India: Women's possession of guns linked to 'empowerment'

02 January 2009

In the Rewa District of Madhya Pradesh there has been an increase in the number of women with licenses to possess guns. A worrying trend especially considering the motive behind the move, "to boost their confidence and social status."

Social status = personal bodyguards, ITraids, moustache, licensed guns, and more
By Kanhaiah Bhelari

Kamlesh Kumar Jaishawal was desperately in love with Ritu Keshari, who was from another caste. But the hurdle before marriage was not their differences, but money-marriage meant expenses. The teacher cum part-time journalist from Dumraon, Bihar, was then struck with an idea. He took a loan of Rs 82,700 from a local bank under the Prime Minister's Rozgar Yojana "to set up a small business unit", and wedded his sweetheart on November 25. "It was a boon from the Almighty to solve my biggest problem," he said.

Jaishawal represents thousands of north Indians who associate pride with extravagance. Borrowing money to meet an "urgent" need and splurging it on a wedding, just to show they can, is common in the cow belt. Minister for water resources in the Jharkhand government, Kamlesh Singh's declared assets were a mere Rs 15 lakh. But he allegedly spent Rs 5 crore to marry off his two daughters in 2008. Mahendra Singh Tikait, the farmer leader of western Uttar Pradesh, invited about a lakh people for dinner for his daughter's wedding.

The show-off just begins there. For the Indian, pride is plural. It comes in the form of guns, private bodyguards, land, house, moustache and pets. Some find dignity in flashing a high-end mobile phone; cars and jeeps make some feel special; a few don't mind an Income Tax raid at their house if that sends out the desired message!

Licensed firearms are still number one status symbol in the Hindi heartland. Name and fame from cricket seem not enough for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The dynamic skipper is still looking to fulfil his childhood ambition of owning a pistol. Around 40 million firearms in the country are said to be in civilian possession, with Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar topping the list.

As per official figures, one in every 14 persons in Noida has a licensed firearm-a total of 17,717. In Greater Noida, there are 21,177 licensed guns. About 35,000 licence applications for rifles and pistols are pending. Pramod Kumar Singh alias Pappu of Ramgarh, bordering UP, bought a pistol in 2007 costing Rs 3.6 lakh, though he already owned two rifles. "But a pistol is a pistol. It gives you a special feeling," he said. Laxman Pandey, a farmer in Chandauli district, UP, loves to carry his rifle around in his village, Dharawli, because it earns him respect.

The Madhya Pradesh government took up the gun to shoot down population explosion in 2008. In April, the Shivpuri district administration offered gun licence for volunteers of vasectomy. Men queued up to get sterilised. In 2007, just eight men came forward for the surgical procedure in return of an incentive of Rs 1,100. But gun revolutionised vasectomy in the district-over 250 men turned up until December 2008. Guns are both a necessity and a status symbol in the district and it is not hard to find a farmer riding an old bicycle, with a gun slung over his shoulder. Reports say there are over 11,000 licensed guns in Shivpuri district, whereas neighbouring Bhind and Morena have 19,000 and 15,000 licences, respectively.

Guns 'empower' women, too. Before May 2008, the women of Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh were "broomstick wielders". But today, they are recognised as gun-toters. The district administration licensed 19 women with guns. The motive was to boost their confidence and social status.

Another way of saying 'I can' is by hiring police personnel as security guards. The Delhi High Court in October 2007 observed that the practice of politicians moving around with gun-toting security guards had become fashionable and a status symbol. The more security men around, the more prestigious they felt. About 20,000 policemen in Bihar are engaged in providing personal security. The police manual provides for hiring of a security guard for Rs 8,000 per month. "Even petty politicians with no threat to their lives have managed to get security guards by using their clout," said a policeman in Patna. But some prefer private security guards because they distrust the prowess of the police. One of them is Sudhir Singh of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. "To earn respect in society today, it is necessary to live under the shadow of firearms," said Sudhir.

Having land at district headquarters or state capitals is another status symbol. Rajan Rai of Dehri-on-Sone bought a plot in Indira Nagar locality of Lucknow and built a flat. "I had to sell ancestral property in my native village to buy a plot in the city," he said. "The possession of land in Lucknow will make it easier for me to find a suitable groom for my daughter because no longer am I just a villager."

Even a person living away from his native village satisfies his feudal mindset by constructing a pucca house in the village. Ramashrya Singh of Pararia village in Buxar district has been staying with his family in Ara. He spent Rs 10 lakh to build a house in his village. "The people of my village used to taunt me as a man of low standards for not having my own house there. Now they are silent," he said. In fact, the people in the cow belt don't dare abandon three things-jar, joru aur jamin (mother, wife and land)-even in his worst days. "For us, selling ancestral land is equivalent to selling mother," he said.

Even moustaches are a status symbol in rural areas of north India. "Moustache for a man is like horns for a bull, because that's the male identity," said R.P. Verma of Bilap village, Patna, who has been sporting a moustache from early adulthood.

Those who own horses, elephants and camels command respect in villages. Said Sriram Sinha of Sikandarpur village in Bhojpur district: "I have been keeping horses for the last 30 years to maintain and demonstrate my position in society." Roop Rani, the horse he owns now, was bought from the famous Sonepur fair last year for Rs 70,000.

Narendra Pratap Mishra of Ghorahat village in Saran district spends Rs 30,000 a month on an elephant and a camel that he has owned for the last 20 years. "The elephant brought us luck, name, fame and wealth," he said. "One of my eight brothers, Ravindra Mishra, won the Majhi Assembly seat as an independent in 2000 and found berth in the Rabri [Devi] cabinet by the grace of the elephant, whom we call Bhola."

Sale of elephants in India is documented. But at the Sonepur fair the trade is only thinly disguised as an exchange of gifts, and there have been about 69 in 2008.?Most owners and buyers are rich and powerful landowners, who keep them as a status symbol. "We treat elephants like our own children," said Ramnath of Nawada, who purchased an elephant for Rs 17 lakh.

The educated youth in the Hindi heartland opt for a nuclear family, but the concept of a joint family still dominates as a status symbol "because all family members live together in harmony", said Umashanker Prasad Singh of Kutuwapur in Vaishali district. Singh has a 105-member family-55 men and 50 women-living together. The family includes 23 engineers, many working abroad. "But every member turns up at the house when there is a special occasion, like a wedding."

Being a member of a joint family gives one a sense of respect in society. Said Dr Dalbir Chauhan, head of Sanskrit department in Gaya College, Gaya, "I know a dozen joint families in my home district of Sultanpur in UP that got split long back but still live under one roof only to maintain their status."

In Bihar, encountering an Income Tax raid is no longer a curse but a boon. Says Sanjiv Sekhar, a chartered accountant: "People believe that those raided are wealthy. And earning money is not bad." Y.K. Sudarshan, owner of Patna Central School, became more popular after he faced an IT raid a decade ago. "The raids made a billionaire out of a millionaire, because it taught him better tact," said Kripanath Rai, a villager. "Now he is a man of such a stature that even the chief minister spares time to meet him."

Becoming a disciple of a spiritual guru earns respect. One out of ten persons in the cow belt is a devotee of either this baba or that baba. Parsuram Rai, professor of chemistry at Shanker College, Rohtas district, has been a devotee of Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Awadhoot Ram of Varanasi since childhood. "It is the grace of my guru that got me the job and helped me find suitable grooms for my three daughters," he said.

Everyone has his own way of grabbing attention. All have their ways of saying, "I'm here". But such yearning might only be seen among the men of one country. Maybe it happens only in India!

The Week, Malayala Manorama Publications Kochi, Kerala