ARMS AND THE NATION - Like the US, India is dangerously divided over its gun laws

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  • Published 18.08.10

“Happy 15th,” an Indian American greeted me on Sunday at a reception at the residence of the Indian ambassador in Washington as I stared at him without comprehension. He probably thought I was rude and moved on. A little later, when the greeting was repeated by another man, I rolled my eyes, but this time I was offered an explanation. “On July 4, the American Independence Day, ‘Happy 4th’ is the standard greeting here,” I was apprised. “So it is appropriate for Indians to wish each other ‘Happy 15th’ on India’s Independence Day.”

Americans who are sceptical of the ritualistic praise for Indo-US relations as a product of shared values and a shared destiny often joke that ever since Atal Bihari Vajpayee elevated Indo-US relations to the status of a natural alliance during Bill Clinton’s presidential visit in 2000, a common fate has befallen both countries. India, they say, suffered from cross-border terrorism for at least 15 years before the United States of America too became a major victim of big-time terror from abroad.

After aides to George W. Bush promised that they would help India to become a superpower, the two countries got into a tighter embrace. The joke continues that, as a result, while India has been a victim of Enron from 1993, the US too became the company’s victim in 2001. A new, expanded version of this joke is that when America suffered from the worst offshore oil spill in April this year, India, its “natural ally”, was not far behind with its own oil spill off the Mumbai coast this month.

It is a matter of serious concern, however, that the flippancy with which these anecdotes are treated is now making way for some common causes, which threaten to have catastrophic effects on Indian society because of a tendency to look at the American way of life as a role model. This column could list several examples of this trend, but by far the most serious of these threats to India’s way of life comes from a very organized attempt to import America’s gun culture into India.

Nothing highlights the depravity of gun rights advocates trying to scuttle the Union home ministry’s laudable efforts to tighten the Arms Act as their readiness to defile the memory of the Father of the Nation by misrepresenting his views in support of the demand for the ‘right’ for Indians to bear arms.

On websites in support of US-style, lax gun-ownership laws for Indians, and in lobbying material for the purpose of defeating an Arms Act (Amendment) Bill 2010, to be shortly introduced in Parliament, those who look to the US for inspiration in this regard opportunistically use the following quotation from M.K. Gandhi: “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest.”

The Mahatma did, indeed, express this opinion with reference to the Arms Act of 1878, which discriminated in favour of Europeans by giving them the privilege of carrying arms and prevented Indians from having access to weapons. It is true that the 1878 law was a political instrument to subjugate Indians after their 1857 fight for freedom. But the full quote from Gandhi on this subject is as follows: “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want the Arms Act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity. If the middle classes render voluntary help to Government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn.”

Gandhi first wrote these words in a pamphlet he published during World War I asking Indians to fight with the British, which they did in large numbers. It was only in 1927, well after the end of the war, that his opinion about the Arms Act was incorporated into his famous autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It is abundantly clear from the full quote that the Mahatma saw in the black British law an opportunity for a political struggle against the colonial rulers and for the repeal of the unjust Arms Act. In the pamphlet, he also laid out for Indians a clear course to press for the repeal of a patently unjust law.

However, today’s gun rights advocates would have us believe, by selectively using his quote, that what Gandhi was campaigning for was for more Indians to have access to guns. This is precisely the kind of disinformation that the National Rifle Association in the US constantly spreads with a disdain for truth that would put Nazi propagandist, Paul Joseph Goebbels, to shame. As the Congress general secretary, Digvijay Singh, and the young MP, Naveen Jindal, who have thrust themselves to the forefront of a campaign to prevent amendments tightening the Arms Act, prepare their lobbying effort to deal a setback to the home minister, P. Chidambaram, on this score, they would do well to talk to the surviving family of the professor, G.V. Loganathan, of Tamil Nadu’s Erode district.

Loganathan’s life as an academic of great promise was tragically cut short at the age of 53: he was one of the 32 people killed at Virginia Tech when a student at the university trained his two firearms on students and teachers in America’s worst case of campus gun violence. Or ask the widow of Gopi K. Podila, chairman of the department of biological sciences at the University of Alabama, who was killed in February in the most recent fatal gun assault on an Indian professor in the US. Podila was not killed by a robber or any criminal against whom, gun rights advocates like Jindal argue, Indians need protection. He was shot at point-blank range by another biology professor, a 42-year-old woman, who had a gun that was legally acquired under American laws, which Digvijay Singh and others like him would like to see enacted in India.

Although there are no conclusive statistics, going by announcements in the ethnic Indian media and networks, more Indians are killed in the US from gun violence than in road accidents. Today, Indian parents, learning from the tragedies of children they send to America — like the gun victim, Abhijit Mahato, a PhD student at Duke University in North Carolina and alumnus of Jadavpur University — have the option not to risk their children to a country like the US where death at the barrel of a gun is a daily occurrence. The laws that India’s gun lobby wants to promote will bring this American problem home to India, its streets, its factories and its universities, and deny people the safety they now have from legal firearms.

Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine, which won awards at Cannes and during the Oscars, has a scene where the filmmaker walks into a bank in his home state of Michigan, makes a fixed deposit and collects a rifle as his promotional gift. Reading a recent report about guns being handed out in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh as an incentive for family planning operations was a chilling reminder of this scene.

Perhaps the differences between Digvijay Singh and P. Chidambaram on the issue of gun control are really differences of sub-nationalism. In large swathes of north India, it is not unusual to see people getting into buses, shopping in the mandis or going about other business with a gun slung on their shoulders. But not in most parts of south India. To that extent the divide over gun laws may turn out to be a significant difference in recent years between the two Indias.

But the problem with gun laws is also that there is huge money involved, as the American experience has shown. And once the stops are pulled out, there is no knowing where a slippery slope will lead. As in the incredibly picturesque Utah town called Virgin, where the gun lobby was able to get a law passed that made it mandatory for every household to buy a gun for their own protection.