Kashmir gun makers struggle for survival

Government regulations and security fears are choking the once thriving industry in India-administered Kashmir.

Mohammad Amin, one of the last gunsmiths, says the craft is gasping for breath [Wasim Khalid/Al Jazeera]

Baramulla, India-administered Kashmir  Gun shops here face a bleak future as the government takes aim at a trade once synonymous with quality craftsmanship.

Tighter regulations on civilians buying guns in the Himalayan valley disputed by India and Pakistan since 1947 have, in recent years, left gun makers struggling for survival.

Security concerns fuelled by the 25-year rebellion in the region, stricter rules on testing firearms, and a shrinking pool of local craftsmen have added to the pessimism in the industry.

“I had to knock on the doors of influential bureaucrats and ministers to acquire a licence,” said local gunsmith Shafiat Hussain. “Now that I have it, nobody turns up to buy guns except retired soldiers. In all truth, I have resigned myself to a long wait for my business to close.”

Growing regulation

Hussain, in his mid-40s and sporting an unkempt beard, sees a bleak future for his gun shop in Baramulla, 55km north of main city Srinagar, surrounded by rocky mountains with Indian army posts.

It took him years of hard work to obtain a licence to sell guns but he believes it has now turned out to be waste of time – he has had just two customers in the last two months.

More than 20 gun makers operated in Srinagar before 1947 but today there are just two – Subhana and Sons and the Zaroo Gun Factory – producing 12-bore, single and double-barrel shotguns used mostly for hunting.

Kashmir’s gun industry came under intense scrutiny during 1990 when a rebellion against Indian rule erupted across the disputed region.

Authorities banned gun manufacturing for two years, revoking the ban later on the condition that traders would scale down gun manufacturing. Subhana and Sons used to produce 700 guns annually but are now allocated a quota of only 300, while Zaroo is permitted to make only 540.

In the heart of Srinagar’s old district of Rainawari, the Subhana and Sons factory, founded in 1943, has had to close after the government stopped granting gun licences to civilians.

“The government has given no reasons over why the licenses to civilians are being withheld,” owner Mohammad Yaqoob Ahangar told Al Jazeera.

“People apply for a licence, but they do not get it, except a few retired armed forces personnel since they face a security threat. As there were no retailers or civilians to buy our product, we closed down our unit.”

Gun manufacturers also say the industry has been subjected to additional checks by the authorities due to the unstable security climate in the region. Burhan Zaroo, owner of the Zaroo Gun Factory in Srinagar’s old city, says the state’s home affairs department has ruled that weapons must get government clearance before they can go on sale.

“For the last three years we have been instructed to get the initial clearance from the district magistrate’s office, which intentionally makes excuses and delays the process,” Zaroo said.

“So the guns remain docked in the units for a year or longer.”

Manufacturers cannot maintain their own testing machines, making it mandatory to have the guns cleared by state-run gun testing machines at Kanpur and Lucknow, more than 1,000km away in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The rebels have sophisticated weapons and ammunition. Why would they need our obsolete guns?

by - Nazir Ahmad Zaroo, Co-owner Zaroo Gun Factory

Security concerns

A key factor prompting the government to tighten regulations has been the insurgency by rebel groups seeking independence from India or a merger of the territory with neighbouring Pakistan.

Although fighting has died down, police claim 200-300 rebels are still active, but are running short of ammunition.

“If gun manufacturing goes unchecked, there is a possibility it would be misused by anti-state elements,” said a senior police officer in the counter-insurgency force at his office in Srinagar.

A plain clothes officer told Al Jazeera that authorities have to screen local gun manufacturing in Kashmir tightly.

“The top commanders of rebel outfits are allowing new recruits to join their outfits on one condition: a recruit has to get his own weapon,” he said. “The insurgents are desperate for weapons.”

Police say this year alone rebels have carried out more than seven attacks in which they have seized weapons from officers after killing or injuring them. However, the co-owner of the Zaroo Gun Factory, Nazir Ahmad Zaroo, disagrees with the police assertion.

“The rebels have sophisticated weapons and ammunitions. Why would they need our obsolete guns?”

Kashmir’s home affairs minister Sajad Kitchloo admits that official hurdles are punishing gun manufacturers.

“This issue has come to my notice,” Kitchloo told Al Jazeera. “Basically, the government has no policy on running gun factories in a sensitive place like Kashmir. We are working to frame a policy so that the issues they face are resolved and this economically viable industry survives.”

The minister said he was unaware that the government was not granting licences to civilians or subjecting the industry to additional checks.

Experts say with the decline in manufacturing, the craft of traditional gun-making in Kashmir is dying too [Wasim Khalid/Al Jazeera]

Dying trade

Popular among hunters, Kashmir-made guns are known for their walnut butts and forestocks and were highly prized before 1947 when Kashmir was an independent princely state.

Most of Kashmir’s gun-making factories were located in Srinagar’s Bandook Khar Mohalla (Gunsmiths’ quarter) in the neighbourhood of Rainawari, whose inhabitants trace their roots to Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The artisans specialised in the art of making gun barrels,” says Kashmiri historian Dr Fida Hassnain. “It was a prized weapon for gun lovers.”

Hassnain says the decline of gun making in Kashmir began in 1947 when the federal government began to regulate the industry.

“The gun industry in Kashmir is gasping for breath,” Mohammad Amin Ahangar – a gunsmith for three decades – said, while dipping barrels in chemicals for polishing.

“With the decline in manufacturing, the craft of traditional gun making in Kashmir is dying too,” Ahangar, a bespectacled man in his mid-40s, told Al Jazeera.

In recent years at least 49 of his Kashmiri colleagues have abandoned the craft, and Ahangar remains a lone gunsmith. Manufacturers say they now hire their gunsmiths from outside the region.

“Who would want to work in an uncertain profession?” Burhan Zaroo said.

“Slowly but surely, Kashmiri craftsmen have left the profession – leaving us, the manufacturers, in a labyrinth of darkness.”

Follow Wasim Khalid on Twitter: @wasemkhalid

Source: Al Jazeera