New groups mobilize as Indians embrace the right to bear arms

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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 1, 2010

In the land of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian gun owners are coming out of the shadows for the first time to mobilize, U.S.-style, against proposed new curbs on bearing arms.

When gunmen attacked 10 sites in Mumbai in November 2008, including two five-star hotels and a train station, Mumbai resident Kumar Verma sat at home glued to the television, feeling outraged and unsafe.

Before the end of December, Verma and his friends had applied for gun licenses. He read up on India's gun laws and joined the Web forum Indians for Guns. When he got his license seven months later, he bought a black, secondhand, snub-nose Smith & Wesson revolver with a walnut grip.

"I feel safe wearing it in my ankle holster every day," said Verma, 27, who runs a family business selling fire-protection systems. "I have a right to self-protection, because random street crime and terrorism have increased. The police cannot be there for everybody all the time. Now I am a believer in the right to keep and bear arms."

Verma said he plans to join the recently formed National Association for Gun Rights India to lobby against new gun controls that the government has proposed, blaming the proliferation of both licensed and illegal weapons for a rise in crime.

Although India's 1959 Arms Act gives citizens the legal right to own and carry guns, it is not a right enshrined in the country's constitution. Getting a license is a cumbersome process, and guns cannot be bought over the counter -- requirements that gun owners describe as hangovers from the colonial past, when the British rulers disarmed their Indian subjects to head off rebellion.

In December, the Ministry of Home Affairs proposed several amendments to the Arms Act that would make it even harder to acquire a gun license, restrict the number of people eligible for nationwide licenses and curtail the amount of ammunition a gun owner can amass.

An official said that the ministry has called for public input. But in the meantime, the proposals have given rise to a nascent gun rights movement modeled on the strategies of the United States' National Rifle Association and echoing its rhetoric of civil rights, dignity and self-protection.

"We are outraged. We are not murderers. Instead of going after real criminals, the government is indulging in window dressing by bringing in gun control laws that target law-abiding citizens who have licensed guns," said Abhijeet Singh, 37, a software engineer who started Indians for Guns and is the coordinator of the new gun rights association.

"We want to remove the stigma on licensed gun owners," Singh said. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 87 percent of murders by firearms in India in 2007 involved illegally held guns.

There is no official tally of legal gun owners, but Singh cited a rough estimate of 4 million to 5 million.

Last week, the National Association for Gun Rights India began meeting with lawmakers and consulting lawyers in a bid to stall the proposals. The group's president is a 39-year-old lawmaker, Naveen Jindal, who studied at the University of Texas business school in Dallas. Inspired by American students' displays of patriotism, Jindal earlier launched a successful campaign for Indians' right to display the national flag outside their homes and offices.

Indian security experts appear dismissive of the group's efforts. "There is no place for a gun rights movement in India," said Julius Ribeiro, a former police officer who comments on security issues. "That kind of debate may work in America, but it will not work here, because laws are misused and guns can easily fall into the wrong hands. It can get dangerous in India."

Gun rights advocates respond -- using language familiar to Americans -- that guns are a deterrent to crime.

"An armed society is a polite society," said Rahoul Rai, a member of the campaign. He said the movement also reflects the rise of an Indian middle class that can "voice its fears about rising crime, interpret the constitution to articulate their rights to self-protection and bring like-minded people together through technology."

Shahid Ahmad, who runs a Web site called the Gun Geek , said the process of getting a gun license in India is so burdensome that it encourages corruption. To hasten the process, he said, many applicants ask politicians to put in a word in their favor, or attempt to bribe officials and police officers.

To illustrate the point, gun advocates refer to a 2008 incident in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The clamor for gun licenses was so high, according to news media, that officials tried to induce men with large families to participate in a vasectomy program by promising a license in return.


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