August 18, 2013 4:27:32 am
Chandra Shekhar Azad stands at Azad Chowk,the centre of Munger town,his body awash in silver paint,his left hand twirling his moustache. His right wrist has been left limp after an unruly crowd hit it during a procession,but the grip on the pistol hasnt loosened. The statue of the freedom fighter and the symbolism are hard to miss in Munger,about which,the saying goes,Ye aslahon ka dayar hai,yahan buzdili ki baat kya (it is a place housing arms,no place for cowardice here).
Guns and Munger: Since Mir Qasim (Nawab of Bengal from 1760-63) shifted his capital to Munger and set up an arms factory here,this town in eastern Bihar has been part of this double-barreled identity. Now it is the hub of the countrys illegal gun trade,from where sophisticated guns find their way to markets in Uttar Pradesh,Delhi,Haryana and Punjab. Last month,the Delhi Police seized 99 pistols,hidden to their surprise behind the headlights of an Ambassador car coming from Munger. The consignment was meant to be delivered to someone in Meerut.
The town has 37 legal gun units manufacturing 12-bore shotguns,but demand for these long-barreled guns,seen as unwieldy and slow,fell when illegal units in Munger began making hipper revolvers,pistols and carbines. The state governments licensing policy making it difficult to own a legal weapon was just the trigger. Against a standard two months to get a licence,in Bihar,the process takes not less than one-two years,including rigid identification norms and recommendation of authorities from block level right up to the licensing authority,the district magistrate.
As demand boomed,Mungers illegal guns too evolvedfrom kattas,the crude,single-shot .303 caliber desi guns,in the 1960s and 70s to fine replicas of once favoured international brands such as Webley & Scott and Benelli and Beretta. Grimy underground units churn these out with inscriptions such as Made in US and Only for Army Supply.
The vast riverine belt of the Ganga,which flows through Munger,is an ideal setting for the illegal units. As information about police raids gets passed around quickly,the sandy riverbeds and huts on the banks are handy for manufacturers to hide weapons and equipment. Bara-Maksaspur and Bardah villages in Munger are two of the most notorious centres of the illegal industry.
Dipak Kumar,in-charge sub-inspector of the Qasim Bazar police station under which Bara falls,warns against venturing into these villagesjournalists asking about guns and the illegal trade arent welcome,he says. So he insists on accompanying us to Bara,a village with a population of over 8,000 where over 30 per cent of the households are estimated to be involved in the illegal manufacture and supply of pistols and carbines.
Three years ago,then Munger superintendent of police Sunil Naik raided Bara after deploying 1,000 policemen over two shifts to surround the village. The three-day exercise led to the seizure of over 50 lathe,milling and drilling machines,used for manufacturing and assembling illegal arms. But such exercises are few and far between.
Mohammed Karmuddins son Mehboob recently got out on bail. Mehboob is away,so the sub-inspector gets Karmuddin to show us the underground cell where he ran his weapons unit until a few months ago. Here,empty frames of four lathe,milling and grinding machines lie covered in dust. These machines,each costing around Rs 10 lakh,were so heavy that the police could only remove their parts as proof of what they had seized.
As Karmuddin talks,a small hostile crowd builds up around his house.
The sub-inspector next takes us to the house of Munna Poddar,who allegedly also had an underground cell. But the house is locked.
The other notorious village,Bardah,is only 7 km away. Last month,police raided the village and seized six illegal firearms. However,an aggressive crowd seized back the weapons and chased the police team away.
A villager,speaking on the condition of anonymity,said every third household in Bardah is involved in the illegal arms business. Units in Bardah specialise in assembling firearms rather than manufacturing them. It is the easiest way to make money. The parts can be bought in the market and they usually come from West Bengal. The lathe and milling machines drill and attach the pistol barrels and they are marked and polished. It barely costs around
Rs 3,000 to assemble a pistol but it fetches Rs 7,000 in the local market and 20,000-Rs 25,000 in markets outside Bihar.
He says business has been so attractive that households even rope in their children. Some of these children are given mobile phones and are used to gather intelligence and alert villagers during police raids.
Though Bardah has two primary schools and a middle school,dropout rates are high. Mohammed Mehruddin,a villager,says,Children generally study till Class VIII and then turn to illegal arms trade in their teens.
Phul Babu,13,has an Arms Act case against him and has been missing for the past six months. He was studying in a school at Begusarai. But after his father Naushad was arrested in connection with an Arms Act case,Phul Babu had to leave school and join his fathers business,supervising the making of illegal weapons. There are several Phul Babus in the village, says the villager.
In a village of 20,000-odd people,only about 50 youngsters are studying outside in colleges or preparing for competitive examinations.
According to Munger Deputy Inspector General of Police Sudhanshu Kumar,while it is tough to assess the quantum of Mungers illegal arms business,a study by a Munger superintendent of police puts it at worth Rs 30-60 crore per year. It is not just Bardah and Bara which are involved in the trade,entire Ganga riverine belt and sundry villages around are involved. The illegal gun business and Naxalism are the two great challenges at Munger, says the DIG.
A senior police officer,who was posted at Munger,adds that it would not be wrong to say that a sizeable portion of Mungers economy is dependent on illegal gun sales. With Munger guns now reaching far and wide,almost the entire Hindi heartland,Delhi and beyond,the extent of business can be imagined, he says.
As the recent seizure in Delhi shows,Mungers illegal guns travel through a well-assembled networkthe manufacturer and his representative or broker at the supply end,and the supplier and buyer at the demand end. The business relies extensively on couriers and hence ingenious ways to transport the guns. The couriers usually check themselves into sleeper compartments of trains carrying about 10-12 guns. They often reach a tacit understanding with ticket collectors who allow them to use the ceiling space of the train toilets to store the weapons. All it takes is to remove some screws on the roof and over two dozen arms can be stored in that cavity, says the
A couple of stations before the train reaches Delhi or any other destination where the consignment is headed,the courier gets off the train at a remote location,pulling the emergency brake. Here the consignment is handed over to the supplier.
Munger DIG Sudhanshu Kumar says,Though trains are the preferred mode of transport,sometimes private vehicles are also used. Men,women and children are used as couriers. In January,a woman identified as Sahana Begum (38) was arrested at Jamalpur station carrying over half a dozen arms. She was travelling with her children and slept with a bag as her pillow. We raided the compartment after a tip-off and arrested her.
Sahana was travelling in the ladies compartment of 13072 Down Jamalpur-Howrah Super Fast Express. She was carrying a five-point 2.2 automatic pistol,10 magazines,24 live cartridges and a carbine. Sahana reportedly told her interrogators that she had been given the arms by an unidentified person at Bariarpur station (under Munger),who promised her a handsome reward for delivering the consignment to another person at Barhowrah,in Sahibganj district in Jharkhand. Sahana,a resident of Abuganj village under Sultanganj police station in Bhagalpur,said she had delivered arms consignments to various destinations outside Bihar.
Women couriers usually also get away if there arent enough women constables to do the frisking.
Till a decade ago,Mungers guns were routed to West Bengal,from where they crossed into Bangladesh,but now,UP,Delhi,Haryana and Punjab are the new markets with demand peaking in the past five years.
While gun makers in our village got Rs 12,000 for a pistol they sold in Kolkata,they now get no less than Rs 20,000 for a pistol in Delhi and UP, says another Bardah villager,adding that fellow villagers often threaten him for sharing their secrets.
Bardah villagers also talk of a supplier called Khan in Delhi. Suppliers are usually local musclemen and members of inter-state gangs of criminals who then sell the guns to local gangs or men who love their weapons.
Though the district police have from time to time filed cases under the Arms Act against several suppliers,manufacturers and couriers,the conviction rate is dismal. Last year,50-odd cases were registered against illegal arms manufacturing units but they resulted in one conviction. A total of 147 cases were registered under the Act in 2012 and so far,till July,there have been 64 cases.
Munger DIG Sudhanshu Kumar says judicial delays are a major issue. Over 50 cases under the Arms Act are at an important stage. We need the intervention of the higher judiciary to speed up conviction. Arrests and raids are no long-term solution. We are looking at other options too,such as community policing, he says,adding that authorities in other states also need to act to break Mungers illegal arms industry.
About two months ago,Bihar Director General of Police Abhayanand wrote to the Finance Ministry to take steps to check Mungers illegal arms industry. The DG believes that booking them under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and seizing their assets was one way to check the illegal arms manufacturers.
The income generated by these men is huge. These men manage to get bail easily and get back into the racket again. We have requested the Finance Ministry for help from the Enforcement Directorate to seize their assets. This will help curtail their activities to a large extent, says Abhayanand.
But the Bardah villager says its easier said than done. The police can muster the courage to conduct house-to-house searches in Bara, according to him,but it is almost impossible to conduct such searches in Bardah.
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