New Delhi: For the past two months, Manipur has been engulfed in the flames of a fierce ethnic conflict between the Kuki and Meitei communities that has resulted in the deaths of at least 142 people. Both communities are pointing fingers at each other, alleging the use of firearms.
This reporter, during a visit to Manipur, witnessed several people carrying firearms. When asked about it, they claimed legal ownership of their weapons, contrasting it with the other community’s lack of possession of licences.
Intrigued by this prevailing gun culture, The Wire embarked on an investigation. Queries filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act reveal that Manipur has granted the highest number of gun licences in the northeast region over the past seven years.
The Wire asked the Ministry of Home Affairs two questions:
Year-wise data: The number of individuals holding licenced guns in each state of the country. Please provide the data for each state separately, indicating the total number of licenced gun holders in that state for each respective year.
Categorisation of gun licences: If available, please provide information regarding the categorisation of gun licences, such as licences for self-defence, professional requirements, sports shooting, etc., and the number of licences issued in each category, state-wise.
However, a response was received only about the data for gun licences issued in each state. It showed that as of June 20 this year, there were 37.7 lakh active gun licences. This is over 4 lakhs more than the licences that were active in December 2016 – when data was last made publicly available.
As per the updated data, there are 35,117 active gun licences in Manipur. This is up from 26,836 in December 2016.
The BJP government led by N. Biren Singh came to power in March 2017. Coincidentally, since then, around 8,000 gun licences have been issued.
In the Northeast, only Nagaland has a comparable growth in gun licences – although more licences were granted in Manipur. Overall, Nagaland has the highest number of active gun licences in the Northeast. the updated data shows.
Gun ownership in India is strictly regulated. To own arms legally, citizens must first apply for a licence and there are several rules and regulations that govern the process.
Speaking to The Wire, former Manipur police commissioner Raj Kumar Nimai raised a concern surrounding the data. “The figure of 8,000 weapons [licences] issued in just five years is quite staggering, and [district collectors or magistrates] can’t issue weapons in such capacity without letting the state know. If this has happened, then there must have been pressure on the collectors from the authorities,” he said.
“If the government is not very keen, then no collector will issue licences at that level,” he added.
Former DGP of Assam G.M. Srivastava said, “All weapons can’t be licensed, there must have been a supply from China and Myanmar. Not from the Myanmar government but from a group in Myanmar; China has an interest in Northeast not from now but from 1947.”
Concerns about gun ownership
Currently, Biren Singh also holds the portfolio of home in the state, to whom district collectors report.
During the Budget Session earlier this year, Singh said that around “10 violent cases including human casualties using licensed guns” were reported in the state in the past two or three years. He was responding to Kuki MLAs Vungzagin Valte and Paolienlal Haokip about the Churachandpur district magistrate asking people to submit arms licences along with the arms.
The MLAs were insinuating that the scrutiny was underway only in Churachandpur, a Kuki-majority district, but Singh claimed later that the process was initiated across the state. “The state government has launched these measures to curb and prevent incidents of gun-related violence and to ensure that the rule of law prevails in the state,” he said.
He asked district magistrates and superintendents of police to “examine the purpose carefully before issuing an arms license” and asked arms license holders to renew their licenses, or their arms would be considered illegal.
Since the ongoing violence in the state began, drop boxes have been installed in several places for people to return weapons and ammunition that were looted or snatched from police stations. Minister L. Susindro Meitei, has installed a drop box at his residence in Khurai, Imphal East, inviting people to return stolen weapons.
The Wire has reported from the ground about individuals freely carrying sophisticated firearms. FIRs seen by The Wire indicated the loot of sophisticated weapons like AK and INSAS rifles, bombs and other weapons.
According to the state police’s estimates, at least 3,500 weapons and over 5,00,000 rounds of ammunition were stolen by mobs in May. Reports had suggested by late June, 1,800 weapons had been recovered.
Since the violence began, there has also been a surge in applications for gun licences. An official told Scroll, “Usually, the average applications we receive in a month is not more than 50. Since the incident, we have received at least 300.” Officials also told the news website that though there was a surge in applications, new licenses were not being granted.
This week, the Supreme Court questioned the Manipur government, referring to media reports, about the purloining of a “large number of weapons” from police stations.