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India: Illegal guns plague cities

According to aid groups, India accounts for about 40 million of the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation.

Indian arms vendor Gulzar pose in his shop with a bullet in Kanpur, about 80 kms outside of Lucknow on April 6, 2007. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: "India: armed and dangerous" is a three-part series on India's rising gun culture, the proliferation of illegal weapons and the middle-class fight to bear arms. Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng researched this project with the aid of the South Asian Journalists' Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship.

NEW DELHI, India — About a year after India's first school shooting, Soumya Viswanathan, a 26-year-old television journalist, was shot and killed on her way home from work. A pretty and vivacious girl with a broad, bright smile, she had stayed late at the station to help her colleagues finish editing a story. At 3 a.m., knowing that her parents worried about her, she called her father to tell him that she was on her way home. She never made it.

"She was not coming," Soumya's father, M.K. Viswanathan, said, remembering that night. "I told [my wife] I would go downstairs and see why she was not coming. And then she said 'No, no don’t go downstairs. It’s 3:15 in the morning."

He stayed in bed. But sensing something was wrong, he kept calling Soumya's mobile phone. After another hour, Madhavi, Soumya's mother, began trying from her handset, as well. "Somebody picked up around 5. They said, ‘Who is on the line? There has been accident.'"

Soumya was less than a mile from her house, within shouting distance of two police stations, when a car full of young men allegedly tried to force her to pull over. Most likely, they wanted to rob her. Or, like too many of Delhi's young men, they saw a girl traveling alone, in the dark, as practically asking to be raped. When she didn't stop, one of them pulled out a country-made pistol and fired.

In a terrible stroke of fate, the simple single-shot weapon didn't misfire or blow up in his hand. The bullet flew true, and Soumya became another of India's ever-increasing multitude of illegal guns.

According to the International Action Network on Small Arms, Amnesty International and Oxfam, India accounts for about 40 million of the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation.

Even more troubling, local experts say illegal factories produce a huge number of pistols and machine guns every year. In many places, police say, a so-called "katta" or country-made weapon, costs as little as $10, and picking one up is as easy as buying paan, the betel nut-based stimulant ubiquitous in the subcontinent.

"If you look at serious crimes for our national capital, the looting of cash vans, bank robberies, house robberies, car jackings — invariably country-made weapons are involved," said H.G.S. Dhaliwal, deputy commissioner of the Delhi police (South District).

After Jigisha Ghose, a 28-year-old IT executive, was killed in similar circumstances, police arrested five men they believe were responsible for Soumya's murder. But more than a year later, her shattered family is still waiting for justice — which in India might take a decade or more.

"Criminals are roaming free," said Soumya's mother. "It is we who are sort of put in a prison somehow. We are frightened and have to stay in the house. That’s the way it’s become. Even in house it’s not safe. Anywhere it’s not safe."

"Criminals are roaming free. It is we who are in a prison somehow. We are frightened and have to stay in the house. That's the way it's become."

- Mother of Soumya, victim of gun violence

In 2008, the year that Soumya was murdered, only 73 people were murdered with guns in Delhi, compared with 292 in New York City — which now has one of the lowest crime rates of America's largest cities. But as police in the Big Apple are succeeding in bringing down gun murders by taking illegal weapons off the street, their counterparts in Delhi say the number of illegal firearms in India's capital is climbing steadily.

Already, there are eight illegal guns for every legal weapon in Delhi, and more than 90 percent of crimes are committed with unlicensed guns. Most of them are made in secret sweatshops in neighboring states with a reputation for lawlessness and political turmoil.

"There’s a joke in India which says if you want sophisticated weapons, illegal weapons you get it from the northeast of India [where several insurgencies are simmering,]" said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Foundation of India. "If you want really crude weapons you get it from the heartlands like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh. In these parts of India, [the] cottage industry of guns is huge."

In just one rural district, Munger, Bihar — where the current chief minister has cracked down on criminals — police uncovered as many as 65 illegal gun factories last year. They estimate that the trade earns some $4 million a year for the rustic backwater. But reports suggest that there are thousands more such factories in manufacturing centers like Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, across the country.