In response to the highly publicized gang-rape (and subsequent death) of a young Indian woman on a private bus, hundreds of women in Delhi have applied for gun permits for self-defense and protection from predatory men.
Even before this particularly tragic incident, guns – both legal and illegal – proliferated across the width and breadth of India, particularly in dangerous cities like Delhi, where rising violent crime and declining confidence in the police and courts have increased the demand for private gun ownership.
But the brutal attack on the 23-year-old medical student has unleashed not only massive public demonstrations of outrage against India’s patriarchal attitudes towards women, but also sparked calls for tougher punishment against sex criminals and a greater guarantees of personal security.
Declarations by politicians that they will speed the litigation process against violent criminals and beef up police patrols have failed to assuage many women who now seek to take matters into their own hands.
The Guardian newspaper of Britain reported that between Dec. 18 (two days after the gang-rape in the bus) and the New Year, Delhi police received nearly 300 formal applications for gun permits from women and four times as many other inquiries for firearms.
“We have received over 1,200 calls since that day,” a Delhi police officer told the Times of India.
“These include not only the average working woman, but even students who travel long distances to colleges and even their concerned parents. They were eager to find out more on the procedure to acquire arms.”
In all of 2011, the department fielded only 500 such applications, and 320 for the entire prior year.
Hundreds of women came to the police in person to file for gun permits, reported the Times of India. With more women joining the workforce of a buoyant economy – thereby making them visible targets for predatory men – more guns are falling into female hands.
"We had to patiently tell [female gun applicants] that one needs to have a clear danger to one's life to be given a license. However some … said that with even public transport no longer safe in the city they just cannot take chances," a police official told the Times.
Despite its global image as the home of the peace-loving Mahatma Gandhi, India has a vibrant gun culture.
"Lots of women have been contacting us asking for information about how to obtain licenses,” Abhijeet Singh of the pro-gun group Guns For India told the Guardian.
“Any woman has a threat against her. It's not surprising. There are fearless predators out there."
According to reports, India boasts an estimated 40 million guns in private hands, the majority of them illegally acquired due to strict gun control laws – second only to the United States. However, given India’s huge population, the per-capita rate of ownership is quite low.
Still, studies suggest that even before the Dec. 16 gang-rape, more Indians were gravitating towards purchasing weapons for self-protection, including many women.
Dr. Harveen Kaur Sidhu, who lives in an affluent neighborhood in the city of Chandigarh in Punjab, is one such lady gun owner.
“I don’t have faith in the police to protect me,” she told The Guardian last spring.
“There are so many attacks on women these days. It’s everybody’s right to defend themselves. I think all women who are vulnerable should be carrying guns.”
Typically, about one-fifth of all gun applicants are women, the Times of India reported – but since the Dec. 16 gang-rape, that proportion has spiked to more than one-third.
The National Association for Gun Rights India claims, however, that the authorities put up obstacles to women acquiring firearms. For one thing, most gun permit applications are rejected by police, usually citing a lack of proven threats and grave danger to the applicant.
“Men are issued more gun licenses than women in Delhi even if the latter have genuine reasons to apply for them,” a member of the association told Indian media.
“The fact that even parents are ready to hand over weapons to their daughters shows they are living in fear. There is a 20 percent increase in self-defense courses across the city.”
Consequently, the illegal underground market for guns is flourishing. GunPolicy.org estimates that nearly 34 million of the 40 million guns circulating around India are unregistered.
Rakshit Sharma, secretary-general of the National Association for Gun Rights India, complained to Gulf News: “We advocate safe gun handling. The law basically states that any Indian of sound mind, good character, with no criminal record and a safe place to keep the weapon can get a license. But when you try to apply for one, it is almost impossible to get it. This happens in 99 per cent of the cases. Why is the government trying to take the gun out of the hands of the legal gun owner? Criminals don’t apply for gun licenses; they go to the [black] market.”
Indian media also reported that young women across India (who cannot easily acquire firearms) are stocking up on such crime deterrents as pepper spray, stun guns and Tasers.
Overall, though, gun crime remains quite rare in India.
The National Crime Records Bureau of India recorded 5,575 gun-related homicides in 2010 -- of this figure, an extraordinary 89 percent (4,988) were by illegal or unlicensed weapons. In contrast, the United States, which has one-fourth of India’s population, recorded 12,664 murders in 2011, of which 8,583 were caused by guns.
Sharma of NAGRI added: “Gun laws in India are very strict, but when a common citizen applies for a license, he is almost treated like a criminal… If you are a farmer living on an isolated farm or a woman in Delhi who is at risk … do you have to prove a specific threat? This is absurd. So you have to be raped, looted or killed to be given a license? The politicians, however, get all the security they need. I think if legal gun ownership is encouraged, crime will come down. No criminals will go into places where they know there are gun owners. They will face armed resistance, which is a great deterrence. Pepper spray is not going to work if the wind is in the wrong direction.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.