This is a representative image of a handgun.
Handgun Reuters

The Indian government has introduced a new lightweight handgun designed for women to protect themselves from rape and sexual assault. To emphasize the intent of the program, the .32-caliber pistol is named “Nirbheek,” a synonym for “Nirbhaya,” the nickname bestowed upon the young medical student whose gang-rape in a Delhi bus in late 2012 and subsequent death triggered massive protests against the country’s attitudes towards females and the deeply entrenched “culture or rape.” Both “Nirbhaya” and “Nirbheek” mean “fearless” in the Hindi language, strongly suggesting the underlying motivation for the pistol’s emergence.

The gun launch – as well as naming the weapon after the rape victim – has elicited both approval and outrage from across the nation. Not only is the gun specifically geared for women (although men may also purchase it), but it is also packaged in an attractive maroon-colored jewelry case (raising complaints from some quarters that the government is actively patronizing women by marketing a deadly weapon like a fashion accessory). "[The Nihrbeek gun is] small, it's lightweight, it weighs only 500 grams [1.1 lbs.], and it can easily fit into a lady's purse," Abdul Hameed, the general manager of the state-owned Indian Ordnance Factory, which manufactures the weapon in the northern city of Kanpur, told the BBC. He also praised the gun’s "special titanium alloy body, the pleasing-to-the-eye wooden handle." "The six-shot gun is easy to handle and it can hit its target accurately up to 15 meters [49 feet]," he added. Referring to the gun’s appealing package, Hameed commented that "Indian women like their ornaments.”

With respect to the gun's controversial name, Hameed explained: "We generally ask our employees to suggest names for new products. We received a lot of suggestions and decided on Nirbheek. We believe that women who carry this gun will feel fearless.”

Ram Krishna Chaturvedi, the police chief of Kanpur, also endorses the gun program. "It is definitely a good idea,” he told the BBC. If you have a licensed weapon, it increases your self-confidence and creates fear in the minds of criminals.” Pratibha Gupta, a Kanpur housewife and student, would like to purchase the weapon. "If the person in front of me knows that I have a gun, he will hesitate to touch me, he will know that since she has a gun, she can use it too,” she said. “The gun will be my supporter, my friend and my strength."

But Nirbheek does not come cheap – the gun is priced at 122,360 rupees (about $2,000). To put that figure in perspective, consider that during 2011-12, the per capita income in Delhi (a city with a notorious reputation for sexual violence against women) was $3,624, meaning the sales of the gun would be restricted to the middle and upper classes. Presumably, the unfortunate young lady who posthumously gave her name to the gun could not have afforded one.

The lofty price is not the only issue related to the gun that has outraged and appalled critics of the program, particularly women's rights activists. "I am horrified, shocked and angered," Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of the Women Gun Survivors Network in the state of Manipur in India's northeast, told the BBC. "It's ridiculous that the state is talking about arming women... The authorities saying, 'Hey, [lady], come there's a new gun for you which will make you safer,' is an admission of failure on their part."

As in the U.S., gun control groups in India assert that possession of weapons among the public only creates more violence, rather than preventing such acts. "Our research shows that a person is 12 times more likely to be shot dead if they are carrying a gun when attacked," Nepram added. "In India, the annual income of most people is less than the cost of the gun. So to suggest that this gun will make women safer is bizarre."

Nepram further told CNN that guns will not help protect Indian women. "We do not believe the gun is a solution to ending sexual violence," she declared. "The government is introducing expensive weaponry to sit in handbags. It's an abhorrence to women.”

Ruchitra Gupta, a women's rights activist and founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, also condemned the new gun. "Nirbhaya was a victim of violence caused by a desire of six men to project their masculinity through domination,” she told CNN. “Ultimately we have to challenge the culture of domination and violence through non-violence, not through introducing more tools of violence.”

Westerners may be surprised to learn that India – the land of Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga, sadhus and Mahatma Gandhi – already boasts a huge and vibrant gun culture. Indeed, estimated that some 40 million guns currently circulate in India, the overwhelming majority of them (33.7 million) held illegally. Moreover, India has more guns in private hands than any country on earth, except the U.S. But, due to India's huge population, gun ownership rates and gun crimes remain quite low. 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 U.S., which has one-fourth of India’s population, recorded 12,664 murders in 2011, of which 8,583 were caused by guns.

Also, unlike in the U.S., legally acquiring a gun in India is not easy – aside from the exorbitant cost, applicants need to acquire a license, offer a written explanation for why they require a weapon, and undergo thorough background checks as well as a medical examination. Successful candidates must also possess a spotless record, and even after all these conditions, they may purchase only a handgun, no automatic weapons. Moreover, virtually all public places in India – offices, shopping malls, markets and cinemas – are designated “gun-free zones.” Thus, given that the Delhi gang-rape victim suffered her tragedy on a bus on her way home from the movies at a mall, she could not have legally carried a gun during her evening out. (Indeed, had she shot her attackers and survived the assault, she might have even been subject to arrest herself).

Anita Dua, a women's rights activist in Kanpur, told the BBC that she carries a revolver for personal safety. "But I'm not allowed to carry it to most places, so it just remains, locked up in my house, gathering dust," she said. Indeed, gun licenses are rarely handed out and usually only to wealthy, powerful men. “Poor women in India are unlikely to have the means or the access to own a gun," Ruchira Gupta told CNN.

Indeed, Indian women lack any significant history of gun ownership. Manjit Singh, a man whose family owns five gun shops in Kanpur, explained to BBC that women in the country simply do not carry weapons – and if they possess any in their homes, they probably inherited them from their fathers or husbands. "No woman in India carries a gun. I've never seen it in my life," he said. "In the last 10 years, we've seen maybe one or two women who've come to our shop for a gun. Women possess licenses; in my home there are six women and they all have licenses and they all have guns, but they have been bought by the men in the house."

Still, studies suggest that even before the December 2012 gang-rape, more Indians were gravitating toward purchasing weapons for self-protection, including many women, in response to rising violent crime, itself a manifestation of rapid urbanization in the country. 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. “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.”

Rakshit Sharma, secretary-general of the National Association for Gun Rights India, explained 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.

Like many members of the National Rifle Association in the U.S., Sharma of NAGRI declared that average citizens in India have the right to arm themselves and that politicians (most of whom have heavily armed bodyguards) are practicing a gross form of hypocrisy. “Gun laws in India are very strict, but when a common citizen applies for a license, he is almost treated like a criminal,” he complained. “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.”