The Kodava community’s special privilege to own firearms without a license has come under the spotlight after a writ petition was filed in the Karnataka High Court questioning the exemption granted to the community under the provisions of the Arms Act, 1959.
On August 13, the Ministry of Home Affairs had informed the High Court that the exemption is being reviewed along with the review of the entire Arms Act to amend the old enactment.
The special privilege to own firearms without a license was granted to the Kodavas, a small martial community in Kodagu (Coorg) District in Karnataka, by the British in recognition of their martial traditions. Kodavas, an ethno-linguistic tribe, consider themselves the original inhabitants of Kodagu district and are known for their martial culture. The community have its rituals around guns and weapons like swords.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Ms Boverianda Nanjamma Chinnappa, translator and scholar of Kodava studies, said, “Kodavas’ life revolves around the gun. In the community, ‘one gun salute’ is fired when a child is born, and ‘two salvoes’ after a death. Kailpodh festival (festival of arms) is celebrated annually in the month of September, which is marked by the worship of guns, Odi Kathi and Peeche Kathi (two different kinds of swords), and agricultural equipment. The gun has thus come to be historically perceived as both a birthright and necessity for the Kodava lifestyle.”
In the Kodava terminology, both gun and rifle are used interchangeably as “thok” while in the symbol of the Kodava community, it is the rifle which is represented along with Odi Kathi and Peeche Kathi.
In 1963, the Union Government issued a notification exempting “every person of (the) Coorg race and every Jamma land tenure holder in Coorg” from the Indian Arms Act. There was no curb on the privilege even after Coorg, which was a separate state earlier, merged with Karnataka.
According to reports, a proposal to do away with the privilege under the Arms Act was made way back in 1964 by the central government. But the move was dropped, apparently at the behest of Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa who was the first Indian Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the Indian Army and the then Union Minister C.M. Poonacha, who was also former Chief Minister of Coorg state, before its merger with Karnataka.
Former Kodagu District Commissioner, T.P. Issar, in his report, had said: “It is a well-known fact that the gun, the Odikathi (a small broad bladed sword) and the Peechekathi (a type of dagger) are as much a part of the life of a Coorg as the kirpan is for Sikhs and the kukri for Gurkhas. From my study of the old gazetteers and other books on the life and culture of Coorg and from my knowledge of their present day customs, I am in a position to bear out the truth of the arguments of the Coorgis that these arms are inseparably linked with many of their ceremonial occasions.”
The original petition (a Public Interest Litigation) was filed questioning the exemption of the Kodavas and Jamma land-holders from Sections 3 and 4 of the Indian Arms Act, 1959 before the Karnataka High Court in 2015. The High Court had disposed it and asked the petitioner to submit a representation on his grievance about the exemption to the Union Home Ministry. On its part, the ministry had told the court that the exemption provided to Kodavas was as per law.
The petitioner claims that the exemption is unconstitutional in modern India, and represents imperial favouritism of privileged Kodava communities.
The Kodava Samaja, however, had questioned the petitioner’s move to rake up the issue once again when the Union Home Ministry has stated that the exemption has been granted as per law. “The special privilege to own firearms without license was granted to Kodavas by the British in recognition of their martial traditions and the issue is over 200-years-old. What is the necessity of raking up the issue again when it has been recognised that a gun is a part and parcel of Kodava religious ceremonies and festivals,” the Samaja questioned in the statement.