An Indian summer afternoon. A long, dusty motorcycle ride over rough roads. Our destination: Ghodsahan, a small village in East Champaran district in Bihar, India. Our purpose: To buy guns-or pretend to.
All houses in Ghodsahan are the same-mud walls, thatched roofs made of dried grass. A man is waiting for us outside one such anonymous house. He welcomes us, as he would any guest. He is hospitable, affable almost, as he insists we have lunch. And yet, it is difficult to be at ease.
The man is also an arms dealer, one of the biggest players in the robust weapons trade in Bihar. He shows us his wares-guns, guns more guns. He would not take kindly to reporters undercover as buyers.
Our contact in the trade had only been told that two buyers were making the journey from Kathmandu. He directed us to Ghodsahan, which looks like a typical Indian village. But inside this house, all illusions of bucolic charm are shattered-rifles are propped up everywhere, over 20 pistols hang from the wall, there are instruments of violence everywhere the eye rests.
The supplier picks up a pistol lying on the bed. "This one has got terrific aim. It has already killed 10 people," he tells us proudly. "But it is not for sale." That was his personal favourite. The price tag for the pistols on the wall: IRs 3,000 each. And, the man says, ever the canny salesman, "If you do not like any of these weapons, then give us a model and I'll make that too. But it will cost you a bit more." All illegally produced weapons look identical to those made in ordinance factories, down to a copy of the brand name.
We say we will think it over and leave, trying not to hurry.
Our next stop is another small village, Kusmahawa. The man we are to meet is a teacher in the local madrassa. He is less friendly, but more blas?: he lays out his stock of weapons on the verandah outside his house. The recent elections in Bihar had exhausted his supply, and all he had for the moment were a few 0.38 calibre revolvers.
"How much do these cost?"
"Six rounders, IRs 17,000, they're made in the ordinance factory in Mungeir (Bihar)," comes the terse reply.
"That's a bit expensive, isn't it?"
"Fixed prices. Sent four of these to Hetauda, six to Kathmandu, got orders for four more from Rautahat-all this month."
"Can this be delivered to Kathmandu?"
"I don't do it, but it's easy." He shows us just how easy. "Strap the revolver and pistol around your thigh, wear loose trousers. It's that simple."
"We will buy a lot of these," we lie. "But first we have to show these models to our friends."
The madrassa teacher even allows us to take pictures of the weapons, for our "friends", naturally. We had a copy of Guns and Ammos magazine with us to convince him we were serious buyers. We edge out slowly, promising to buy ten revolvers. He comes charging after us, shouting like a carpet seller in Thamel, "Hey! Wait! If you find these are too expensive, I'll take you to another place."
Kundawa, Chainpur, another dealer. Our interactions are getting increasingly brazen. This one is in a street shop right in the town's main intersection. The dealer casually places a 9-mm on the table. "IRs 45,000."
"That's very expensive."
"Well, it is fitted with a silencer. There are cheaper ones."
"How many bullets will you throw in?"
"As many as you want. Give us a model of the bullet and a month. We'll get you whatever you want. The hunters from Hetauda, they buy their bullets from me."
"Can you deliver the weapons to Kathmandu?"
"If you pay more. I've just sent three pistols of this very model to Kathmandu by bus."
"Have any Nepali Maoists bought weapons from you?"
"No one has said that they're Maoists so far. But a police officer from Nepal came to buy weapons. He said he would be entering politics after retirement and needed to build his base." The dealer even names the police officer.
Wherever we went in northern Bihar, in areas adjoining Nepal, it was easy to meet dealers, all of whom were ready to procure and often deliver any kind of weapon-from home-made country pistols to AK-47s. Such weapons, we found out, are delivered to any part of Nepal a buyer wants. In tarai districts like Rautahat, Bara, Parsa, Sunsari, Morang, Jhapa, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Siraha, Sarlahi, Kapilvastu, and Banke, buyers are plenty and deliveries, routine. "Are you willing to pay IRs 60,000? I'll deliver a factory-made Browning pistol to you in Kathmandu," one dealer told us.
Buying peaks just before elections, in both Bihar and Nepal. Not just pistols and revolvers, even bombs of all types are in demand during election-time. And now, not surprisingly, they even reach the Maoists. Addressing a high-level police meeting in April 2000, then prime minister GP Koirala admitted that the police is also involved in the illegal weapons trade. He said that police posted at border check posts accepted bribes in exchange for allowing arms to enter Nepal. Amar Singh Shah, Deputy Inspector-General, the highest ranking police official in the western sector, in Nepalganj, wrote in a letter to the prime minister that although these weapons are not manufactured in Nepal, it is difficult to stop the flow of arms from India. Even the army posted at the various border checkpoints has found it difficult to control the trade.
Earlier people in border areas used to keep weapons on hand to protect themselves against wild animals and Indian dacoits. Now, their objectives have changed-weapons are owned for criminal and political purposes.
The earlier administrations also played a role in arming people in the tarai. Set a thief to catch a thief, they believed, and released armed criminals from prison. While this did help control the run of dacoits from India, the flip side was that many of these armed criminals entered the Panchayat mainstream and some even became Pradhan Panchas, like Lallan Mishra, aka Surya Kant Mishra (from Sarlahi), Rekha Thakur from Hardia, Bara, and Jadolal Mahato Koiri from Katahariya, Rautahat.
The use of weapons during elections in the tarai districts increased after 1991, reaching its worst during the mid-term elections of 1994. Dr Shekhar Koirala, a nephew of former prime minister Koirala, was caught red-handed with a weapon in a voting booth in Koirala's consitutuency. Rameswor Rai Yadav, then a Sadbhawana Party MP, was caught carrying weapons in Sitamani, Bihar and even locked up for a few days. The case filed against him is still pending in the Indian courts.
Only last year, Ram Bahadur Yadav, the District Development Committee (DDC) president of Laxmipur Kotwali in Bara, was implicated in a case involving the illegal possession of four pistols. The district administration is still processing the case against Yadav, aUML member. Achyut Mainali, general secretary of the Bara UML district committee says the party is investigating the case. Also last year, Triloki Choudhary, another DDC and UML member was suspended from the party after he was found to be involved in a criminal case.
Indian arms dealers flock into Nepal during elections, especially in Rautahat district. Dr Bansi Dhar Mishra, UML MP, says, "Like members of other parties, I was also offered an AK-47 at a throwaway price." Govind Chaudhary, a former MP from the district, says as many as a third of all voters are threatened with guns during elections. In the last elections such easy access to firepower was reason for trouble in 26 polling centres, and 36 incidents of booth-capturing. That was the time the Nepali Congress saw it fit to ask the Jaiswal brothers, Pawan and Manoj, of Phulbahariya, Bihar, for help with arms, ammunition, and muscle power. The UML decided to go for the jugular and worked with Rajababu, an opponent of the Jaiswal brothers.
Sources swear that the NC brought in two AK-47s and the UML got one for itself. Crude as well as ordinance factory-made weapons come to Rautahat from Khundawa, Ghodasahan, Chainpur, Phulbariya,, Nandabar, Musachak, Sitamani, Rusulpur and Chankitola, all in north Bihar. Workers in the ordinance factories in Bihar smuggle out blueprints, with the help of which any house in Bihar can be turned into a weapons factory.
Dealers say that in 1999 weapons were also brought in for Madhav Kumar Nepal and Mohammed Aftab Alam by Sheik Gernail, Mahtab, Ram Chandra Giri and Kishori Raya Yadav. Similarly, weapons were brought for Govind Choudhary by Ghambhira Raya Yadav and a former minister cleared the way to arm Prakash Koirala. The sophisticated weapons used in Burma, Afghanistan and Kashmir have not yet entered the country-until now the weapons of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have met the requirements-but it could only be a matter of time, especially if the Maoists think of arming up to face their eventual enemy, the army. Both these states have huge manufacturing capacities, and can turn out cheap weapons as deadly as any other, to meet Nepal's demand.
According to Dr Ajay Darshan Bohara, of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, there are over 1,500 illegal arms manufacturing centres in Bihar, and Nalanda and Gaya districts have the most factories. The presence of the PWG (Peoples' War Group), other Maoist outfits, the Ranbir Sena, and other armed groups has contributed to the massive growth of Bihar's illegal weapons industry. Moreover, Bihar has many ordinance factories and many workers began fabricating weapons as part-time source of income.
In an attempt to control weapons possession in Nepal, some months ago the government called on all people who owned an illegal firearm to surrender them to police in exchange for a pardon. The Home Ministry has no idea whether the amnesty has been effective. They say there have been some enquiries about the programme, but no weapons have been deposited with them yet.
(This article first appeared in slightly different form in Himal Khabarpatrika, 16-30 July. Translated by Anup Adhikary.)