If you thought guns were only for the traditionally wealthy and mighty, Uttar Pradesh will surprise you.
Shyam Gautam, a member of Bahujan Samaj Party, cleans his gun at his residence in Bahraich as his wife and children watch on. Guns have empowered Dalits, he says. (Ashok Dutta/ HT Photo)
With communal and caste tensions flaring, everyone in the state wants a piece of safety. And security here, very simply, flows from the barrel of a gun.
The dalits or members of the scheduled castes in Bahraich, nearly 130 kilometres northwest of Lucknow, know this fact all too well.
Having been at the bottom of the social ladder for centuries, they once again feel unprotected now that the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, which counts dalits as its core constituency, is out of power.
They fear they could lose their land and valuables to the more powerful Yadavs, the support base of the ruling Samajwadi Party), and to the Thakurs and the Brahmins, who have a natural tilt towards the BJP.
This apprehension explains why Shyam Gautam, a resident of Kundra Bazar in Bahraich, has taught his two daughters Veena and Reena to use a gun.
Shyam, who gave up his job with a nationalised bank to take up farming, says, “We are using guns to deter the Yadavs, Thakurs and Brahmins who are eyeing our land.”
He makes no secret of his concern about the safety of his family as he moves from one district to another to fulfil his life’s mission — propagating the ideals of dalit icon Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, principal architect of the Constitution of India.
As he gets ready to go to one such meeting to popularise Ambedkar’s political and social philosophy, he pulls the strap of a double barrel gun over his shoulder while his wife Sita packs booklets into a jute bag.
“Whenever I move about in the rural areas, I carry a weapon,” he says.
Like Shyam, nearly 2700 members of the scheduled castes in the district have licensed pistols, rifles and guns. Bahraich that shares a border with Nepal, has 16,292 firearms licences in all.
“A decade ago, we could not dream of owning a licensed weapon,” Shyam says.
“After the BSP came to power in 2007 (it lost power in 2012), the state government issued an order to the district magistrates to give licences to the dalits (scheduled castes) on priority,” he adds.
“I arranged `85,000 (using his post-voluntary retirement benefits from his bank job) to buy a pistol and another `15,000 for the double barrel gun,” he says.
Clearly, gun power is adding another dimension to dalit empowerment in the rural hinterland.