Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Young Guns

(Note: Recently, I was invited by an online "newspaper" to write a guest column on something relevant to the young people in India. After I sent them this post, which, under the current circumstances, would have been quite relevant, I never heard back from them. So much for old fashioned editorial courtesy  to "invitations"! And so, with a heavy heart, Desi Babu decided to dump the entire article on his faithful blog readers -- lock, stock and barrel (no pun intended). Enjoy!)

I once went skeet-shooting with a group of colleagues, who had taken a liking for someone, who very obviously, did not share their demographics. They were very Caucasian, and very republican. I was neither. But, the fact that in many of my conversations with them, I had exhibited libertarian leanings, must have endeared me to them. And hence, the invitation to come and shoot clay "pigeons" with them. With a nice shotgun, which, among other things, shot pretty well. At the end of the day, we drove to a little mom and pop's place by the interstate, and over a couple of beers and fries, they told me their life's stories. And, many things about the guns they loved.

That was the first time I came to know that the Americans had a guaranteed freedom -- to bear arms. Guaranteed by the second amendment to the American constitution. The National Rifle Association, or the NRA, is a vociferous defender of the people's right to bear arms, and one of the popular NRA bumper stickers you are likely to come across, proudly proclaims, "I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!" The famous Hollywood actor, Charlton Heston, who was also the president of the NRA for a while, was quite instrumental in popularizing this phrase. And, on that lazy evening filled with glasses of beer and the smell of spent ammunition, as I was being educated by my colleagues on guns, I learned the guiding philosophy of life from "Smokey" Ryder, a trigger happy guy, with two missing front teeth. When the beer had sufficiently soaked in, Smokey passed on his life's wisdom to me, "It's kinda easy to git a gun, but where will ya'll git the money to pay for the ammo? Life's tough, ain't it?"

Above the din of the crowded restaurant, I had slowly drifted away -- to a small town in North India, that I grew up in. We had just one family in the entire neighborhood that owned a shotgun. And that too, was because the patriarch of the family, was a retired Thanedar, or someone, who was once in charge of a police station. I used to address the old man as Dada-ji, because I used to play with his grandson. Buntee Singh, besides having the most cliched Desi name, was generally a good lad, and fervently shared his grandfather's interest in guns. During lazy afternoons on holidays, the two of us would climb up on top of an old and decrepit water tank, and watch the local teams play cricket. And Buntee, would educate me on the benefits of owning a gun.

Years later, I met Buntee at a railway station. He was in a hurry, and was carrying a shiny wooden case. I assumed that it had some sort of a musical instrument in it. But, right before Buntee hopped into his train, he told me that he was carrying a gun in the case. It was a licensed firearm, that his family would use to shoot blanks in the air, during a family wedding he was headed to. And, to ensure the protection of his firearm on the generally unsafe train, he was paying a thousand bucks to the brave souls of the railway protection force. As his train left the station, above the cries of the chaiwalas trying to convince people to get one last cup of tea, and the smoke from the Charminar I was blowing, I saw Buntee waving at me from the RPF compartment. One last time.

Recently, the memories of gun toting crusaders came back to me under strange circumstances. With a cup of tea in my hand, I had just found an empty seat in the busy cafeteria of a well known university. Most of my fellow occupants on the long table were young students. They were debating the ongoing anti-corruption struggle in India. They seemed to be the followers of Anna Hazare, and were generally unhappy about the recent treatment meted out to another anti-corruption crusader, Baba Ramdev.

One of them was quite a vocal proponent of Baba Ramdev's assertion that concerned citizens should have the right to raise a private army. But when he started talking about the second amendment of the Americans, the one that gives them the right to bear arms, I decided to join the conversation.

"You know, you already have an army to guarantee your constitutional rights, why do you need to raise your own?" I asked.

He seemed surprised at the sudden question. But, he asked me what recourse does an ordinary citizen in the country have when public figures like Ramdev or Hazare are not given the right to protest. About corruption, that is slowly eating away at whatever good remains in our public institutions. He was quite passionate about what he had to say.

Most young people of his grandfather's generation had probably braved baton-charges from the colonial British, to get India her freedom. And, the young people of his father's generation had probably followed Jayprakash Narayan to prison, to ensure that Indira Gandhi's emergency did not take away their hard won freedom. It was his generation's turn now. To organize meetings against corruption. And debate the pros and cons, of staying peaceful, or resorting to guns. To ensure that India does not turn into a civilization lost to corruption.

He had decided to educate me a little more about his point of view. "You cannot have complete freedom if the state has arms and you don't. Look at the Americans. They have more freedom than us, because their constitution allows them to bear arms. If I need a gun, I have to get a license. And that process, always starts with a bribe. In our system, only the bad guys have guns. And the good guys can't even protest peacefully."

I tried to pull a "Smokey Ryder" on my young friend. "Let's say that you get your gun. But, who is going to pay for the ammo? You know, these things don't come cheap."

I saw that some of his friends had started grinning.

My young friend suddenly started lecturing me on demand and supply. And volume production. He argued, that just like computers became cheap due to mass production, if everyone was allowed to carry guns, the prices were bound to fall. And then, everyone would have ammo.

I didn't want to argue any more, since I had to go somewhere. So, I added, "And when the ammo becomes really cheap, may be, we can all go skeet-shooting. You know, the kind in which you use a shotgun to shoot down clay pigeons."

First, he looked at me with disbelief in his eyes. Then, with a wide grin on his face, he said, "Are you serious? I thought that only crazy people did that sort of stuff. But, I guess we could have some serious fun with that stuff if we could do it here."

He didn't say it, but I am sure that if my young friend ever went skeet-shooting, he would write about it on his Facebook page. And occasionally, tweet about it.


  1. guns are the problem not solution....that's why gandhi-ji won and subhash-ji lost...

  2. @Anonymous 7:34 AM
    1. Guns are neither a problem, nor a solution - people using them could be.

    2. India won her freedom, what did Gandhiji win?

    3. The British lost their 'Jewel in the Crown'. What did Subashji lose?

    The costs (not just in terms of wealth) of WW-II, compelled the British to pull out of India. Till then, I would be gald if you could tell me what concession Gandhiji was able to extract from the British. They snubbed/insulted/ignored/jailed him at will, which speaks volumes about his effectiveness.

    There are too many skeletons in his cupboard, which our 'sarkari' historians would rather ignore. For instance, he let his wife die because he would not allow her to have an injection, but did not apply the same rule for himself, when he got malaria or appendicitis. Talk about double standards...

    You really need to relearn History, and not the 'sarkari' or INC version peddled in our schools.

  3. @anon above: 'Winning' and 'losing' are simplifying terms when you talk about India's freedom struggle. In my opinion, both Gandhiji and Netaji Subhash won in their own ways -- since their final objective was to get India her freedom.

    @Sudeep: As always, your analysis and comments are right on!

    I agree on WWII - the greatly depleted British Army could no longer support another conflict in India after the WWII, and so, they pulled out. But, a lot of historians believe that Netaji Subhash's INA had a lot to do with this, and not Gandiji's peaceful struggle.

    After the very public INA trials, the Indian soldiers of the Royal Indian Army finally got to know, that they were fighting their brothers on the Burma front. The British could have easily experienced a revolt in the Indian Army, if things went out of control. In fact, in the final days of the British Raj, inspired by Netaji's struggle, there was a mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy (1946), which could have hurried the British off. The 'Sarkari' history books do not talk about this mutiny at all.

    In fact, our first prime minister, Chacha Nehruji, had banned Indian army soldiers from keeping any INA symbols or Netaji's photographs in their barracks. I wonder why?!

  4. Desi Babu, i guess i know the name of the Newspaper.I wouldn't name it here but if i am right,the name starts with a 'V' and ends with 'R'.

  5. Dear Desibabu,
    1. Subhash Bose personally had great qualities, Gandhiji, did not, he just happened at the right time.
    2. Neither movement posed any real threat to the British. Netaji, in my opinion, simpy ended up as a propoganda tool in the hands of the Axis powers.
    3. The armed forces got a very bad deal post-independence. Having served the British they were suspect. Also, the ethos of discipline and loyalty could not be reconciled with the INA, who had broken both. This is also the reason why most professional soldiers who could have joined the INA, did not (Lt. Gen, Harbaksh Singh, Western Army Commander during 1965 war was one of them). The INA (in military terms) just ended up as a rag-tag bunch.
    4. Leave aside the Royal Navy mutiny, there are far worser excesses that are not spoken about or known. For instance, before the 1962 China war, the Indian army not only predicted that they would be defeated, but had calculated almost exacty by how much, and where the Chinese would advance each day. These were ignored by Nehru, and hostilities were opened by the Indian Army (on Nehru's orders), unlike what we have been taught. Patel had forseen this, and warned Nehru in writing - that letter exists.

  6. @DLR: Yes!

    @Sudeep: Thanks for the additional insight on Chachaji