It is not just the multi-storey, upscale houses, the presence of swanky cars and motorbikes on the roads and the higher literacy rate that sets Mirzapur-Bardah apart from Bihar’s other 8,406 panchayats areas. Mirzapur-Bardah, famous for the Sita Kund hot spring, is also seen as the country’s biggest illegal firearms hub.Home to 2,000 families, Mirzapur-Bardah has emerged as the nucleus of a thriving industry of manufacturing, assembling, repairing and selling all kinds of weapons, from small arms to AK-47 and AK-57 assault rifles, police say. Many residents of this village are in defence services and work as teachers. But police say the lure of easy money draws many of them to the dangerous avocation of selling death.The police have been raiding and destroying illegal firearm factories in the region. But they have been unable to break the flourishing network of local weapon dealers, who have developed contacts within the government’s ordnance factories, arms depots and with international suppliers mostly based in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. Frequent police raids have, however, forced many arms dealers to shift their manufacturing units to neighbouring West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand.Mirzapur-Bardah resident Imran Alam was arrested with three AK-47 rifles on August 29. His interrogation helped the police bust a racket smuggling AK-47 rifles through a nexus between Jabalpur Central Ordnance Depot (COD) staff and local arms smugglers.The police recovered at least 20 AK-47 rifles and arrested 22 alleged gunrunners in the raids that followed in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. The smugglers have told police that they had sold prohibited weapons to Maoists and their splinter outfits, criminal groups, and even politicians.Their confessions forced the Union home ministry to order a National Investigation Agency inquiry. Many of the men engaged in the racket have fled the area, leaving elders, women, and children behind.“From our findings, we have learned that Bardha is the core of the dangerous trade,” said Munger police superintendent Babu Ram, who exposed the racket. “People from the adjoining villages and different faiths, castes have also got into it to grab the easy money involved,” he said.Residents have begun avoiding strangers and journalists since the racket was busted. A few men agreed to speak to HT only after a local journalist convinced them to do so.“Bardha is a peace-loving and crime-free panchayat. A few local men, mostly related to a family involved in the illegal trade, have defamed us. We are paying a heavy price,” said Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and Zila Parishad member Mohammad Pervez.He said people are now reluctant to let their daughters marry men from their village, and government schemes have slowed down. Pervez complained they were being looked at with suspicion at government offices and markets. “I was picked up and detained for 28 hours for questioning…”Mohammad Rashid Wasim, a local teacher, said the residents only expect a fair probe. “The guilty should not be spared and the innocent should not be implicated.”At least six members of Imran Alam’s family have been arrested so far. Imran Alam, the youngest of three brothers, is alleged to be the kingpin. He had allegedly traded the bulk of the smuggled AK-47 rifles from the Jabalpur depot. On a tip-off by him last month, police recovered 12 AK-47 rifles he had hidden in a well.Alam’s father, Haji Abdul Wahab, 78, lamented that he had failed to keep a proper check and instil good values in his youngest son. “My two elder sons, a daughter, and one daughter-in-law are teachers. Imran discontinued studies after Class 12 and took to farming. None of us had any inkling of the firearms business he was involved in.”He alleged that his second son, Mohammad Mushir, a teacher, had been framed. “One night police came and took him away. If he was involved in the trade, he would not have stayed at home after Imran’s arrest,” Wahab said.Parwaz Khan /HT PHOTOAbdul Wahab is the father of Imran Alam, regrets that he failed to keep a proper check and instil good values in his youngest son.Munger police superintendent Babu Ram, however, said police had recovered an unlicenced double barrel gun from Mushir’s room. Others from the family in jail are Alam’s uncle, Mohammad Manzoor, and brother-in-law, Naiyyar Rahman. Others arrested include Shamsher, an ex-serviceman arrested from Siliguri, his brother-in-law, Irfan, and nephew, Rizwan.Ram said a lot of work still needs to be done. “The firearms exchange several hands before they reach the end user. We are soon going to form a special task force to investigate the thriving racket.”Bengal’s Nawab, Mir Qasim Ali, who ruled the region from 1760 to 1764, had set up a factory for manufacturing firearms here. The firearms making tradition has continued with several hundred families involved in the manufacture of guns. “Munger’s soil is considered to be rich in sorrra (potassium nitrate), a major ingredient of gunpowder. The town still has markets named after explosives like Top Bazaar and Barrel Bazar,” said deputy inspector general Jitendra Mishra.