New Delhi, July 30: Marketing professional Sapna Arora’s (name changed on request) days are a hectic rush around Delhi. But wherever the 31-year-old goes, she never forgets her .32 revolver.
“Delhi has become very unsafe for women. Because of my job, I often return home late; so I applied for a gun licence last year and bought the gun. Earlier, I used to carry pepper spray but that’s not a strong enough deterrent,” she said. “The revolver makes me feel safe.”
Sapna, who has received the routine weapons-handling training the police impart to new licence holders, says she wouldn’t balk at pulling the trigger if the need arose.
She isn’t alone. There has been “a new trend” of working women in Delhi applying for gun licences in the past couple of years, a senior police officer said.
“Earlier, some women would ‘inherit’ gun licences by applying to have their deceased fathers’ licences transferred to them. But of late, women applicants have been citing self-defence,” said M.K. Tiwari, additional commissioner (licensing department),
Sharmila Singh, a senior media professional, too plans to apply for a firearms licence.
“Since I’m outdoors most of the time and return late at night, I carry a knife and a pepper spray in my handbag. But that’s not enough if four or five people surround you on a lonely stretch at night,” she said.
“I think firearms have become a necessity for working women considering the rise in crime against women in the capital.”
Tiwari, though, admits that the number of women who receive gun licences isn’t high considering the number that applies. (See chart)
“We have rejected many women’s applications because they failed to justify the threat perception they claimed,” he said.
The Delhi police say that 20-25 per cent of the 200-300 gun-licence applications they receive a month on the ground of personal safety come from women. This means just 2-3 per cent of these women applicants are successful.
An officer said the police consider several points: whether she lives alone, returns home alone at night, has been harassed or accosted by men, and lives in a crime-prone area.
Sarita Agarwal, a north Delhi teacher who quit her job to look after her elderly in-laws after her husband was transferred to Bangalore in 2010, described how she was denied a gun licence.
“I applied for one after a rise in burglaries and robberies in my neighbourhood. But the police said there was no threat to me as so many people lived in the locality. I suppose they would accept I faced a threat only if criminals barged into my home and killed us all.”
She added: “A friend later told me that you need to be well-connected to get a gun licence easily.”
A senior officer who wouldn’t be quoted corroborated this, saying that if an applicant can get a recommendation from a politician, bureaucrat or senior police officer, he gets preference “even if he doesn’t fit the criteria”.
“The gun culture in northwest India makes a gun licence a status symbol for many men,” he said, suggesting trigger-happy men can often get a licence more easily than a working woman genuinely fearful of her safety.
He cited an example eerily similar to the Jessica Lal murder: “Last year, a man shot in the air after he was served cold food at an upscale restaurant.”
Sapna said she had no “connections” and was “lucky” to receive her gun licence. “During the interview, I told the cops how I was once accosted by some youths on a deserted street,” she said.
An example additional commissioner Tiwari cited as proof that high-risk women aren’t denied the licences suggested the police have a very male interpretation of “threat perception” and tend to ignore the gender-specific threats women face.
“She owns a big jewellery shop in Delhi,” Tiwari said about an applicant, “and considering the threat perception, we granted her a firearms licence.”
Most of the men who receive gun licences in Delhi on the ground of personal safety are businessmen such as jewellers who make “huge financial transactions daily”, an officer said. He acknowledged: “The criteria for both men and women are similar.”
Of the about 1,000 men issued gun licences in Delhi every year, Tiwari said, 50-100 are shooting enthusiasts, 500-600 get the licence for personal safety, and the rest “inherit” it. “The majority of the licences are given to politicians, army and police officers and bureaucrats,” he said.
Rajya Sabha MP and Congress spokesperson Renuka Chaudhary, who carries a licensed revolver for self-protection, said the police should issue more licences to women as they need it more than men who “want to flaunt it (their gun) at weddings”.
“The police may be discriminating against women because of social stereotypes: they cannot digest the fact that women too can keep guns.”
Chaudhary rued the police’s failure to keep Delhi safe for women but added: “It’s good that they (women) want to arm themselves with guns for self-defence; I appreciate it.”
She told The Telegraph: “I have a German-make revolver which I carry in my handbag. So far I haven’t shot anybody but I have used it many times to intimidate people who try to come too close, especially during election rallies. Now people know that I don’t carry lipstick in my handbag but a revolver; so they maintain a safe distance.”
The guns can cost a packet, though.
“Indian-made .32 revolvers cost between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh but imported ones, which can cost Rs 3 lakh to Rs 6 lakh, are better,” said Rakshit Sharma, secretary-general of the National Association for Gun Rights in India (Nagri). Sapna’s, made by the Indian Ordnance Factory, cost her Rs 70,000.
Sharma said whether a woman should simply wave the gun to scare off potential attackers or shoot at them or merely fire in the air is something they must decide.
He said one school of thought maintained the women should target the attackers’ legs but added that this requires a very accurate aim. “Besides, the situation may not offer much reaction time.”
He had a piece of advice for women like Sapna: “Train well to use the gun, and use it responsibly. Bring it out only if there’s no other option.”
Seema Malik, who runs the NGO Mirchi Jhonk which spreads awareness among women about the use of chilli powder for self-defence, welcomed the new trend.
“Carrying chilli can be a deterrent against one or two attackers but the sight of a revolver is enough to scare away a group of men,” she said.
But Madhu Kishwar, a woman activist, said guns were not the answer.
“I am in favour of disarming people who have guns as I believe safety does not come from the gun. It’s true that a goonda culture exists in Delhi but guns cannot be the solution. What we need are strong laws and an efficient police,” she said.