Guns and Indians

The right to bear arms was dropped from India’s Constitution. It has come up for discussion again in the assembly


Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Yet another mass shooting in the US. And yet another week spent by this author trying to make sense of gun politics in the US.

Only to find that one of the great men of history often quoted by supporters of the US gun lobby is Mahatma Gandhi. And they don’t quote him as an enemy of the movement, as you might presume, but as a someone whose writings and sayings support the cause of the right to bear arms.

Mind you, a selective reading of Gandhi’s collected works does, in fact, present a good case for the pro-gun lobby. In more than one place, Gandhi can be seen asking the British to give Indians the freedom to bear arms.

For instance, on 2 March 1930, Gandhi sent a letter to Lord Irwin from his ashram on the Sabarmati. The letter was sent shortly before the Civil Disobedience Movement and Gandhi wished to “fain approach you and find a way out” of the impending impasse. In the letter, Gandhi explains why he regarded British rule as a curse: “It has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation and by a ruinously expensive military and civil administration which the country can never afford. It has reduced us politically to serfdom. It has sapped the foundations of our culture. And, by the policy of cruel disarmament, it has degraded us spiritually. Lacking the inward strength, we have been reduced, by all but universal disarmament, to a state bordering on cowardly helplessness.”

This letter to Irwin came just a day or two after Gandhi wrote an article in Young India with his list of demands from the British—the famous “Eleven Points”. These included: total prohibition, abolition of the salt tax, reduction of the military expenditure to at least 50% to begin with, and, the last one: “Issue of licenses to use firearms for self-defence subject to popular control.”

At the time, Indians were subject to the highly restrictive terms of the Indian Arms Act, 1878. This Act was one of many oppressive, imperialist laws that Gandhi and many other Indian leaders sought to get independence from. Indeed, there were specific satyagrahas held against the Arms Act.

Gandhi’s engagement with Irwin was not a thumping success. Only a fraction of his demands were met. And in return, Gandhi was allowed to participate in a series of conferences in London that, to great British delight, ended badly for him. Nonetheless, Gandhi and other Congress leaders persisted with their struggle for freedom. Around a year later, in March 1931, at the Karachi session of the Congress, a “Resolution On Fundamental Rights And Economic Changes” was adopted. It was, as constitutional historian Granville Austin calls it, “both a declaration of rights and a humanitarian socialist manifesto”.

This is a landmark, if neglected, document that Austin suggests deeply influenced the Indian Constitution. It states, a decade and a half before independence, a commitment to free speech, free press, religious neutrality, adult suffrage and free primary education. And in the Karachi resolution, listed under the first section on fundamental rights of the people, is the “right to keep and bear arms in accordance with regulations and reservations made in that behalf.”

But turn to the Indian Constitution and there is no mention of this right. In fact, the oppressive Indian Arms Act of 1878 was only replaced with a new one as late as 1959. So, what happened? Why did the founders suddenly lose interest in a “fundamental right” that they were so passionate about for decades preceding freedom? To understand this, we need to appreciate the context in which members of India’s constituent assembly had to work. In early 1947, a sub-committee had drawn up a list of fundamental rights that included the right to bear arms. This list was then sent to an advisory committee, chaired by Sardar Patel, that met in Delhi on 21 and 22 April 1947.

In the months leading up to that meeting, appalling communal violence had left hundreds dead in Bengal and Punjab. Partition seemed imminent and Patel, perhaps, had all but given up hope of a unified subcontinent.

Delhi itself was under curfew as Patel and the others met. And as they looked at the carnage around them, they appeared to have lost appetite for gun rights. Syama Prasad Mookerjee wanted to keep it in the list. But Patel refused: “In the present state of our society (this) will be a dangerous thing.” A suggestion to leave it to individual states was shot down by B.R. Ambedkar, who warned that states might go to war with each other.

Thus the right to bear arms was dropped from India’s Constitution. It came up for discussion again in the assembly. H.V. Kamath, the member for Central Provinces and Berar, delivered a rather passionate defence of the right in December 1948. But there was little real enthusiasm. Colonial gun laws remained untouched for another decade.

Meanwhile, on 30 January 1948, the man who spent years asking for Indians to be given the right to bear arms was shot in the chest three times with a Beretta M1934 pistol. By an Indian.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

Comment at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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