The Delhi Police receive around 200 applications every month for gun licences for personal safety. About a quarter of them are from women.
Ask a woman what her most important accessory is, and chances are that she will say handbag. It is a microcosm of her world. Every morning, before leaving for work, she will slip in all her essentials in her bag—keys, mobile phone, perhaps spare change, an extra pair of ear-rings, just in case. Shruti Imamdar, 28, is no exception to this rule, though she bends it a little. The Delhi-based corporate lawyer puts an extra item in the bag—something which gives the single woman living on her own a sense of security—a .25 Walther pistol.
“Women joke that their handbag is their security blanket. For me my security blanket is what’s inside the bag,” she says. Imamdar got the gun for a few lakh rupees recently. “My work hours are erratic and I often drive back late at night. With crime against women increasing, I do not wish to take any chances,” she says. She is the only woman in her office to carry a gun, though there are others who often voice the sentiment from time to time, citing safety fears.
Imamdar is one of five women whom the Delhi Police gave arms licences this year. Last year, 12 licences were issued and in 2010, eight were given. Archana Verma, who runs a jewellery store in New Delhi’s Tri Nagar, got her licence this year. The quiet mother of two, who lets her husband do the talking, was not at all uncomfortable about the idea of getting a weapon. “Our store has been robbed once and I manage the shop alone. Having a weapon within reach will make me more secure,” she says.
Verma and Imamdar are part of a small albeit growing group of women who have licence to carry arms. In Punjab, 31,300 arms licences have been issued to women, mostly for self-defence. In Indore, 250 women have arms licences, most under the inheritance clause. But more and more women in the city are citing self-defence as a reason. “The city is expanding and a lot of people live on big plots in remote areas. They don’t feel safe at night or when the husband is travelling,” says Alok Singh, Indore’s additional district magistrate.
In Delhi, though there is not a “significant spurt” in the number of women applying for gun licences, self-defence is increasingly being cited as a reason, says M.K. Tiwari, additional commissioner of the licencing department. The Delhi Police receive around 200 applications every month for gun licences for personal safety. About a quarter of them are from women.
“Today, women and elders need guns more than anyone else. They are the most vulnerable,” says Rahoul Rai, president, National Association for Gun Rights India. He reels off statistics of the police-population ratio (134 policemen for a lakh people). “Several young women live on their own in cities and unfortunately our society is increasingly becoming unsafe. Women are aware of this and feel the need to carry a gun. It is a force equaliser,” he says.
Many women gun owners who spoke to THE WEEK asserted the weapon’s ability to make them feel secure. Be it Tiny Bidappa, 66, who learnt to shoot to guard her coconut plantation after being widowed at 41, or Kalpana Saroj, who runs a 03,000 crore business and has been carrying a Webley & Scott revolver for over a decade, or homemaker Kalpita Kapadia, who is not very comfortable with guns but admits that their presence makes her sleep safely when her husband is travelling, each woman with a gun has a tale of how the weapon made a difference to her life.
Politician Talat Aziz, 61, from the heart of Uttar Pradesh’s bad land, Gorakhpur, was no stranger to guns, as her father was a police officer and her husband a state-level shooter, but she had never picked up the gun. In 1999, she was shot by the goons of a rival politician. “My head constable was killed. I still wonder how I escaped that day, running through fields while I was fired upon indiscriminately,” she says. Aziz learnt to shoot after that and today she always carries a gun. “I don’t take a gunner with me any longer. As long as I have my gun with me, I am safe,” she says.
Then there are women who see guns not as a weapon but as a life choice. “They are a part of life,” says poet and counsellor Renee Singh, displaying her Colt and Webley & Scott, both she inherited. “They instil a level of comfort, though most of the times I don’t even think about them. They are just there.”
Pedigree, however, does not matter much these days, as several women in Punjab, who do not come from a family with a history of guns, are queuing up for licences. “Women come to us looking for weapons that can be accommodated in a bag so that they can carry it around,” says Ravi Ahuja, a gun seller in Chandigarh. “The younger folk prefer to see shooting as a sport.”
Women from middle class background prefer guns manufactured by Indian Ordnance Factory. “Compared with the foreign makes, these are economical,” says Ahuja. “The elite prefers expensive makes as they set them apart in their circles.”
Polite society, by and large, has a conflicted relationship with weapons, whether the bearer is a man or a woman. “It brands you as a certain kind of person,” says Captain Rakshit Sharma, a commercial pilot and secretary general of NAGRI. People who advocate possession of guns, however, point out how traditionally every community, and not just the warriors, had weapons. Royal and rich families have long considered shooting a leisure sport and hunting a rite of passage, and the love for weapons had always been gender neutral. “I grew up in Bhopal and knew of many girls who were very comfortable with guns,” says Habib Faisal, director of the movie Ishaqzaade.
The film’s female lead, portrayed by Parineeti Chopra, is an ace shot who even pawns her earrings to buy a gun. While creating the character, Faisal says, some amount of research and personal experience came into play. “There is a cultural inheritance, where holding a gun would be a form of leisure,” he says.
Today, there are many women who see wielding a gun as a form of leisure, and it is no longer a privilege of the elite. Swati Shrivastava, a homemaker in Indore, is the proud owner of a twelve- bore. She has not yet learnt to shoot, though. She says the gun is mostly for self-defence, given Indore’s spiralling crime rate, but admits to being fascinated by the weapon. “My aunt is an ace shot. She picked up the hobby after her marriage to a government official. My fascination began after watching her shoot,” she says.
Shrivastava wants her eight-year-old daughter to have an interest in shooting. Many gun-loving parents, in fact, want their children to take up shooting. Kanika Sangla, 17, of Delhi’s tony Greater Kailash colony was introduced to guns by her father a decade ago. He still makes sure she upgrades her weapon annually. “I have participated in competitions and won, but for me shooting remains primarily a leisurely pursuit,” she says. Every weekend, she makes her way to Dr Karni Singh shooting range in Tughlakabad to shoot for some hours and “unwind”.
Sangla has company there, like Sahiba Chawdhary, a second-year student at Delhi University, and her family friend Saniya Sheikh, who is a member of the national shooting team. Sheikh first shot at 13 and, as her proud father recalls, “broke at least 20 cartridges”. Though Sheikh is aiming for a medal in the Rio Olympics, Chawdhary is happy with the weekend shoots that help her let off some steam. “It is a great stress buster,” she says.
Many women see owning a weapon as a strong feminist statement, a symbolic empowerment. “It sends out the message that you cannot mess with me,” says Shrivastava. But it might also send out a message that you are transgressing boundaries a patriarchal society has set for you. Feminist Urvashi Butalia, who is fundamentally opposed to gun ownership, feels that a woman’s declaration of possession of a gun will be seen as a “statement that she will take a certain kind of action. There is a boundary you are crossing by taking up a weapon which is associated with power.”
Perhaps because of this concern, some women THE WEEK interviewed did not want to publish their names. An executive at a company had to submit a no objection statement from her workplace for the gun licence, and when news got out that she had a gun, the attitude of her coworkers, especially men, changed drastically. Some even stopped talking to her.
“As a society we will not make it safe with our attitude and laws for a woman, but a girl with a gun for that purpose will be frowned upon,” says Faisal. Butalia, however, argues that women arming themselves cannot be the response to a fear of being attacked. Businesswoman Jaspreet Kaur Pannu was among the first to open a luxury adventure camp in India. The site was Sangla valley in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, at 14,000ft above the sea level. “I had a Maruti Gypsy and used to drive down from Chandigarh,” she says. It was Pannu’s husband who first insisted she carry a gun when she set out for her trips in the eighties. Terrorism in Punjab was at its peak and a woman driving alone was an easy target. “It was then that a gun became part of my travelling gear,” she says. Pannu carried two weapons, a shotgun slung across her shoulder and a revolver on her person. “Twenty years ago people were enamoured of a woman who could drive and had a gun,” she says, pointing at the societal attitudes. “Negative thinking on the part of people was very limited.”
The men in the lives of these women are more than supportive. Verma’s husband says a woman should have the freedom to arm herself if it makes her feel safe. Shrivastava’s husband, Ajeet, a tehsildar, loves guns and is thrilled that his wife is following in his footsteps. “I am already planning to get her a revolver once she learns how to shoot,” he says.
Owning a weapon, however, is not as simple a matter as making a statement or taking up the responsibility for your own safety. As Indore-based businessman Devang Kapadia says: “Absolute power corrupts and there is nothing more absolute than the power of good steel.” The Delhi Police hold classes for those who have gun licences, and teach how to look after a weapon. “Owning a gun is not just about training but also respect and etiquette,” says Pannu.
While arming yourself is one thing, using it when a situation arises is a different issue altogether. Kapadia says one should consider when she gets a licence if she has the “heart” to shoot another person. Most women who have armed themselves sign up for shooting classes, but hope a situation never arises when they have to use the gun. Kalpana Saroj says she is a Buddhist and abhors violence, but makes it clear if she is ever cornered or attacked she will not go down without a fight. “If society is unable to protect you then why should a woman not take the means to defend herself?” she asks. Gun ownership remains a deeply divisive subject, with many arguing that weapons can only lead to more crime rather than protect someone. But, for the women who have defied norms to embrace guns, it seems to have served as a tool of liberation. Whether they could trigger a change in society’s attitude or not, however, remains to be seen. Some names have been changed.
Guns and clauses
All individuals, irrespective of gender, are entitled to possess a weapon, provided they fulfil the criteria laid down by law. The arms act stipulates that a person be 21 years of age to apply for a weapon licence, though the age is relaxed for sportspersons. There is a ban of five years to give licence if the applicant has been sentenced to a minimum of six months on charges of violence or moral turpitude or is of unsound mind.
The application process is an extensive one, starting with filling the form. Applicants are required to submit tax returns, bank statements and proprietorship of a business, if any, with many other documents. The verification process is exhaustive with checks conducted by the local police station. This includes a meeting with the applicant, apart from interviews with neighbours to check the temperament and behaviour of the applicant.
Either the police or the collector’s office can grant a licence. After the submission of the report by the police, the applicant has to meet the licensing authority for an interview.
In the case of a woman applying for self defence, the police and authorities consider factors like her working hours and living conditions. They also examine whether the woman has been attacked or harassed in the past. The interviews help the licensing authority to make a reasonable assessment about the applicant’s need to own a weapon, says M.K. Tiwari, additional commissioner of the licensing department, Delhi Police. Based on available data, there is no generic profile of a woman applying for a gun licence for self-defence. The Delhi Police have had applications from professionals, businesswomen and even housewives who stay in farmhouses on the outskirts with male family members who travel extensively. Doctors, who often find themselves on the road late at night owing to their professional commitments, constitute a significant number of applicants.
While there is no gender discrimination in the eyes of the law, some people allege that the police by and large try to avoid issuing licences to women. Many women have found their requests turned down as the perception of threat was not seen to be strong enough. Jewellery store owner Archana Verma’s first application was turned down, though she succeeded in the second time. “I was very nervous during my interview the first time. But does that mean that the threat was any less?” she asks.
After the licence is issued, some licensing authorities call the licence holders for a verbal training session. They are taught basic things like how to handle the weapon lawfully and remove cartridges.
India has a robust illegal arms market. Locally made weapons are easily available and more than 90 per cent of the gun related crimes are committed with country-made illegal weapons.