December 10, 2008
By Abhijeet Singh
People across the globe watched in shock as the terror attack on Mumbai unfolded on television screens everywhere. The meticulous planning and the sheer audacity of the attacks stunned the world and, in the final analysis, set the stage for a pure human tragedy: 195 lives lost, many times that number seriously injured, and hundreds of families scarred forever.
The terrorists targeted iconic landmarks like the busy CST railway terminus, two luxury hotels, a local Jewish outreach centre, a cafe, and a hospital. They placed bombs in taxis and other locations. All of these attacks occurred almost simultaneously, compounding the confusion and completely exposing the inept emergency services.
Now as the citizens of Mumbai go about the business of rebuilding their burnt out landmarks and trying to heal shattered lives, the emotions of a nation turn from horror to anger at being let down by those very people whose duty it was to protect them. But instead of playing the blame game it is time for the citizens of India to pause and try to understand why was it that these merchants of terror succeeded so well in their dastardly enterprise and how culpable are we for creating the circumstances which multiplied the magnitude of this tragedy many fold. After all, this was only a group of ten terrorists and those ten were mostly split into teams of two each, to enable them to cover several locations simultaneously. Why were they not stopped sooner? Did so many people really have to die?
The entire blame cannot be squarely placed at the door of the low-paid, inept, corrupt, and ill-equipped police force. If you rely solely on the authorities to protect you and ensure your safety, you are rather naive. It is impossible for even the best trained and best equipped police force in the world to be everywhere all at once and to guarantee every single citizen complete protection. But forget about the best police force in the world. In the present case, even though armed policemen were present at the CST railway terminus, no solid attempt was made to even pin down the two terrorists who attacked CST.
Sebastian D'Souza a news photographer who witnessed the entire scene, and also took the photos that were flashed in most newspapers around the world, had this to say:
"I only wish I had a gun," a statement that echoes one of the biggest failures of Indian democracy. The state has actively prevented law-abiding citizens from owning the tools with which to protect their lives!There were armed policemen hiding all around the station but none of them did anything. At one point, I ran up to them and told them to use their weapons. I said, "Shoot them, they're sitting ducks!" but they just didn't shoot back. I told some policemen the gunmen had moved towards the rear of the station but they refused to follow them. What is the point if having policemen with guns if they refuse to use them? I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, in fact throughout the freedom struggle our leaders actively campaigned for gun rights, including M.K. Gandhi himself. In it's 1931 Karachi session the Congress party, which was at the forefront of our freedom struggle, adopted a 20-point resolution on fundamental rights, this included the right to keep and bear arms. However, when India finally became independent in 1947, this right was missing from the new constitution that was finally adopted.
Instead the Indian parliament made noises about weapon "regulation" and eventually replaced the British time Arms Act with the new Arms Act of 1959, which boldly promised to make it easier for citizens to own guns, but in essence was a rehash of the old legislation.
But the Indian government has not merely used legislation and licensing to keep guns out of the hands of civilians. It has also used state policy to ensure that firearms and ammunition prices are probably some of the highest in the world. Domestic production of rifled firearms is a state monopoly, churning out crude products that are priced at 7 (or more) times their cost of production. Similarly domestic production of ammunition is a state monopoly with inconsistent supplies, poor quality, and very high prices. This combined with the fact that imports have been virtually banned since 1986 means that an ordinary snub nosed .357 Colt revolver will sell (legally) for a mind boggling US $20,000 or more.
A tight licensing regime combined with the high price of acquiring a legal gun has meant that very few Indians own weapons. Unsurprisingly these restrictions have also meant that there is a thriving black market for arms and ammunition, ensuring a steady supply to all manner of criminals -- people who don't bother about the niceties of remaining within the purview of the law.
Citizens must jump through several hoops to get an arms license and then pay crazy prices for ordinary products. But black market firearms are available at a small fraction of the cost of legal firearms. A country-made single shot handgun can cost as little as US $ 20, imported handguns go for US $ 500- $1,000, and AK-47's (like the ones that were used in this attack) cost about US$ 1,500 or thereabouts on the black market. There never was a clearer real life example of how gun control takes guns out of the hands of decent law-abiding folk and puts them right into the hands of criminals.
At the Jewish outreach centre, bystanders pelted the terrorists with stones in a vain attempt to ward off the attack, but had to retreat when the terrorists opened fire with automatic rifles. Our citizens were trying to ward off the terrorists with stones! I cannot think of a more extreme example of how helpless the government has rendered it's own citizens. In the absence of guns, and thus incapable of offering any resistance, they were simply like lambs to the slaughter. On that fateful day, this was a story repeated again and again all over Mumbai: unarmed civilians, slow & inept emergency services, and mindless slaughter of innocents.
But we live in a democracy; hence at the end of the day it is each one of us who is to blame. It is we the people who must ask our representatives hard questions; it is we who must bring the right to bear arms to the forefront of the political agenda. We have the power to effect change through our votes and with elections just a few months away, let us not forget the lessons of Mumbai, let us not forget those that lost their lives there, many of who could have been saved if just a few of us were armed.
As citizens it is incumbent on us to make sure we don't allow another tragedy like Mumbai to take place. As free men and women it is our responsibility to take measures to protect ourselves as best we can, using the best available tools and it's high time we demanded them as a right!