“How will having a gun in my purse protect me? And how will I even get enough money to buy one?” asks 26-year-old Laxmi. It was our seventh day in UP, and we had asked every woman we met about Nirbheek, a gun launched in 2014 specifically for Indian woman to “defend themselves” in light of the Nirbhaya incident.
Laxmi is a member of Lucknow’s Red Brigade, an organisation aimed at helping young girls figure out what constitutes, and later fight, sexual harassment. “Even if I was to have it, how will I afford such an expensive gun?” she says of the Rs 1 lakh+ priced Nirbheek.
Of all the woman we met in Uttar Pradesh—from Mirzapur, Benaras, Kanpur and Lucknow—none owned a Nirbheek, and most of them hadn’t even heard of it. Even Romila Singh, a Samajwadi Party member, and the only female gun dealer in Uttar Pradesh (UP has issued over a third of the total number of gun licenses in India) doesn’t sell it in her armoury. She didn’t care that the gun is made of a light titanium alloy and comes in a sweet velvet box, all designed specially for the ladies.
The problems around Nirbheek run deeper than the state’s years-long ban on issuing new gun licenses. It’s recently been promised to be reneged soon. As of July 2018, the Indian Ordnance Factory has sold just 3,000 Nirbheeks, of which just 100 approximately were sold to women.
In addition to low sales numbers, the gun has been mired in controversy from the start. “It's an insult to the memory of Nirbhaya,” says Binalakshmi Nepram, who founded the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network. “Our research shows that a person is 12 times more likely to be shot dead if they are carrying a gun when attacked. It also shows that the government of India has failed to protect women by resorting to this. Arming women is not a responsible way to secure their safety and security,” she adds.
According to a source from Kanpur’s Field Gun Factory, which manufactures the gun along with the Ordnance Factory, another reason for bad sales is the way it’s sold. The sale is held in a controlled fashion—i.e. the factory makes 1,000 pieces at a time and waits for requests to buy it. After receiving a request, they conduct a licence check which can take up to 60 days. Then the firearm is handed over. It’s cheaper to buy from the factory, sure, but it’s faster to buy it from outside.
Outside though, is a different story. According to Baljit Singh, who has been running Jot Armoury in Kanpur’s Gun Bazaar since 2000, the gun is too expensive. “We didn’t even buy it. The Rs 1.3-1.4 lakh price point is so expensive that there’s no point keeping it in stock.” When we asked him about female buyers, he said, “Kuchh nahi hai, saari farzi baatein hain (There is nothing for [female buyers], it’s all fake news) . If they want to make a gun for all women, make a .25 pistol, and sell it cheaper.” Other gun dealers in Kanpur, including bigwigs like PN Biswas and Company and Singh Armoury, reiterated the aforementioned stance, while adding that they haven't seen any women demanding the weapon.
The institutional ‘protection of women’ should be about creating stricter laws, and strive for a sociological and cultural change in the way boys are raised. It’s at least what Laxmi and others like her, who go to schools and colleges everyday in Lucknow to teach students about consent and a little martial arts, are hoping for.
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