By Biswajeet Banerjee
KANPUR: Ram Singh sits in his makeshift workshop in northern India turning bits of pipe and scrap metal into the latest must-have election accessory — a homemade gun.
As Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian state infamous for lawlessness and political violence, heads to the polls next month, demand for guns, particularly cheap, bootleg types known locally as country-made guns, has soared, police and illegal manufacturers said Tuesday.
“We love elections and elections are always a busy time for us,” said Singh, sitting in his illegal workshop hidden in a dusty village on the outskirts of Kanpur, 85 kilometers (52 miles) south of Lucknow, the state capital.
“Demand for country-made guns goes up all of a sudden,” he said, hunched over his workbench, wearing a dirty vest and a loose cloth around his waist.
Elections here are conducted, at least on the surface, much the way campaigns are held in democracies across the world — parties campaign over issues such as rising prices, corruption and benefits to farmers.
But politics in this Indian state and a handful of others are dominated by local strongmen who often use thugs to intimidate rivals’ supporters. At least eight people were killed in Uttar Pradesh’s last state elections in 2002.
In the current state assembly, 92 of the 403 members are facing criminal charges including murder and kidnapping.
“Guns are used as status symbols during elections, all these guns are not necessarily licensed ones,” said Madhukar Srivastava, a senior state police official. “The majority of them are illegal and country-made,” he said.
Singh said he had orders to make more than 100 guns in the next two weeks and has had to hire two assistants to meet the demand.
The chief attraction of homemade guns is the price.
A basic pistol — no more than a pipe with a spring trigger mechanism — sells for as little as Rs300, while a rifle with a steel barrel sells for Rs1,600.
Police said they have launched a crackdown on illegal weapons, shutting down seven illegal factories and arresting 13 people in recent months.
However, Singh, who has been in business for more than 25 years, said he survives by shifting his little workshop from village to village and bribing local police to turn a blind eye.