Bhanu Pratap lost his right arm to the sharp blade of an agricultural machine in his childhood. He could not complete his studies because his family was too poor. He was kept hostage by a dreaded dacoit for two months before losing all the family savings in return for his freedom.
Yet, the 22-year-old’s biggest regret has nothing to do with all those things.
"We tried so much, but we have never been able to get a gun license. Can you help?" he said at the end of his interview in the ravines near Etawah where he was abducted last year. "Why do the rich always get gun licenses?"
The gun license, mandatory for civilians to be able to own guns, is easily the most treasured single piece of document in western Uttar Pradesh. Across the bandit heartland, warlike groups have been part of folklore and fable for centuries and weapons are an intimate part of culture.
Across Agra and Kanpur regions where the first round of the state elections was held on Saturday, 2.24 lakh people have guns, according to police records, and nearly 5 lakh applications for new licenses are pending. Police in the two regions have 14,400 weapons.
"Possessing firearms is not because of security reasons, but a status symbol. Those who actually face threats to their life hardly ever apply for a gun license," Daljit Chaudhary, deputy inspector-general of the Kanpur range, told the Hindustan Times.
Weapons are worshipped every year for Vijayadashmi. Old, shrivelled men walk on the roads, barefoot, but with a World War II-era gun over their shoulders. Weddings sound like wars, with a barrage of celebratory gunfire from dozens of weapons. In 2004, local officials reportedly used the widespread fascination for guns to achieve another goal: gun licenses were offered in return for sterilisation.
Applicants say their main reason for seeking guns is to protect them from dacoits. But Chaudhary, the SSP, could not recall a single instance in which a man had ever saved his life using a licensed firearm.
"It is we, the villagers, who always needed protection from the dacoits. They didn't go to the homes of the rich people to get food and water; they came to us," said Pratap.
Last year, dacoits picked up Pratap and seven others. He said the hostages were beaten up, abused, and had to press the feet of dacoits and make food and wash their clothes. But Pratap has one abiding memory.
"(Gang leader (Jagjivan) had a brand new AK-47," he said, rattling off the makes of the other dacoits' weapons.
(With inputs from Bhupendra Pandey in Lucknow and Haider Naqvi in Kanpur)