Munna Shukla’s* light-brown eyes glint when he talks about his aspirations of being an athlete as a teenager. He recounts, with special fondness, running for hours on stretch, skipping classes for sports activities and winning laurels for his school, college and district. At one point, he was selected for the Indian Army, but chose not to take on the opportunity. “Bas shauk nahi tha army mein jaane ka (I was not interested in joining the army),” says the tall, heavily-built gun smuggler with oiled hair, as he pours whiskey in a plastic glass at his home in Bihar’s Munger, where alcohol was banned a couple of years ago.
Shukla was born to a poor farmer, who got wealthy by getting government tenders through his connections. As I gaze at his under-construction home, a vast garden and the neighborhood kids playing in a badminton court, he talks about the kind of poverty he saw as a child. “It was not rare for my family to wait for papa to come back with money, so that food could be cooked,” he says.
Shukla is 35 and is a Baahubali—someone who hangs around with local politicians and corrupt bureaucrats, does ‘odd jobs’ for them, and keeps both, goons and cops on his payroll. A primary source of his income is stone mining from the hilly terrain (before the government clamped down on it) and illegal sand mining from the Ganga river. However, it is his association with the illegal gun trade of Munger that is currently causing him sleepless nights.
When I meet him, he is under investigation from the state police for his alleged connection with the infamous AK-47 smuggling racket in Munger, which created national headlines for the involvement of cops, teachers and army personnel in supplying country-made Kalashnikovs to criminals.
Munger (or Monghyr) has been a seat of power in Bihar apparently since the times of the Mahabharata, becoming the capital of Nawab Mir Kasim Ali in the 18th century, and later, an important cantonment under the British. Under the colonial rule, it rose to become a centre of arsenal making, but presently, is known to be the biggest hub of illegal gun trade in India. It’s in the villages of Munger that kattas (homemade guns), duplicate pistols, revolvers and even assault rifles are made and smuggled all over Bihar, and even nearby countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. The sleepy and quiet city is the primary market of guns to keep alive Bihar’s violent electoral politics and criminal gangs.
Illegal manufacturing started locally after government’s gun units gradually shut down after India’s independence, leading to several expert gunmakers becoming unemployed. Many of them secretly began manufacturing guns at their homes, teaching the craft to others and leading to the eventual proliferation of Munger’s underground industry. “With no jobs, what would our youth do if not make arms? In many villages, even children are trained in the craft. Pet to paalna hai na sabko (everyone needs to earn),” Shukla says. According to him, entire families and villages are involved, with incomes of upto 10-15 times of what they would otherwise earn. “A katta is sold for around Rs 5,000 ($70 USD), a pistol for Rs 35,000 ($490 USD) and a Beretta copy for Rs 80,000 ($1,120 USD). I just buy from villagers and sell to big players at a margin.”
The returns are enormous for workers and suppliers alike. “Even if they sell a pistol for Rs 20,000 ($280 USD) every week, their monthly income is Rs 70,000-80,000 ($983 to $1,123 USD). Instead, if they work as an honest laborer, they’d earn just Rs 250 ($3.50 USD) daily.” He says many young boys are now so skilled that they can make an AK-47 prototype just by looking at the design once, often ending up making guns that even legit Indian gun factories don’t. “You bring any Chinese gun or a even a Kalashnikov to them, and they can replicate it to be one as good as the original. People in Russia make AK-47s from machines. Here, we make it using our hands. Without any education.”
Even with the new technology, Munger’s most popular product is still the good, old desi katta. According to Shukla, the body of a katta is made with raw iron using a metal remodeling unit, barreled up with a metal pipe often sourced from plumbers. A laborer (ghasiyara) scrubs the edges to give it the perfect shape, while another works to insert the repeater and the trigger in the body. “A guy checks every gun by firing them, a risky job. In the end, a katta is good for not more than 200 rounds.” This is the reason why many now opt for costlier, more dependable guns.
Recently, Shukla met a guy who made an Italian Beretta in front of him in an hour. “The market rate is Rs 3.5 lakh, but ours is just 80,000. As good as the original.” The price was been on the higher side since late 2018 due to the increased police interference after the AK-47 racket. Since then, Shukla has kept a low profile, putting off several orders due to the surveillance.
“Where do you think the material for assault gun comes from? AK-47 ka daana kahan se aayega, socho? (Where will I get bullets for AK-47?),” Shukla asks me. I shrug. “It comes from cantonment areas and arms factories.” His agents buy the stuff from mostly low-level workers in the armed forces, who are paid handsomely. “Ab 9mm ka dana aam aadmi ke paas toh hoga nahi na? (The common man won’t have 9mm bullets, right?)." Another reason, for the proliferation of illegal guns is Bihar, he adds, is new gun licences not being issued. “I haven’t seen anyone in the last decade getting a licence until and unless he is a sportsman or has a deep source in the ministry.”
The operations are supported by a dedicated supply and transport network which delivers merchandise to anyone who is ready to pay—politicians, criminals or militants in neighboring countries. “In every single village in the Munger district, there is an agent who delivers guns to who wants it. They keep a low profile and won’t get into unnecessary conflicts.” The guns are moved mostly through agents traveling in railways and if the client is a big one, in cars. The payment is strictly in cash and through hawala channels.
During our conversation, an errand boy brings a plate of chicken rice and another bottle of whiskey. As plastic glasses are refilled, Shukla receives a call. A journalist from a local Hindi newspaper has called to wish him for the new year. “A treat is due on you,” says Shukla, inviting the scribe home. “Let me give you a headline for tomorrow’s paper: Daaru peekar sab mast hain, Nitish Kumar past hain. (Everything is fine after drinking alcohol, Nitish Kumar is in the past). ” He then laughs for a minute before putting the phone down.
Shukla blames politicians, poverty and the lack of development in Munger for the people turning towards crime. “There is terrible road connectivity, and no new factories or opportunities in this once-powerful town. Munger ko kaat ke kasba bana diya saalon ne. (The bastards have turned Munger into a village by dividing it).” As he pours one more glass, I bid Shukla farewell. “Do you think the gun business would have prospered here if the big players didn’t want it to? Par badnaam toh hum hain na? (But it’s us who have a bad reputation, no?).”
*Name changed to protect identity.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.