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India: gun culture - and gun violence - on the rise

As India gets rich, it's trading Gandhi for guns.

"Everyone in our family has one. Our family has the largest number of guns in Gurgaon," said Rajje Yadav, a real estate developer who also owns a liquor store.

Yadav is a representative of north India's new rich. Over the past several years, the rapid economic growth of the “National Capital Region” (NCR) that surrounds New Delhi — and an accompanying real estate boom — has brought radical social change to the traditionally macho, honor-obsessed communities of rural Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Agrarian castes like the Jats and Yadavs have been propelled to fantastic wealth through the sale of their farms to real estate developers. But many have failed to integrate into the new urban society that surrounds them. For every new rich man there's a poor one who covets what he has.

And social tensions have been exacerbated as the educated members of the lower castes who once worked as bonded labor now leverage social programs to uplift themselves and overtake their one-time landlords. Throw in an obsession with izzat, or honor, and a fascination with guns, and you have the perfect recipe for violence.

"We and our relatives who are in the land and wine business have to handle enormous amounts of cash every day, so in order to protect ourselves we have to carry guns," said Yadav. But he admits that there's more to the phenomenon. "Guns have become a sort of status symbol," he says. "Possessing a gun takes a person to great heights."

Accidental deaths at NCR weddings — where revelers show off by shooting into the air — have become so commonplace that a council of leaders from some 40 villages in Delhi's hinterlands banned firearms from marriage ceremonies earlier this year. In a recent incident, for instance, bridegroom Pankaj Kumar was killed by a stray bullet at his wedding celebration when his father couldn't resist discharging his pistol into the air to show his status. No doubt today he feels much the same pain as Rajinder Tyagi.

"We pray to the almighty that something of this sort never happens to anyone, ever," Tyagi said. "The tragedy of losing a child is the greatest of them all."

But the rapid proliferation of guns suggests such tragedies are likely to grow more common. Already, in Meerut, another burgeoning city on the border of Delhi, guns accounted for nearly a quarter of accidental deaths in 2008.

"According to us, the reason behind this is the rapid industrialization and colonization in these areas,” an inspector general with the Meerut police recently told an Indian newspaper. “People are prospering and where there is money involved, there is always a fear of crime."

Because of that fear, it's not just rowdies, politicians and criminals who are arming themselves, and it's not only the newly rich of India's macho castes. It's doctors, lawyers and journalists, from the purportedly bookish Brahmin caste on down.

"Guns have become a sort of status symbol. Possessing a gun takes a person to great heights."

- Rajje Yadav, Gurgaon businessman

Consider Rakesh Singh, a native of Andhra Pradesh who has been a practicing doctor in Gurgaon for nearly 10 years. A few weeks ago at the private hospital he founded in 2007, located in a row of property dealers that hint at Gurgaon's red-hot real estate market, he gingerly pulled a licensed Indian-made revolver out of his desk drawer. He wasn't proud. He was angry.

"Deep down there's a sense of insecurity," he said. "Even in this city. Or as such in the NCR — Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon. Even when you're out with your wife on Saturdays with the children, or driving back [home] at 10:30, you have this insecurity."

Not long before, a car had forced him off the road while he was on his way home. Seeing a gun in one man's hand and realizing they planned to rob him, or worse, Singh threw his car in reverse as the man opened fire, shooting three times. Outside his clinic, he pointed out the place where one of the bullets hit the hood of his car. Next time, Singh plans to shoot back.

"[It's] survival of the fittest. If you want to live in Rome, you have to live like how the Romans do," he said. "I have a revolver. But I really wish I had a more sophisticated, easier-to-use weapon. Because I'm really angry about the whole thing and I wouldn't think twice about shooting back. ... Somebody needs to let them know, you're not going to take it lying down. You can't go around, get drunk and go shooting people, bully people around who are just doing their job."