31,000 women in Punjab have a licence to own guns. Self defence is only part of the story. What explains their deep need to be armed and ready?
Photos and Story by Garima Jain
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SWAGGERING YOUNG men shooting into the sky at weddings is part of the popular culture in rural and small-town Punjab. Boys, you might scoff, and their toys. Until a woman approaching 60 tells you she loves using beer bottles as target practice. Until an apparently demure schoolteacher tells you she takes her pistol to class. Until a succession of women — doctors, writers, professionals, the wives of politicians, property dealers and landed gentry — confess not only to owning guns but delighting in their power.
Gaurmail Kaur, 41, teaches in a high school in Faridkot and packs her pistol in her handbag as automatically, as inevitably as any textbook. “It is,” she tells me, “for my protection. Of course, the kids ask questions: can they see it? Can I show them how to fire it? Where do I keep it when I sleep? But the gun stays locked in the cupboard at school.” Her colleagues tease her, joking that she is “a single woman leading the life of a man”. Punjabi masculinity, particularly around the state’s fecund farmlands, seems synonymous with gun ownership.
Nenu Sekhu runs a bridal boutique in Chandigarh and is a former national-level shooter. “I don’t carry a weapon,” she says, “and only shoot occasionally.” She stopped practising after her marriage, “People might think I wear the pants.” But gun ownership in Punjab is no longer confined to men. A recently issued Right to Information report reveals that close to 31,000 women in the state have licences for firearms. If many women are proxies for husbands, fathers and brothers, many too, like Gaurmail, are unwilling to rely on absent men and an absent State for protection.
“Most women I know,” says Gaurmail, “carry guns and many, like me, are schoolteachers. In Punjab, even children learn to shoot.” She fires shots into the air from her terrace every couple of months, “just to let people know I have a gun.” When an intruder actually broke into her house, Gaurmail froze, unable instinctively to shoot at another human being. Luckily, the intruder fled when she turned on the lights. If Gaurmail can’t bring herself to use her gun, she remains exhilarated to simply own one. “I love my 9mm pistol,” she admits unabashedly, “I am in love with my gun.”
It is a feeling echoed by other women I spoke to, like Aman K Singh, 32, whose husband gave her a 12-bore shotgun on their wedding day. For Aman, who lives in Chandigarh, a “good Sardar is someone with a gun and a jeep”. She says her son “was three years old when he shot his first gun,” and that she herself learned by practising on a private shooting range in her home. Despite her apparent pride in her ability to handle guns (she carries one even when she visits her son at his boarding school), Aman maintains that she “hates violence and guns enhance violence”. She deplores the “growing crime” in Punjab but it is hard to tell whether she connects her perception of increased criminality with increased gun ownership. Aman tells me, “People who are short-tempered should not carry guns.” She undercuts this by admitting that owning a gun “changes your mentality”, potentially making even the placid and patient dangerous.
Ameet Dhillon, 59, has a similarly conflicted relationship with her guns. She was eight years old “when my dad put a gun in my hand and taught me how to shoot”. Her fondest childhood reminiscences are of “shikars outside Chandigarh, shooting partridges, nilgai and wild boar”. “I know I am a good shot,” she says, “and I am still blood-thirsty.” Her exaggerated relish in her prowess is tempered by her awareness of age. “My hands and neck have begun to tremble,” she says, “I feel less confident with my shooting.” Still, she feels compelled to “carry a gun for security”.
Renee Singh — a Sufi poet, a parenting consultant and the host of a local TV show — feels “naked without my gun”. For women like Renee, guns appeal to a deeper impulse: a selfimage of hardy self-reliance
The contradictions are starker when Ameet tells a horrifying story of her ageing husband slipping gun in hand, chasing after what he thought was an intruder: “The gun went off. My daughter was in the room but luckily the bullet hit the door.” To outsiders, it may appear plain that families like the Dhillons put themselves in more danger by owning guns than not, that accidents are arguably more likely to lead to fatal injury than intruders. But these dangers pale before the visceral appeal of guns, their status in the community.
Aman Singh’s husband, a huge man in sunglasses and gold chains draped over a white kurta, patrols their farm with armed bodyguards, gunfire intermittently rattling the air. Their need for security (part of their property is disputed) is inextricable, from the honour that guns confer. An armed bodyguard, at Rs 15,000 a month, is expensive and it’s clear that for Aman and her husband, the dozen rifles piled on a charpayi to impress a visiting journalist is proof of their material success.
A RICH Patiala farmer’s wife, Simran (name changed), 42, spoke at length about the prestige of owning weapons with a singular, noble gloss: “Guns,” she argues, “are part of Sikh culture. We have a martial tradition. Punjab has always been the frontier state for invaders from the Northwest. During World War I, Sikhs were recruited by the British army and were taught to fire guns.” She is proud to be part of such a tradition and tells me that guns “will be wedding gifts to my daughters and I’ll teach them to shoot”.
Renee Singh, 49, believes hunting is part of the Sikh aristocrat’s birthright. She, like Ameet Dhillon, speaks fondly of shikars and particularly her mother’s skill at shooting game. Renee is a genuine eccentric — a Sufi poet who attends literary festivals, a parenting consultant and the host of a local television show. At the farm, though, she slips easily into her role of ‘Chhote Sahib’ and tells me she feels “naked without my gun”. For women like Renee, guns appeal to a deeper impulse: a self-image of hardy self-reliance.
Of course, the statewide violence of the 1970s and ’80s lingers in the psychology of gun use in Punjab. Ironically, families used to deposit their guns at the police station so when ‘terrorists’ raided their homes for weapons they could show receipts to prove they had none. An echo of this remains today, when lakhs of guns are deposited with the police to minimise violence during elections. Still, while history explains aspects of Punjabi gun culture, it misses the almost familial attachment people have to their guns. A school principal in her 60s, Gurmeet (name changed), told me that owning a gun was an investment, like a piece of jewellery. “I can’t even use mine,” she says, “but I inherited it from my mother.”
In my time in Punjab, I found guns gave the women who owned them a high, a giddy liberation. I got a sense of some of that freedom on my very first evening in Punjab, when Ameet invited me to take a few shots in the air from her roof. On my last evening in Faridkot, that thrill was underscored. I accompanied Gaurmail Kaur, the schoolteacher, riding around town on an Activa scooter with a friend. The two women shopped, ate chaat, laughed. She ignored the clumps of men gathered on various street corners. “No one can do or say a thing to us,” Gaurmail said, “we have guns.”
Garima Jain is a Photo Correspondent with Tehelka.