Meltdown or no meltdown, it is a well-known fact that come election time and gunmen’s fancy shall turn to thoughts of tamanchas.
Tamanchas (also known as desi katta, a locally made gun) are, as a friend put it, fully illegal and indigenous weapons that are western Uttar Pradesh’s swadeshi gift to the nation. Priced anywhere between Rs500 and Rs1,000, depending on the quality, this weapon can be bought easily in the grey markets in UP, Delhi and Mumbai.
In the 19th century, there was a gangsters’ moll by the name of Tamancha Jaan, as famous for her mellifluous singing as for her prowess with firearms. And, in the early years of the 20th century, a whip-cracking Jewish beauty, called Fearless Nadia, shot to fame in Hindi films by brandishing a tamancha in the face of various white and non-white bullies.
As a weapon used frequently by seasoned gangsters, rural farmers and some daredevil beauties, tamancha has been immortalized by Mumbai films and pulp fiction writers in Hindi for decades. Locally manufactured firearms have a long history in north-western India. We are told that the tamancha was invented by ironsmiths in the industrial belt between Meerut to Bareilly and Rampur. These were craftsmen whose forefathers had crafted daggers and firearms for the Syeds, Lodis, Pathans and Moghuls, and knew all there is to know about smelting, welding and forging weaponry. But as the British routed the old rulers and hanged or shot the local bandits, these families took to crafting peace-time implements for farming communities in the area. The area then became famous for crafting the best scissors, knives, locks and various tools.
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After independence, the Green Revolution came to the area and prosperity followed. Since the belt has always had a predilection for revenge killings, money helped create a high concentration of criminals and an equally high demand for cheap and disposable firearms.
The ironsmiths now chose to turn their skilled hands to gun-making, and today, the market for indigenously manufactured firearms in the whole region is booming. Tamancha, panchfera (that fires five bullets), desi rifle, revolver—all are available locally for a fraction of the price of the real thing. The makers say they need no publicity. Their clients seek them out through special agents and they are paid money in advance.
Profits are high as each tamancha costs them roughly Rs250 to manufacture and is sold for twice as much at least. The gunsmiths make something like Rs1 lakh a month on an average. During elections, profits rise as they receive bulk orders and must work with a team to meet deadlines.
This industry exists in both urban and rural areas, but given a skimpy presence of the police in the rural hinterland, most factories function from nearby villages and employ hundreds. The villagers are also avid buyers of firearms in this region. Everyone here who must guard his crops and share in irrigation waters and travel to cities every now and then carrying cash, sports a tamancha. And having a gun under your pillow is considered a style statement in villages.
In cities, hardened criminals prefer a tamancha to any other hand-held weapon because it seldom jams and misses a target. Many may have an arsenal of imported weapons, but still like to have their trusted tamancha by. Most criminal acts, according to the police in western UP, are committed with this weapon. In case of police raids and during chase, it is easy to abandon this unlicensed weapon since it cannot be traced back to the owner.
The police is not a problem but an integral part of the business, according to knowledgeable sources. The manufacturers claim they need to give a regular cut to local authorities who thereafter turn a blind eye to the trade. Occasionally, the police may also procure kattas or tamanchas from these factories. These are then “planted” during raids.
Meerut Kotwali, Sohrab Gate, Islamabad, Sardhana, Ganeshpur, Khurja, Dadri, Ghaziabad, Muzaffarnagar, Budhana, Shamli and Saharanpur areas are said to have thriving factories. In 2008, the police apprehended 2,213 people in Meerut, 3,369 in Ghaziabad, 1,700 in Bulandshahar, 2,165 in Gautam Buddha Nagar, 592 in Baghpat, 1,571 in Saharanpur and 1,604 in Muzaffarnagar for keeping illegal arms. But it is said that it is impossible to gauge the actual number of desi kattas, tamanchas in the entire belt that are as easy to buy as roasted peanuts.
When Hindustan sent a correspondent to one such village near Lawad, he found that various parts of .12 and .315 bore tamanchas were being manufactured in bulk on the outskirts of the village, on lathes under one craftsman addressed as masterji. It was he who finally welded the various finished parts (including the sturdy barrels made out of steering rods), and having finished the weapon, gave it to a team for test-firing.
Six tamanchas could be produced, he told the correspondent, in under 2 hours in his factory. He had learnt the art some 25 years ago and was now so experienced in crafting firearms that given a sample, he could create a copy of any sort of gun within two weeks.
It may be a crime in the eyes of some, masterji said philosophically, but he considered himself an honourable man who was bringing up a family on his hard-earned wages.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at the firstname.lastname@example.org