1-7 January 2016 #789

One gun leads to another

The wholesale introduction of countless illegal firearms into a country where few existed is yet another tragic consequence of The Pointless War
Foreign Hand

No matter how you look at it, Nepal is in a terrible mess these days on every front. From the government’s callous neglect of the earthquake victims, to a constitution so flawed it blew up the Tarai, to the never-ending blockade and outrageous corruption, the break-down of services has got to the point many are asking: "You call this a country?"

But let’s not forget, dear reader, the one lesson we’ve learned the hard way over the years: no matter how bad things get in Nepal they can always get worse.

If the nation’s many woes could be summed up in a few snappy sound-bites the Hand would retire happy. But it’s no simple thing for a nation and its leadership to deteriorate to such abysmal levels and nothing rots this bad overnight. Rather it takes decades to weaken the state and its institutions through a thousand cuts to get where Nepal is today.

Hence the Collateral Damage series, a depressing attempt to figure out how we got in this quagmire while posing that eternal question: All for what?

As the search for answers lurches from the obscure to the obvious we inevitably come to the matter of guns and their astonishing proliferation. The wholesale introduction of countless un-registered, illegal firearms into a country where few existed is yet another tragic consequence of The Pointless War that looks like it’s here to stay.

Sticking with the obvious, Nepal was a much safer place before the war than it is now. Not only were very few weapons around but the current culture of violence had yet to be introduced. Most guns that did exist were registered with the authorities and the right to keep a private fire-arm was tightly regulated. The system was actually quite effective, especially when compared to the chaotic free-for-all since the war began.

The conflict created unprecedented demand, keeping gun-runners and the illicit firearm makers of Bihar and the Tarai working overtime ever since. Nepali Times carried a piece on this thriving trade way back in 2001 issue #54 (Arms & the Men). Business stayed brisk even after the war, as Maoists and their spin-offs needed weapons to conduct their flourishing extortion, kidnapping and protection rackets.

Once the state lost its monopoly on coercion, losing its exclusive privilege to bear arms was a foregone conclusion.

What came first, the guns or the coercion is like the chicken or egg mystery, rendered irrelevant once the cycle’s set in play. The only certainty is that one gun leads to another, and as Maoists raided government armories and extorted money to buy more weapons the situation went from bad to worse.

In 2003 the government responded by distributing guns to newly formed vigilante squads called Village Defense Leagues. The rationale was a sign of desperate times: people needed protection against marauding gangs of armed Maobaddies and their side-kick Khaobaddies. With the state under constant attack, all pretence of arms control was abandoned and many of these weapons ended up in the hands of the very same people they were meant to protect against. If you think that’s ridiculous, read on.

The 2006 Peace Agreement included explicit clauses on disarmament that were openly flaunted from day one. The pathetic array of ‘arms’ surrendered by Mao-kiddies, newly recruited teens to fill the UN cantonments, included broken pistols bought from scrap dealers in Bihar, pressure cookers and pieces of plumbing for future pipe-bombs. These bits were solemnly paraded to the containers in a splendid display of UN sponsored theatre of the absurd. Meanwhile, when nobody was looking, the real weapons and those trained to use them mysteriously vanished, only to resurface later as the YCL.

The Peace Agreement brought war to the nation’s cities and a flood of weapons onto the black market. The resulting surge in gun crime got so bad the Birganj Forest Committee and local school board allotted funds to acquire illegal firearms to protect themselves against all the other illegal guns out there.

The few studies on the subject invariably admit nobody really knows how many weapons are in circulation and there’s no way of finding out. According to a report issued in 2013 by the NGO ‘Small Arms Survey’ some 440,000 guns are in private hands, of which 55,000 are supposedly registered. But they hasten to state this is an educated guess at best, adding that most of the un-registered weapons are likely in the hands of criminal gangs.

With every spasm of chaos our politicians inspire, including the on-going lawlessness in the Tarai, government control over the illicit arms trade weakens further. All reports indicate pistols, both home-made and branded imports, are readily available in Kathmandu for a few thousand rupees. If I’m ever driven to hunt one down I’ll let you know current prices in my final column.

None of this would matter, of course, if Nepal had turned into a proletariat paradise as promised. In the meantime, the police are left with the dirty work of catching heavily armed criminals while those responsible for the scourge continue to enjoy the many perks of power.

Read also:

Arms and The Men, Shri Bhakta Khanal and Chandra Kishor

War’s legacy: a gun culture, Sulaiman Daud

Democratising Intimidation, Foreign Hand

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