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Guns and the men
The story of NAGRI, India’s only pro-gun lobby.
Good morning! A big hello to readers who signed up this week. Welcome to The Intersection, The Signal's weekend edition. This weekend we take a look at India’s pro-gun lobby that's looking to make access to legal guns easy. Also in today’s edition: we have curated the best weekend reads for you.
In a sprawling Chhatarpur farmhouse in south Delhi, where househelps bow in deference and four chained dogs keep watchmen company, Rahoul Rai waxes eloquent about equality and liberty. He’s a jolly man in a white safari suit, an entrepreneur who was once a national-level skeet shooter. He’s also president of the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI). For Rai, social order is incomplete without a civilian’s right to bear arms.
“There’s a saying that God made man, but Samuel Colt made them equal,” he declares.
Invoking the American gunmaker who created a mass market for revolvers isn’t off-character for the head of India’s only gun rights advocacy group. NAGRI doesn’t bill itself as the desi NRA, yet it is inspired by the world’s most powerful pro-gun outfit.
For years now, the National Rifle Association of America has been lambasted for lobbying against gun control even as the US suffers mass shootings. While it doesn’t top the charts for global firearm homicides, the US has the highest gun deaths of all developed countries. The recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas—where an 18-year-old killed 19 children and two teachers with an assault rifle—has catalysed Democrats to push for gun control legislation. Though it will likely be blocked by Republicans, polls show that American voters have had enough. Not least because Uvalde happened just two weeks after a racist teenager killed 10 black people in New York state, and not least because four people were killed in an Oklahoma hospital shootout on Thursday, just a week after Uvalde.
It’s in this context that one meets Rai and NAGRI secretary Abhijeet Singh. Singh, also a professional shooter, runs the 20,354-member strong Indians For Guns forum. His views, which include admonishing Indian gun laws and promoting civilian gun ownership for social good (“less guns, more crime”), are rooted in the US Constitution’s Second Amendment. It states:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
This non-restrictive guarantee is why the US has the highest number of guns per capita, and why American courts can’t agree over what exactly the amendment protects. In Rahoul Rai’s and Abhijeet Singh’s ideal scenarios, India too would have something akin to a Second Amendment. Instead, theirs is a country with restrictive gun laws.
That’s something they want to change.
On the foggy morning of January 17, 2010, 34 people from across the country convened at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. The occasion was NAGRI’s inaugural meet. A month prior, in December 2009, then-Home Minister P Chidambaram (who recently called for further tightening of Indian laws after Uvalde) had proposed an amendment that’d require citizens to prove “grave and imminent threat to life” for a self-defence licence. He also wanted to mandate police verifications; at the time, district authorities could grant licences if cops didn’t submit verification reports.
Gun owners balked. And NAGRI was born.
Among the January 2010 attendees were pro shooters, armed forces veterans, doctors, engineers, businesspeople, and two politicians: Congress leader-slash-tycoon Naveen Jindal, and Congress Rajya Sabha MP Digvijaya Singh.
NAGRI formed eight volunteer committees. One called ‘dignitary liaison’ was tasked with approaching public figures to speak in the organisation’s favour. Another, called ‘parliamentary and state legislative thrust’, was formed to lobby MPs and MLAs. Naveen Jindal was part of the fundraising committee. Digvijaya Singh would go on to become NAGRI’s patron-in-chief.
It wasn’t just Congress politicians though. Just seven months after NAGRI’s inaugural meet, patron Digvijaya marched to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. With him were netas across party lines– Congress’ Jindal, Manish Tewari, and Rakesh Singh; Samajwadi Party’s Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (now with the BJP); and BJP’s Jaswant Singh, Shahnawaz Hussain, and SS Ahluwalia. All had one demand: for P Chidambaram to roll back proposed amendments.
Whatever was in their memorandum worked to some extent, because the home ministry backed off on the “grave threat” clause. But police verifications became mandatory.
NAGRI wasn’t pleased. Section 14 of The Arms Act, 1959, still stated that authorities could deny licences if they believed an applicant was “of unsound mind”, or for any other reason. This meant the powers that be used discretion to adjudge applicants.
Gun aficionados went back to the drawing board… with a little help from Naveen Jindal.
A professional shooter who spoke to The Intersection on condition of anonymity claims Jindal Steel’s corporate communications division employed a boutique agency to create a campaign video for NAGRI. That agency was Doodle Doo Design and Advertising, and the outcome was a 10-minute video titled Guns For Peace.
Since Naveen Jindal and Digvijaya Singh did not respond to requests for comment, this reporter contacted Prabhakar Soma, who once headed the now-defunct agency.
“I don’t have much to say. My servicing team worked on this, and the person in charge passed away due to Covid,” Soma says.
NAGRI secretary Abhijeet Singh doesn’t name the agency himself, but says that Guns For Peace was shown to various parliamentarians and the home committee, which “unanimously approved of it”.
The lobbying didn’t end with the UPA. When the BJP-led NDA alliance came to power in 2014, NAGRI members continued meeting bureaucrats and parliamentarians to pitch for changes in the Arms Act.
“We drafted a new policy. As many 250 MPs backed us; of those, 101 gave their signed support,” Rahoul Rai shares.
“But despite rationalisations, this iron grid called the Indian Administrative Services negated our efforts. The secretary who supported us was transferred, and junior bureaucrats changed the entire thing.”
The result: even stricter laws. The Arms Rules, 2016—passed under then-home minister Rajnath Singh—not only mandated firearm licences for paintball guns, air rifles, and blank-firing guns, but also increased renewal fees, recommended gun-free zones, and prohibited arms in public places. Last but not least, it introduced the clause of “grave and anticipated threat to life”.
More salt spilled on NAGRI’s wound in the form of The Arms (Amendment) Act, 2019. Gun owners (barring sportspeople) could now own only two weapons instead of three. Penalties were increased, and celebratory gunfire deemed an offence. More politicians protested. No dice.
Why should Indians own guns? Because it’s in their blood.
This argument is the beating heart of NAGRI’s existence. It’s the opener in Guns For Peace, and the crux of one’s conversation with Rai and Singh. The duo, like many Indians are inclined to do today, hark to the Ramayana and Mahabharata and eras where peasants and kings alike owned arms. They point to the legacies of weapons-worshipping martial races such as the Rajputs, Sikhs, and Kodavas (Coorgis), and add that Jats, Gujjars, Yadavs, and Brahmins were proud gun owners. It’s a timeless culture, they say. One wiped out by British colonisers who disarmed the subcontinent only to arm their own.
History is most attractive in a rear-view mirror. That gun rights were not only enjoyed by influential castes, but also de rigueur in undemocratic feudal societies matters little to those who despise the present.
NAGRI’s other views are:
- Restrictive gun laws lead to the proliferation of illegal guns and therefore, more crime.
- There’s no link between firearm ownership and higher risk of suicide.
- Women would be safer if they were armed.
- The law cannot, and does not, always come to your rescue. Therefore, good people with guns are the only reliable counter against bad people with guns.
It’s true that India has an illegal gun problem. Illegal guns reportedly account for 90% of all gun-related homicides in the country. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau 2020 (pdf) shows that all states and union territories barring Himachal Pradesh had more unlicensed arms seizures. Of the 67,947 illegal arms seized nationwide, nearly half came from Uttar Pradesh. Much is also written about the state, alongside Bihar, doubling as India’s illegal gun hub. Won’t easing legal ownership curb this malaise?
“Easing gun ownership sets a dangerous trend of normalising the possession of tools of murder in the hands of both responsible and irresponsible people,” says Bibhu Prasad Routray. Routray is former deputy director of the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India, and currently heads Goa-based research forum Mantraya.
“A large number of crimes in India, both in conflict theatres as well as in societies where guns are a symbol of machismo, are committed using illegal weapons. That trend will not change by legalising ownership. In view of the chronic absence of state enforcement, legalising possession can also be a nightmarish situation for law and order and crime control,” he adds.
Pro-gun advocates point to countries with liberal gun laws or high gun ownership (Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic) to counter the ‘more guns, more danger’ point. While these countries are nowhere close to the US in armed violence, they have notably higher rates of gun-induced suicide. Conversely, Japan has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, but also one of the world’s lowest firearm-specific deaths because of its stringent laws. A 2014 meta-analysis of 16 studies established that firearms more than triple (3.24x, to be exact) suicide risk.
The same research also established that women have greater odds of homicide victimisation. Yet another meta-analysis from 2015 found that using a gun for self-defence doesn’t decrease chances of injury during a criminal encounter. More importantly: “victims virtually never use guns in sexual assaults”. So much for a gun being an equaliser of the sexes; the Field Gun Factory’s Nirbheek revolver—launched “for women” after the 2012 Delhi gangrape—costs ₹1 lakh-plus and is out of reach for most Indian ladies anyway.
“Nirbheek exploited the state of fear Indian women constantly live in,” says Binalakshmi Nepram, secretary general of the Control Arms Foundation of India. “Data also shows that more men own guns, and that guns have been used to commit domestic and sexual violence against women in the country.”
One asks Abhijeet Singh what he makes of the research that refutes most pro-gun claims.
“Every divisive issue has statistics on both sides, so you’ll mine it in a way to suit your pre-set conclusions. My focus is on liberty and the fair opportunity to defend yourself.”
At one point in the two-hour conversation, Rahoul Rai talks about how Sports Authority of India complexes don’t give shooters a level playing field vis-à-vis other athletes.
“If I’m a football player who wants to play football, they’ll give me a football. But if I’m a shooter who wants to shoot, they won’t give me a gun. There’s a big difference,” he says.
“…maybe because guns are lethal, and footballs are not?”
“Why would a gun be lethal? You’re not going to shoot people with it.”
But he did. In 2017, Rai was apprehended for injuring a man who refused to give him right of way. In a spurt of white-hot road rage, the NAGRI president had pulled out his gun at the victim. And shot him in the hand during a tussle.
Waxing eloquent about poor farmers without guns is easy when Jaguars and BMWs whiz past your bungalow. So is convincing lawmakers that good people with guns are the answer to society’s ills.
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