Justice R Reghupathy, whom former telecom minister A Raja allegedly tried to influence, says he is scared. Now that the scandal is out, he fears harm from powerful interests. So how can the government help him? By giving him a licence for a nice big gun, perhaps. Then it can wish him goodbye, good luck and good hunting.
This is an unlikely scenario, but not unthinkable. Because while instituting tighter gun licensing rules that came into effect earlier this year, the government paradoxically made it easier for citizens who face a “grave and imminent threat to their lives” to own large-calibre, lethal weapons. Given Justice Reghupathy’s fears, he qualifies for a licence. So do possible terrorist targets and people living in areas where insurgents are active.
While someone armed with only a high-calibre pistol could not possibly ward off a professional attack, people under threat may sleep better with some hardware tucked under the pillow. But the danger is that as the citizenry arms itself, the government may abdicate its responsibility to public security.
When Lord Lytton disarmed the Indian civilian through the Arms Act of 1878, he unwittingly did us a good turn. It was a repressive measure to pre-empt risings like that of 1857, but it prepared India for the future. The modern State has a monopoly on the legal use of violence, a right which citizens cede to it. It can kill legally through the armed forces and the police, and by judicial process, but the citizen cannot. It can buy Bofors howitzers and embarrass itself, but the citizen cannot, and so on. In return for this monopoly, the State must protect the individual from illegal violence.
The State’s monopoly has lived in uneasy coexistence with the individual’s right to self-defence, and so States have gun control laws of varying stringency. Pakistan has looser laws than ours because tribal populations treasure the right to bear arms. The issue is incredibly politicised in the US where, despite soaring gun crime, the National Rifle Association spends millions of dollars defending the ancient and constitutional right to bear arms. Our ancestors subscribed to some peculiar ideas which we no longer support, but the right to sling lead lives on.
India didn’t have to grapple with this issue because at Independence, its population was already disarmed. But in response to terrorism and insurgency, the government has periodically tried to arm local populations. The policy has failed in Punjab, Kashmir and Chhattisgarh but it’s politically useful, taking the heat off a government which cannot protect law-abiding citizens.
An armed citizenry is a dangerous anachronism, amplifying public violence. The heavily-policed National Capital Region already reports about one gun crime a day. And I’m reminded of a peculiar experience I had while driving in rural Alabama. We were tired and hungry and when we saw a superstore in the middle of nowhere, we stopped for a bite.
Unaccountably, we hadn’t noticed the huge lettering across the frontage, which said: GUNS. There were no hamburgers in there, only thousands of Mausers, Lugers, Mannlichers and Uzis. I hope we don’t go down that way with laxer licensing. Like me in the Alabama outback, what most Indians would really appreciate is a bite to eat, not a gunmetal banquet.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine n email@example.com The views expressed by the author are personal.