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House of guns pins sales hope on peace

Jammu, May 7 (Reuters): H.S. Anand, a warm, friendly man with laughing eyes and a bright blue turban, lives by the gun in Jammu and Kashmir. But business has never been worse.

From a hole-in-the-wall shop, Anand carries on the family business of selling finely crafted hunting guns in Jammu. “It’s a meagre living,” the 30-year-old father of one young son says uncomplainingly. “Business is bad.”

His plight is tinged with irony in an area awash with guns in the hands of separatists and troops.

Ordinary Kashmiris are banned from owning semi-automatics such as AK-47s and because of terrorism in the state, find it almost impossible to get even a shotgun licence to go hunting, which itself has been banned for several years.

Anand’s slide from prosperity to barely eking out a living echoes the lot of many businessmen in the state.

Since 1989, when terrorism reared its head, many businesses and livelihoods have been wrecked.

Although most Kashmiris enjoy better living standards than many poorer states and food is plentiful in the bazaars, the insurgency has strangled the vital tourism industry and wiped out almost all industry except handicrafts.

Anand sells locally made shotguns and handguns. Before the militancy, the shotguns, with their finely carved butts of local walnut and polished brass fittings, were big sellers in the thickly forested state where hunting was a passion for many.

Former Maharaja Hari Singh was a keen hunter, once winning a duck-shooting record with a pair of British-made shotguns.

These days, it is increasingly hard to get official permission for a Rs 60 gun licence and fewer and fewer people can afford the Rs 9,000 for a single-barrel 12-bore or the Rs 13,000-14,000 for a double barrel.

So, Anand relies on selling ammunition and making repairs, working 11 hours a day, six days a week.

“Guns don’t sell. It’s only the ammunition,” he says. “Before the militancy, we sold 28 to 30 guns a month. Now we hardly sell two or three.”

Most customers now are retired soldiers or policemen looking for weapons in their new jobs as bank guards or security officers. They have the connections for a licence and the money for the gun.

Self-protection and security have replaced hunting — banned since the mid-1990s — as the main reason for buying.

Anand himself is a keen hunter. He used to take his double-barrel 12-bore out during the June-July duck-hunting season, before it was banned.

It has been an up-and-down story for Anand’s family. They started in guns, shifted to bus transport, went back into guns and now Anand has bought an 11-seat bus for the Jammu-Srinagar route to help make ends meet.

“Business sometimes starts picking up. But as soon as that happens, something bad happens and business goes bad again,” he says.

His Singh Gun House in the bustling Residency Road was set up by his father Singh Sahib in 1962 and is one of Jammu’s oldest.

Barely deep enough to allow Anand to sit on a chair behind a waist-high counter, it holds a mini-shrine with paintings of Guru Nanak as well as Lakshmi and Saraswati, and a painting of Anand’s grandfather.

Like many Kashmiris, Anand’s hopes have been buoyed by the election six months ago of a new government offering a healing touch and a new positive tone in relations between India and Pakistan.

If peace comes, he hopes to sell more guns again.

But the optimism is tempered by a history of three wars and more than half a century of never-ending tensions between the neighbours.

“We hope things will change,” he says. “The world survives on hope. But sometimes I see the future as hopeless because of this militancy.”

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