's home ministry has tightened the laws on licensed guns, which DCP Dhaliwal said "haven't been any problem at all," while allowing the rotten core of the illegal gun trade to fester. And insiders say that as long as pervasive corruption continues to make politics the country's biggest money spinner — turning elected officials with no real assets into millionaires in a single term — nobody will destroy the factories who arm the parties' musclemen.
"This game happens at a big level," said Sanjay, who now works as a police informer. "Otherwise it couldn’t happen. Mostly it’s politicians who help us. Police and politicians both together help us do business. Nothing happens without their sanction."