Inside UP’s arms bazaar

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Sunday, September 29, 2013
Published On: 05:48:35 AM

Drive through the heart of UP, venture east or even west, where thousands are stilling living in camps after the Muzaffarnagar riots; where the fires still have to be doused and a reality hits you straight in the gut: everyone in UP is obsessed with guns. Farmers own kattas (country-made pistols), politicians across parties distribute arms to their followers, school teachers feel unsafe without arms and many students too are now shopping for weapons.

In a state where private individuals possess more weapons than the police, the men in khaki are opting to knock at the doors of illegal arms agents. Alarmingly, the state’s netas are amongst the biggest buyers of arms from underground dealers.

In central UP’s Unnao, it took NU only a few hours to contact an agent and we were soon waiting outside a building. The hum of motored sewing machines filled the air around the five-storied ramshackle house, near a matrix of lanes, where anyone can disappear at the blink of an eye.

A youth in a loose fitting pair of denims and black shirt curtly asks one to occupy a place on a thick wooden plank supported by bricks. 'The pieces are coming,' he says, sipping an aerated drink while sitting in a corner of the shop.

'From where?'

A faint smile emerges. He will not break his code of silence. 'Ask the bhai (boss),' he snaps.

A tall man with thick moustaches in a red-black-grey striped shirt comes in. He pulls his shirt to one side (his other hand has no fingers), revealing 9 mm guns which the youth (the agent) takes from him.

These are made in Munger, Bihar or Panna, Madhya Pradesh. Replicas of Pakistan-make pistols, these weapons lack finesse but those who have used them swear by their effectiveness. The young agent quotes the price: ` 38,000 apiece. Our intermediary, another youth, dismisses the price as too high. He recalls the same agent made them available to another client for `20,000.

The young agent agrees but cites high running costs. 'Ask bhai, if he can bring the price down. I have been told to quote this price.' The meeting is over.

In a Kanpur locality, no different from the Unnao one, a gangster who once did not have to think twice before committing a robbery or murder, agrees to speak about the trade.

'The margin (profit) is good. You can come out of jail quickly even if you are caught (The maximum jail term in such cases is five years),' says the man who is now out on bail after having been arrested last year for selling nine pistols. By the time, he went to jail he had been in business for four years.

He took up the arms business after deciding not to dirty his hands with murder and robbery anymore.

A friend took him to ‘Baba’— the maker of guns and a supplier who seldom appears before strangers and goes by an assumed name. The business links were forged.

He became his (Baba’s) distributor in the Kanpur market. The arrangement was clear. He would deposit the entire amount for the order placed in two bank accounts. Baba would then send the weapons through a human courier. The cost would be shared.

'I paid him `4500 for one piece and my price depended on the eagerness of my clients,' he recalls. He then built contacts in Panna and Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, where people churn out weapons in dense forests.

Slowly but steadily, bhai’s network spread to Khargaul in Munger where the quality was as good as the MP weapons and the price was a bit lower. By the time of his arrest, the bhai had sold 800 pistols.

The city is 'infected with illegal guns' he says, explaining how easy it is to buy one here, courtesy a network of gun-dealers and gun-runners who bring in weapons bought from UP’s neighbouring states.

MAP: Gun-Tantra in Uttar Pradesh

The agents are only too happy to sell them to any customer.

He and his competitors have a fleet of agents ensconced in cities and small towns close to the gun supplying states. The Bundelkhand towns offer strategic advantages in moving the guns from one place to another.

'Our presence is across the Bundelkhand region in both Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Consignments from Munger are received in Bundelkhand towns,' he says.

Officials of the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) and the Special Task Force (STF) say the two states of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar are filling the entire country with illegal weapons. According to them – and they have snooped on 200 cell phone numbers -- say the orders for weapons come from Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Delhi and so on. 'It has taken the form of an industry, the success of which lies in a well laid-out supply and distribution network,' a senior ATS official says on condition of anonymity.

The makers have foolproof ways of sending the weapons to other states. They use long-distance state run buses, which are seldom checked and have become the biggest source of smuggling. 'Any order under 10 pieces is delivered by men who wear special vests. Orders above that limit come in the back-packs carried by women and children,' the bhai says.

Three months ago, the special cell of Delhi Police intercepted a car in Bareilly after days of snooping. The white Ambassador was a special one. A police team found 99 pistols hidden in the cavity created behind the head-lights. And they were all heading for Muzaffarnagar, which witnessed communal riots earlier this month.

The worry has just begun for the law enforcers. 'We’ll never be able to stop the guns. At best we can slow them down. There is too much of money to be made selling them,' says another officer of the STF. Bhai says he has made a lot of money in the last six months but is not willing to disclose how much.

Guns and politics

Far away in the state’s east, 27,000 people applied for arms licenses in Banda in just three years. The sheer high number left the authorities grappling with one question: Why, in the world, do people need so many arms?

Some acquire them because it’s fashionable, a status symbol of sorts and others simply because of the deteriorating law and order situation in the state. There is a third important reason: guns often come as gifts from political masters.

The confirmation is provided by Shri Dhar Pathak, a former police officer who says, 'If we say issuance of arms licenses is done solely for political reasons, it won’t be far from the truth,' says Shri Dhar Pathak, a former IPS officer. Pathak remained under suspension for two years after it emerged that 65 arms licenses went to criminals in his tenure as SSP, Mainpuri.

He fought hard, after which charges were dropped against him, but the probe damned the political class. They had been instrumental in securing licenses for their cronies.

'You will get a license if you have political links. This is how the system works now,' explains Pathak.

Police officers and district magistrates NU spoke to, said dealing with politicians on arms licenses was problematic. 'District magistrates were sent packing for giving just one license less than the promised number in the BSP regime,' a serving DIG rank officer revealed. In the current SP regime too, the first eight months were full of benevolence. But things changed when someone called up district magistrate of Etawah posing as a senior member of the ruling family for three licenses. The DM hastened the approval and called the member to send his nominees to get the booklets collected. He was told that such a recommendation was never made. The licenses were cancelled at the local level. More such cases surfaced soon and party leaders were told to go slow and be careful in obtaining licenses for their kin.

But in most districts, this has failed to act as a deterrent. District magistrates buy their peace agreeing to give five licenses a month to politicians.

'Earlier, MLAs and MPs used to send their list for arms licenses. The BSP government changed that pattern: Nothing should be on record. The practice has continued in this regime as well,' says an IAS who was not long ago a district magistrate. Now, names are given on the phone and often they are just scribbled on cigarette packets.

The fascination for guns runs like a virus across districts. Like in Mainpuri, in Banda too people use political links to add to their armoury. Here, a family obtained 14 licenses in three years. An MLA from Kanpur (rural), who insisted his name is withheld, says: 'What do we do when there are only two demands: ‘Nal and Nali’ (water connection and gun)?'

The foreign link

Investigations by the ATS reveal a lethal connection wherein UP’s licensed gun shops are feeding the illegal trade through imports. Some of the authorized gun shops are involved in supplying illegal weapon to politicians as well as criminal gangs. An investigation revealed how they smuggle revolver and pistol parts from foreign countries, assemble them and then sell them.

On April 17, ATS busted one such gang and arrested four persons — Mohammad Khalid of Unnao along with Mohammad Junaid, Kallu Sharma and Vimal Kumar Vishwakarma of Kanpur. Former additional director general (ADG), law and order, Arun Kumar says, 'Khalid and Junaid told us that parts of weapons were being smuggled from Singapore and Canada and re-assembled in an illegal weapon factory in Kanpur.' The weapons were then sold as original, imported pieces, fetching a price ranging from `7 to 20 lakh. 'The members of the gang were clever enough to mint money by playing with the psyche of people desiring to own foreign-made guns,' added IG Vishwakarma.

While the police have made some arrests, they have failed to demolish the supply chain of illegal arms. The reasons are alarming. Due to the complicity of the cops, operators are alerted in about raids and the police, aware of the political patronage to the gun runners, are unafraid or providing advance information.

With the police keeping one eye shut, lakhs of unlicensed and licensed weapons are available with all classes of people — from wage labourers, teachers, and farmers to politicians across various districts. While almost 20,000 people have licensed weapons in each district, the number of unlicensed weapons is pegged at three times this number as per NU’s interactions with police officials and unauthorised gun runners across multiple districts of Uttar Pradesh.

It’s not just about easy availability but also about affordability. Kattas are available for a starting price of `1500 and rifles for ` 3500. Sixer, a crude form of revolver with six rounds, costs between `5, 000 and `25, 000, but is only made when there is demand.

The Muzaffarnagar riots which have tested the nerves of the Akhilesh government have led to some measures. Only now, the administration has got down to the business of preparing a database of licensed gun holders and of the number of cartridges issue. But in a state where buying guns is almost as easy as buying groceries, it is only one small step forward.

Ammo in free flow

While kattas can be manufactured, ammunition can’t. NU found that it’s the licensed gun holders who provide ammunition to unlicensed holders. 'There is no inspection of how much ammunition a license holder has bought and used. This is where leakages are maximum,' said Prof Shailendra Veersingh Gehloth, Jawaharlal Nehru College, Etah.

He has six licensed weapons and claims that nobody has ever checked on how much ammunition he has bought or fired. Former Additional Director General of Police VN Rai confirmed this saying, 'No license holder is checked for the use of ammunition. In most cases unlicensed gun-users procure ammunition from them.'

They can be allegedly purchased in the black market from gun shops by an paying additional Rs. 100 or so on the original price of Rs. 110. Gun licence holders are authorised to take 10 cartridges at a time or a maximum of 100 a year.

The cartridges are available in packs of 10. There is also a thriving black market for ammunition where cartridges of country made pistols of 315 and 12 bore are easily available.

Read: Biz is booming in UP’s guns market

Read: Pen pistols find their way into western Uttar Pradesh

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