In an otherwise depressed economy, you could call it a booming industry. On July 22, Jharkhand Police arrested Maoist leader Adesh ‘Mangra’ Ganjhu from the Serum forest in Latehar district. He was a big catch, but the arsenal he led the cops to was an even bigger surprise: 7,000 rounds of live cartridges, eight walkie-talkies, disassembled parts of sophisticated weapons, including AK-47 rifles. The real shocker, as superintendent of police (SP) Anjani Anjan describes it, was the seizure of 30 high-explosive (HE) hand grenades used only by the armed forces.
A month earlier, on June 23, the Gaya police had arrested another Maoist, Ashok Singh Bhokta, and seized two AK-series guns and nearly 800 live rounds from him. In ordinary circumstances, the seizures would have raised a discomfiting question: where are the Maoists sourcing sophisticated weapons from? Except, they only seem to be dipping into a common resource pool.
Proof came, strikingly enough, during the July 18 presidential election. There happened to be one vote that could not be cast: that of Anant Singh, a five-time MLA from Mokama, Bihar. The RJD lawmaker had just been disqualified three days before, on July 15, following conviction in an Arms Act case. An AK-47 rifle, cartridges and two grenades had been recovered from his home in Ladma village near Patna in August 2019. Singh has got a 10-year jail term—incidentally, the bahubali’s first conviction, although he has over two dozen cases of extortion, attempt to murder and criminal conspiracy registered against him.
A lawmaker has no business owning prohibited arms. But in Bihar’s political circles, it elicits no great moral horror. “We’ve seen many political murders done with AK-series rifles. Sometimes you keep those too for safety,” says a leader, naturally preferring anonymity. In Bihar, depending on your contacts, a ‘local’ AK-47 is available for anything from Rs 1-3 lakh. Indeed, across India, be it the Maoists of Jharkhand, the
gangs of Punjab, UP’s mafiosi or Tamil Nadu poachers, there seems to exist a parallel bazaar where sophisticated firearms are sloshing around. The striking fact about the May 29 murder of Punjab singer Sidhu Moosewala was the gun: a Russia-make AN-94 assault rifle, rare even in Russia and used only by its elite forces. But that’s an extreme case. Pilferage from domestic sources is more common: the Maoists, for one, were found to be procuring their booty from paramilitary armouries. A May 11 NIA chargesheet had already traced the supply lines to an officer, Kartik Behera, skimming off the BSF. And where you can’t get the real thing, there’s always the trusted Indian DIY version.
THE ILLEGAL FACTORIES
On July 10, when an illegal firearms factory was busted and semi-finished arms seized in Uttar Pradesh’s Mainpuri district, the police discovered Biharbased gang members operating from there. Earlier, in April, a similar illegal gun factory was busted in Jharkhand’s
Dumka district. Those arrested once again revealed their links to Bihar. In November 2021, a much bigger illegal arms manufacturing unit was busted in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district. Apart from the famous Munger gunsmiths in Bihar, a community around Khargone in MP is also well known for manufacturing high-quality illegal guns. The police busted six illegal arms factories in Khargone in April after violence during Ramnavami celebrations.
The statistics bring out a disturbing trend. Some 74,581 firearms were seized in 2020—almost 99 per cent (73,169) unlicensed, according to the National Crimes Records Bureau. In fact, the number of illegal firearms cases went up from 38,855 in 2018 to 44,394 in 2020. The states that lag behind in all other indices top the charts here: UP alone accounted for over half the cases (26,305), followed by MP (3,246), Bihar (3,166) and Rajasthan (2,458). Some 162 illegal gun factories have been exposed in the past five years. With raids and increased surveillance, many gunmaking units from Munger have shifted to Jharkhand (which explains the busts there, says a senior police officer)—besides West Bengal and UP. Clearly, demand is universally on the rise.
The growth in this grey market is not just about numbers: it comes with a concomitant internal variegation, an expansion in the range of goods available. The cost of illegal firearms depends on the model and quality. A country-made pistol (katta) is the cheapest at Rs 5,000-7,000 while a knockoff of an AK-47 or a carbine can cost a few lakhs. Over the years, the booming demand has resulted in manufacturers improving on the rusty designs peddled earlier. Police officers in Patna say the ‘desi katta’ is no longer a valid term. Earlier, the katta, a singleshot weapon with a basic barrel and a trigger mechanism, was famously temperamental—becoming unsalvageable after a few rounds of firing. But now, gunsmiths use sophisticated machines in illegal factories to create much better firearms. Automatics with magazines are the ‘high-demand’ weapons.
As for ammunition, at least a part of it is blamed on rogue elements at central ordnance factories, who smuggle out large consignments regularly. In 2021, after another bust, Purshottam Lal Rajak, an ex-armourer of the Central Ordnance Depot (COD), Jabalpur, MP, was identified as the kingpin of a gunrunning racket. Some 22 AK-47s were recovered from him. How many had already made their way, via arms smugglers, to Maoists and garden-variety criminals? Your guess would be as good as that of the police. Clearly, we’ve only seen the tip of the barrel. ■
IN BIHAR, DEPENDING ON YOUR CONTACTS, A DESI SPINOFF OF AN AK-47 CAN BE PROCURED FOR ANYTHING FROM `1-3 LAKH