The shadow of the gun

Binalakshmi Nepram
1 April 2008

I dedicate this article to the more than 5000 women who have lost their lives or been wounded by gun violence in my home-state of Manipur in Northeast India.

As the world knows, India is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, the land where non-violence was born. Last year the United Nations declared that his birthday, 2 October, would become International Day of Non-Violence. The India that existed at the time of independence championed peace and disarmament. However, sad to say, the India of today is very different. While many know of India's economic rise, I know of an India that is weaponized and arming itself to the teeth.

In February 2008, over 450 arms companies came to India's capital New Delhi to sell their wares at an international arms bazaar. India, my country, is the second most heavily armed nation in the world, and the majority of an estimated 40 million firearms are in civilian possession. There are 900,000 arms-licensed holders in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone, while the number of arms dealers is pegged at 1400. In the words of one gun dealer at the bazaar, "Gun shops are mushrooming in the state of Uttar Pradesh like public telephone booths".

Living with the gun

I have seen and felt the sense of fear that the gun instills. When I came to Delhi from Manipur, I felt a need to understand the weapon that has controlled our lives on the Indo-Burma border. Let me take you back there to illustrate why women like myself and many others are taking steps to stop gun violence.

Northeast India has been facing the onslaught of ethnic-based armed conflicts since the late 1940s. The region is home to more than 70 major population groups and sub groups, speaking approximately 400 languages and dialects. The fire of insurgency has long engulfed this strategic region and has held development to ransom. Violent and vociferous demands by different ethnic groups for independence and for new states in the Northeast have been made for the past five decades. I believe that no other region of India, South Asia, indeed the world, must have seen such a proliferation and mushrooming of militant outfits which now form a complex matrix.

Growing up in this region, I thought all this was natural. It was only after I came to New Delhi that I realized that the situation was not at all normal. I then stumbled upon a 1997 UN document titled "Trafficking in Small Arms and Sensitive Technologies". That book combined with a white paper on small arms written by the Canadian Government, changed my life and inspired me to undertake research into arms proliferation in my society. I conducted research for over two years and published my research findings as a book, titled South Asia's Fractured Frontier (New Delhi, Mittal Publications, 2002). I discovered fifty-seven types of small arms which have flooded into Northeast India in the past few years. The weapons came from China, Pakistan, Belgium, Thailand, Russia, United States of America, United Kingdom, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Burma and of late, Israel.

The effect of this small arms proliferation has been alarming. Young people have taken up the path of gun violence resulting in death, decay and destruction socially, politically and economically. Every year 300,000 people are killed around the world because of small arms. In Manipur, not a day passes without a gun killing. Writing this book empowered me to keep on working on gun control however, so I can safely say that research undertaken by women is one of the important ways that women can act to control gun violence.

Mobilising civil society

In 2001 the UN addressed the issue of small arms and light weapons for the first time in its history when it launched the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (UNPoA). UNPoA has become a dead paper for many countries, but for some concerned citizens it was a real opportunity to take further action against guns and gun violence. We organized meetings on the issue in India in five different cities - Manipur, Delhi, Jammu, Mumbai and Chennai - and we called upon the government of India to implement it. However, even as India kept submitting report after report to the UN on the small arms issue claiming that it was adhering to UNPoA, the work was never translated on the ground. In response, we mobilized civil society and in 2004 formed the Control Arms Foundation of India in New Delhi (CAFI). The aim of the foundation is to address issues relating to the proliferation of small arms and light weapons as they effect civil society, particularly women, children and the elderly, and also to create a movement in the sub-continent where defence and security issues are debated through informed debate, particularly as they relate to policies.

CAFI proposes new ideas for thinking about security, for instance to look at women-led disarmament policies and programmes to make human security a fundamental right, and to make disarmament a movement in the country, which is meaningful to people's lives. The formation of strong civil society organization directly addressing the issue of small arms is one of the most effective actions taken by women in India to combat gun violence.

The Control Arms Foundation's work has included re-drafting India's gun legislation. We are working with a team of lawyers and have identified several loopholes in the Indian Arms Act, namely:

  • There is no definition of "prohibited persons" and it is left to the discretion of the licensing authority in granting and refusal of licences
  • punishment for violation of the law is lenient
  • there is no system for making instant criminal background checks
  • there is no coherent system for conducting a census of the registered arms and ammunition by the respective state governments, whether by a self-disclosure scheme, police authorities or by a special wing in the Collectors Office.

We are calling for a restriction on the number of guns per household to one; currently an Indian citizen can procure three weapons per licence. We are also demanding that the permission of two household members, one of whom should be a woman, must be sought while applying for a gun licence.

Besides this work, we also lobby Indian disarmament officials, parliamentarians and think tanks, and network with other NGOs. We have conducted mass awareness programmes such as an essay contest titled "What guns have done to my country?" We also made three films; "Gun Wars and Drug Deaths (2003)", "Gunning for Control (2006)" and "The Story of the Manipuri Women Gun Survivors (2008)" on gun control issues and organized photo exhibitions related to gun violence.

Breaking the mould in Manipur

A third area of our work against gun violence takes the form of direct intervention in the lives of women gun survivors. As women we have set up the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network (MWGSN), which is the first of its kind in India to offer victim assistance to women gun survivors.

Manipur is one of the most conflict-ridden states in India. In 2006 alone, nearly 300 people lost their lives to gun violence. The women of Manipur suffer most in this conflict - even when they are not directly targeted. They are traumatized by the deaths of family members. They bear the brunt of both the emotional and socio-economic impacts of violence and many women have become impoverished after the killing of male relatives, who had been working for the survival of the family.

The idea for the Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network (MWGSN) came from an incident on 24 December, 2004. That Christmas Eve, I witnessed the aftermath of the killing of 27-year-old Buddhi Moirangthem in Wabgai Lamkhai village in Manipur. There, a group of three gunmen dragged Buddhi from his car-battery workshop. And within minutes they shot him dead. Even today, his 24-year-old widow Rebika Akham does not know who the killers were and why they killed her husband. Days after the incident, 4500 rupees were contributed by myself and other committed people to buy a sewing machine for Rebika. This was the first ever intervention of MWGSN and enabled her to stitch clothes for villagers and to secure a living. The Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network was formed in 2007 to help women like Rebika Akham.

MWGSN attempts to lift women above the trauma and agony faced in the conflict. It helps women survivors of gun violence to find ways to heal the scars which decades of living under the shadow of a gun have caused the community. Direct intervention is based upon a gender sensitive approach to the gun crisis, and by supporting women economically it brings them forward to play a crucial role in small arms policy. It is the first initiative of its kind in India. It assists in small-scale entrepreneurial work and is working towards building sustainable livelihood measures for gun-affected women in Manipur. Manipur enjoys a distinct place among the handloom zones in India and like many of the Manipuri women most of the gun survivors are skilled in making handloom and handicraft items. The Network helps women gun survivors to open bank accounts and provides small loans of 3000 to 9000 Rupees. With the help of this money the women are able to carry on work such as silk reeling, weaving and other occupations such as fishery or mushroom farming.

We also form "solidarity networks" of committed young people who believe in helping the survivors and controlling the use and spread of small arms. They keep in touch with these women and assist them in whatever way they can. Women affected by gun violence can now live their lives with newfound courage.

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