Three months ago, Jyoti Randhawa was arrested on charges of alleged poaching at a reserve in UP. The international golfer and national-level shooter is now out on bail but the case has led officials down a new trail: the misuse of arms licences issued under the sports quota.
So much so, that the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) has formed a “working group” to investigate this trend. “It is evident there is some kind of misuse taking place. We will seek details from the relevant authorities and proceed with our investigation,” Tilotama Varma, additional director, WCCB, told The Indian Express.
Randhawa, 46, was arrested from Dudhwa Tiger Reserve for allegedly poaching jungle fowl in December with an imported rifle obtained using his sports weapon licence. After spending more than 50 days in jail, he was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court last month.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Ramesh Pandey, chief conservator and field director of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, claims the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) had established links between Randhawa and Prashant Bishnoi, a national-level shooter who was arrested in June 2017 in an arms and wildlife seizure case. “The DRI had reported that Bishnoi had given a gun to Randhawa,” he said.
A DRI official involved in Bishnoi investigation does not deny this claim. A K Pandey, the investigating officer in the Randhawa case, says the barrel mounted on his rifle belonged to Dilip Ayachi, another national-level shooter. Randhawa is said to have first met Ayachi at Delhi’s Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range in 2010. Since then, they have competed in several domestic and a few invitational international tournaments together.
“Jyoti wanted to check the precision of my barrel so he requested to borrow it. As is the norm, I took an undertaking from him, which says he will use it only at a registered shooting range in the country,” Ayachi said.
Getting an arms licence under the sports quota allows shooters to import arms and ammunition duty-free and exempts them from depositing weapons at police stations during elections.
Over the last five years, figures show, there has been a surge in licences issued under this category. Delhi, which has relatively fewer licensed weapons compared to other states, has issued 127 arms licences under sports quota in the last five years, according to information obtained under the Right To Information (RTI) Act.
Several shooters, including an Olympian, have been accused of exploiting this privilege.
* In May 2017, national shooter Rocky Yadav was accused of killing a Gaya youth, using a weapon purchased on ‘sports quota’ licence.
* In April 2015, national-level trap shooter Najam Ahmad Khan was arrested in Bulandshahr for killing a blue bull.
* In 2011, Najam’s brother Mairaj Khan, an Olympian, was accused of allegedly poaching blackbucks.
“Mairaj was caught at IGI Airport when he was returning from an international shooting competition in a Gulf country. He was involved in poaching of blackbucks and other animals in Khurja, Bulandshahr, in 2011,” said Pandey, who was with the WCCB from 2008 to 2012.
In India, citizens can own and carry weapons but getting a gun licence can take years. In 1986, the central government banned the import of arms and ammunition — except for “renowned shooters”.
According to a Home Ministry notification dated October 19, 2007, a “renowned” shooter is a “person who has participated in National Shooting Championship…conducted in accordance with rules of the International Shooting Union and has attained minimum qualifying score prescribed by the National Rifle Association”.
Sport shooters are allowed to import up to 15,000 cartridges of ammunition per year and seven weapons — four related to the event and three others – duty-free.
In 2013, the Allahabad High Court banned the issuance of fresh arms licences in UP after finding there were no effective mechanisms and background checks. UP has almost half of total active gun licences. According to the home ministry, out of the 33,69,444 active gun licence holders as on December 31, 2016, 12,77,914 belonged to UP alone.
Sportspersons, meanwhile, continue to get permits. Coincidentally, there was a massive surge in the participation of shooters from UP in national shooting championships during this period. In 2017, out of the 4,500 participants in national championships, 783 were from UP. In 2018, 996 shooters turned up for a pre-nationals selection trial tournament from the state.
A DRI officer says some shooters deceive authorities while importing weapons. “While applying for the licence, they do not mention all details. They only mention details of the calibre. That means they can import sport or assault weapons of that calibre,” the officer said. “For a customs officer at the airport, it is practically impossible to inspect every weapon. Moreover, the models are not assembled, so identification gets even tougher.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, a big-bore rifle shooter from Muzaffarnagar admits to having once imported a semiautomatic rifle. “You can purchase a rifle for approximately Rs 2 lakh and sell it for Rs 10 lakh or more, depending on its quality,” claimed a member of the Muzaffarnagar rifle club.
In Meerut, a dealer claims he purchases surplus ammunition from sport shooters. “They can import 15,000 cartridges every year. Unless you are a top-level shooter, you won’t use all of it. So we buy the surplus and sell it in the black market,” the dealer said. The profit margins are high: An imported cartridge costs approximately Rs 25, is sold to a dealer for Rs 80-Rs 100 and re-sold for a higher rate.
In 2009, Maharashtra found national shooter Chandrakant Hargovindas Shah guilty of misusing his sports quota arms licence to sell and buy of arms and ammunition. That case forced the Sports Ministry to issue a notification on May 12, 2009, demanding that all “renowned shooters” file an “annual return” for holding and sale of weapons. However, a Sports Ministry official says such returns are hardly filed.
An official from the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) says they have cooperated with the investigating agencies. “There are a few bad apples but that doesn’t mean the entire system is rotten. We are likely to suspend Randhawa’s NRAI membership, as was the case with Bishnoi who has been blacklisted. But we have to wait for the court’s verdict,” the official said.