His mother, Ishrat Begum, thought eight-year-old Mohammad Shami shook for the fraction of a second on hearing the sound of a gun going off. Members of the Samajwadi Party (SP) were firing from rifles and country made pistols during a procession in the middle of a busy market in Shamli district, western Uttar Pradesh, to celebrate the victory of local politician Nafeesa as the block head. But a moment later, Ishrat saw a stream of blood oozing from Shami’s body as he lay dead next to her in a rickshaw.
Local and state level elections in parts of the country are marred by violence including incidents of shooting, arson, the sabotaging of public property and ‘harsh (Hindi for ‘joy’) firing’. It was this celebratory firing that claimed Shami’s life in the first week of February, this year. In response to the event, the state government transferred Shamli’s Sub-Divisional Magistrate and Deputy Superintendent of Police. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav expelled Nafeesa from the SP and ordered the immediate arrest of her supporters who were seen firing in the air in a video recording.
Watch: Elections and gun violence in India
“Every political party indulges in such brazen displays of power. This is part of popular culture here. They have no understanding of right, wrong, legal and illegal,” said Ishrat.
While little Shami succumbed to bullets fired in celebration, in a village five kms away, a battle between members of the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party a day after the 2014 general elections claimed nine-year-old Naeem’s life, when a stray bullet fired from a katta (country made pistol) hit his right thigh. The list goes on: 12 people in Chhattisgarh were killed by suspected Maoist rebels on the eve of the general elections in April 2014; the previous year, 13 people were killed in violence during panchayat polls in lower Assam; in the same month, five policemen and three members of a polling party were killed and over a dozen injured when Maoists blew up a bus in Jharkhand.
“Earlier, many households in the hinterland possessed weapons meant to protect them from dacoits and wild animals. Politics has added another dimension. People became divided along party lines and during elections, they become assertive. The result is a bloodbath,” said Pinky Chauhan, a resident of Shamli, whose grandfather SP worker Babu Ramdhan, was shot dead when he was going to cast his vote during the 2002 MLA elections.
“In certain parts of the country, politicians rely on muscle men and muscle men rely on guns. They use firearms to coerce voters and influence voting patterns,” said Sankar Sen, former Director of the National Police Academy, about the culture of election-focussed gun violence.
Guns and elections: What has changed
The scale and form of election-related violence has changed drastically over the decades. During village level elections in Bihar in 1978, 500 people died. During the subsequent poll conducted after a gap of 23 years, at least 100 people died and thousands were injured. An unpublished study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi has found that electoral violence that aims to keep voters away from the polling booths on election day is declining. “The increasing incidence of electoral violence had been a major concern in electoral politics in India until very recently, though the last few elections had witnessed a steep decline in the incidence of electoral violence,” noted the study.
While incidents of booth capturing and the bombing of polling stations are declining, there has been a spike in what the CSDS study termed “invisible/ unreported violence” such as post-election violence, particularly during local body elections. “This sort of violence takes place weeks to months after the election results are declared when the Election Commission of India (ECI) members and the security forces are withdrawn,” says the report.
To curb such incidents, the ECI has issued guidelines on firearms to police stations across India. These include the thorough search and seizure of illegal arms, curbing the indigenous manufacture of arms and ammunition, regular raids on unregistered manufacturers of weapons, the arrest of offenders, and the enforcing of prohibitory orders under 144 CRPC that bans the carrying of licensed arms. Licensed gun holders are supposed to submit their weapons to the government or private armouries around elections.
Does licensing work?
Many believe this approach is futile. “Every time the government bodies have to show that they are regulating firearms, they start a clampdown on legal gun owners. They are regularly victimised. In the process, someone who may actually need a weapon for his safety is disarmed making him vulnerable,” said Rakshit Sharma, secretary-general of the National Association for Gun Rights India, a group campaigning for the rights of legal gun owners.
There is a perception that these restrictions have fuelled the demand for illegal or unlicensed arms, which contribute to the deaths of innocent people like Shami. According to data from the Ministry of Home Affairs, more than 36,000 illegal weapons were seized across the country between January 2012 and January 2015. Of these, 47 per cent seizures were reported from Uttar Pradesh. Out of the over 15,000 firearm fatalities that occurred across the country between 2009 and 2013, around 90 per cent involved unlicensed weapons.
In the last four months, Vijay Bhushan, Superintendent of Police, Shamli, has supervised the confiscation of 400 illicit weapons in the process of being produced, and around 100 ready firearms in the Kandhla and Kairana towns of western UP. As the incidence of booth capturing and the coercion of voters by political parties reduces with every passing election, Bhushan said the manufacture of illegal weapons in small units and factories should cease to be seen as an election-specific activity. “It is a family business in hundreds of towns along the Yamuna river passing through Uttar Pradesh all the way to Munger in Bihar. They make guns irrespective of elections. They don’t know any other skill,” he said..
India’s gun hubs
There’s no official figure on the total number of guns in India. Late NS Saxena, former Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, once noted in a report that there were more firearms, both licensed and unlicensed, with individuals in Moradabad district than in the whole of United Kingdom or Japan.
According to a government affidavit filed with the Allahabad High Court in 2013, there are around 20 lakh licensed weapons in half the country (the affidavit contains data of 324 out of 671 districts). A 2011 survey conducted by the India Armed Violence Assessment institute in Delhi says India has 40 million civilian-owned guns. Only 15 per cent of these are licensed. The study also noted that four of the top five most violent cities (Meerut, Allahabad, Varanasi, Kanpur) in terms of murder by firearms are located in Uttar Pradesh.
About the findings of the survey, the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, observed that in the states of UP and Bihar, “the predominantly rural phenomenon of ‘Dabangs’ and ‘Bahubalis’ (gang leaders) using firearms to secure territory and intimidate political rivals is increasingly apparent in semi-urban and urban areas.”
Analysts believe election-related gun culture will fade out as voters become more aware. “India adopted the first-past-the-post electoral system during British rule, where it was based on limited adult franchise. It was not preceded by political consciousness or awareness. Currently, we are marching towards a mature democracy and, in certain states, acquiring power through violence becomes part of this process. Maybe such incidents will come down when there is political stability and voters start looking beyond caste and community equations,” said Badri Narayan Tiwari, cultural anthropologist at GB Pant Institute of Social Science, Allahabad.
Back at their Shamli home, Ishrat and her husband Eshan reveal that they are being pressured to withdraw the case. “Help us get justice,” they plead.