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The changing face of Munger’s gun trade
December 16, 2017 00:15 IST
With the government reluctant to issue new gun licences, customers have dried up for Munger’s legal gun manufacturers, pushing the district’s traditional industry underground. Amarnath Tewary reports on the town’s decline from a prized supplier of weapons to a den of illegal arms smugglers
People could set their watches to Thakur Naresh Singh’s opening of his gun shop in Munger’s busy Chowk Bazar area every morning. It is always 10 a.m. as he sets to work, cleaning the barrels of the 12-bore guns on display and arranging them on their racks before sliding the glass cabinet shut. Then he waits — for customers who never come. Gone are the days when they would queue up outside his shop. Now they are down to two or three a year.
Yet, barely a few kilometres from his shop, in Bardha and Baisar villages of Munger district in Bihar, guns are flying off the shelves. “This is the cruel irony of Munger. What is legal is dying, what is illegal is thriving,” says Singh. “It is all the government’s fault.” His shop is one of the 40 that dot Munger. But with the government turning miserly in issuing gun licences, the shops are dying for want of customers.
Guns, a part of local culture
For over two centuries, Munger (Monghyr under the British Raj), located 210 km south-east of Patna on the southern bank of the Ganges, has been arming the subcontinent, both legally and illegally. Owning a gun has always been a part of the local culture, so much so that parts of Munger town are named after weapon components — Chuabagh (‘chua’ is the wood from which the butt of a rifle was made), Belan Bazar (‘belan’ was used to stuff explosives in guns), and Topkhana Bazar (tank market). The town chowks are named after revolutionaries, and feature revolver-wielding statues of Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, and Abdul Hamid. “In Munger, it is easier to find a gun than a pen,” says Manoj Sharma, owner of RK Gun House.
But with the passage of time, the legal manufacturing of ‘Made in Munger’ guns has slowly given way to illegal factories where ‘Made in U.S.’ and ‘Made in Italy’ are produced almost in assembly line fashion. These are fine replicas of international models such as Smith & Wesson, Webley & Scott, and Beretta.
Says Awadhesh Kumar, a senior journalist who is also a lawyer specialising in arms and ammunition cases: “Munger’s soil is locally known as kharwa mitti, which is rich in sorra (potassium nitrate). In the past, it was used by kings to make explosives.” Kumar himself owns a rifle, a double-barrel gun, and a pistol.
Historical records tell us that it was Mir Qasim Ali, the Nawab of Bengal (1760-1763), who on seeing the “explosive potential” of the soil shifted his capital from Murshidabad to Munger and established gun factories in the area. Mir Qasim’s general, Gurgin Khan, brought skilled gunsmiths from the border areas of what are today Pakistan and Afghanistan to work in these factories. “These workers had no skills other than gun-making. Some of their descendants have continued with their traditional occupation, mostly on the outskirts of town, on the river bank,” Kumar says.
After Independence, the Indian government provided licences to 37 manufacturers to make guns under its supervision. During the China-India war in 1962, Munger’s gun factories supplied the much sought-after .410-bore Muscut (single barrel model) guns to the defence forces. “The craftsmanship of the Munger gunsmiths was unparalleled in the country. Subsequently, some of these workers were shifted to other places, including Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, where gun manufacturing units were set up,” says Mahadeo Sharma, owner of Venus Gun House. “But the ‘Made in Munger’ shotguns (double and single barrel) continued to be the most sought-after ones.”
Decline in demand
Today, in India, there are 97 privately owned gun-manufacturing units that have a licence from the Home Ministry. These are spread over States including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh. “But nowhere can you see 37 of them in one place,” says Surendra Paswan, chief security officer of the Munger Gun Manufacturing Units located in Fort area in the heart of Munger town.
On June 5, 1969, for “security reasons”, the gun factories scattered all over Munger were shifted to one location, spread across 10 acres of land in Fort area.
The gun factory compound, located next to the famous Munger Yoga University, has high boundary walls and an imposing blue gate manned by State special branch police officials. The gate, however, has no signboard. “Since the district is badly affected by Maoism, we chose not to put up a signboard,” Paswan says. The Central government issues licences to these gun manufacturers, while the security is looked after by the State government.
Inside the compound, the sounds of specialised lathe machines, hammers, woodcutters, and ovens are missing. Amid the deafening silence, factory owners and workers pass the time playing cards, soaking the sunlight on a winter afternoon. The conversation veers to the Gujarat elections, and they seem reluctant to discuss the future of their factories. “What do we say… you can see it… our real condition… there is no one to look after us,” they say in chorus. “Until 2005, there were 37 gun-making units in this compound. Now there are only 29 as the rest have not renewed their licences. We are also counting our days,” says Manmohan Sharma, owner of Tridip & Co. and secretary of the Munger Gun Manufacturing Units Association.
The production quota allotted by the government for Munger’s manufacturing units is 12,500 guns a year. But not more than 2,000 are being manufactured here today, says Sharma. “If this state of affairs continues, all of us will have to shut down our units,” he says.
On average, a gun that costs ₹12,000 to make retails at ₹14,000. “How will we survive when the demand is just for one or two guns in a month,” asks Sharma. Other owners echo Sharma’s words. “What’s the use of running the factory when there is no work? People know us as owners of gun-manufacturing units. But we’re struggling to survive… hoping against hope for good days to return,” says Sharad Sharma, owner of Mewalal and Co.
Other owners — Prabhat Sharma, Raj Kumar Sharma, Pravin Sharma and Jitendra Shrama — sound hopeless even as they express hope: “We hope that the day will not dawn when we will have to shoot ourselves with the guns made in our factories.”
Difficult to buy
“The government is responsible for the present mess as the district magistrates are not issuing arms licences. As a result, people are not able to buy our guns. If nobody can buy for want of a licence, where will the demand come from,” asks Singh. “The government should ease the licencing process and genuine applicants must be given licences in a time-bound manner.”
Obtaining a gun licence is indeed a cumbersome, time-consuming process. It is mandatory to complete all the formalities of issuing a licence to an applicant within 80 days. But the authorities keep applications pending for years, citing some reason or the other. The application form is long and complicated, requiring the services of a lawyer, and an array of documents, from a medical certificate to police verification. Above all, the authorities have to be fully satisfied with the credentials of the licence seeker.
“If genuine buyers are given licences, it will generate employment, as unemployed youths could then find jobs at least as security guards,” says Singh, who owns three gun shops in Munger — Morgon Arms Company, Morton Gun House, and Maintain Arms Corporation — but runs his family on the income generated by a hotel he owns. “I keep the gun shops open just to clear the stocks. How can anyone survive by selling one or two guns a year?”
Now Singh has started selling airguns as well. The profit margin has come down from ₹2,500 to just ₹500 per gun, he says. “But if the government eases the licencing process, things might look up.” Other factory owners like Ashok Yadav of Royal Arms and Co. and Sudhakar Kumar alias Fantoosh have shut down their units and are working as security guards in Gurugram and Noida, near Delhi.
Skilled but unemployed
More tragic is the plight of workers who used to be employed in Munger’s gun factories. “When there is no demand for guns and no production, who will employ us? We know nothing except how to make guns,” says Jamun Sharma, vice-president of the Munger Gun Factory Workers’ Union.
Jamun, who works at Sharma and Sons, says that the workforce in Munger’s gun-making units has come down from 2,000 in the year 2000 to 150 now. “Most of the skilled workers are pulling rickshaws, working as construction labourers, selling ice-cream, or doing odd jobs outside the district. They don’t want to be seen doing such jobs in Munger town,” Jamun says.
The workers who are still around don’t get a salary. They are paid as per their contribution to the making of a gun, on a piece rate basis. “They get payment on the pieces they make. It could be as low as ₹40 per day,” says Chandrashekhar Sharma, who has been working at Armstrong and Company for the last 40 years.
“Making a gun needs 10-12 workers, as it is a complicated process from start to finish,” says Chandrashekhar. “Different workers specialise in different processes such as forging, drilling, lapping. One person does the forging work for a gun barrel. Another worker makes the trigger guard, and so on. We also have some visually challenged workers on the rolls here,” he adds.
Nine years ago, the workers had made demands for increments, bonus, uniforms, the formation of a welfare fund, and compensatory employment to dependents in the case of death. None of them was met.
At the District Magistrate’s office, the arms magistrate, Om Prakash Mandal, is on leave but a clerk parts with some information. “Only two licences were issued in 2017: one to the district Congress president and the other to a local judge. Munger has a total of 1,726 people who have been issued gun licences,” he says. “Seven licences were issued in 2012, six in 2013, 12 in 2015, and 28 in 2016.”
Locals, however, allege that huge bribes must be paid before a licence is issued. “The criminals get them easily by greasing the palms of officials but those who are genuinely in need are made to wait for years and years,” says Bibhuti Narayan Singh, a farmer who wants a gun licence as he fears a threat to his life from Maoists.
A thriving cottage industry
But the gradual demise of the legal gun manufacturing industry has spawned innumerable illegal factories in Munger, and over the years, the entire district has become a hub for illegal weapons manufacturing in the country. In villages such as Bardah, Baisar, Daulatpur, and Bara-Maksaspur, gun-making is a cottage industry.
The production of country-made pistols, revolvers, guns, rifles, and even sophisticated weapons like carbines has given livelihoods to thousands of people, who toil in makeshift factories in dingy alleys by the banks of the Ganges. “From katta (country-made single shot pistol) to Kalashnikov, you can get any type of weapon in the illegal gun markets of Munger, provided you have the connections,” Kumar says. Munger today is famous for three things: Munger Yoga University, the Indian Tobacco Company factory, and the illegal arms industry, he adds.
“Munger-made illegal weapons look more sophisticated than the original ones made in the U.S. or Italy,” says a policeman who has been raiding these illegal units for long. “If given a chance, the Munger weapon workers would probably be able to make even rocket launchers and tanks. Such is their expertise and skill.”
Munger’s illegally made guns are smuggled not only to neighbouring States but also to Delhi and south India, where there is a demand. In July 2013, the Delhi police seized 99 illegal pistols that had ‘Made in U.S.’, ‘Made in Italy’ and ‘Only for Army Use’ markings. Investigations revealed that all of them were from the illegal factories of Munger.
Similarly, in 2014, when an alleged Hizbul Mujahideen arms courier, Ravesh-Ul-Islam, was arrested from Pathankot railway station, two pistols with ‘Made in U.S.’ markings were recovered from him. Later, their origins were traced to the bylanes of Munger.
The price list of the ‘Made in Munger’ catalogue goes something like this: a katta sells for ₹500; sophisticated revolvers and pistols appearing more original than international models such as Smith & Wesson or Beretta can be bought for ₹30,000 to ₹75,000; a 9mm or 7.65mm pistol (suspected to have been used in the murder of Kannada journalist Gauri Lankesh) can be bought for ₹25,000; and Insas rifles are available for a few lakhs. “But everything depends on how well one is connected with the illegal arms dealers,” says a gun dealer of the town. “Having a gun is like having a slingshot in Munger.”
The young Munger Superintendent of Police, Ashish Bharti, says that mounting police pressure has forced the illegal arms manufacturers to shift their base to Sahebganj and Malda districts in neighbouring Jharkhand and West Bengal. He does concede, though, that Munger continues to be a hub for assembling work, given its connectivity to other places and the strong network of buyers, sellers and traders there.
“It is mostly women couriers who smuggle illegal weapons on trains that pass through Munger to Delhi and other places,” he says, adding, “In 2017, 586 illegal weapons and 548 cartridges were seized in Munger. In Bardah village alone, over 1,200 people have been charge-sheeted for their involvement in illegal weapon manufacturing or trading.”
Bihar police records show that from 2001 to June 2017, a staggering 41,333 illegal, country-made weapons were recovered in the State, 599 illegal gun factories were unearthed, and 2,29,647 cartridges seized.
“The problem is that whenever the police arrest these illegal arms suppliers, they easily get bail and go back to their business. They should not get bail before the trial begins in court,” says the SP. His solution to Munger’s illegal gun factory problem: give employment to the skilled jobless workers in the licenced gun-making units, initiate awareness programmes, and ensure speedy trials. But until then, the illicit business of Munger-made ‘foreign’ pistols is likely to flourish.