A craft wrongly targeted

HAROON MIRANI | Updated on January 13, 2011 Published on January 13, 2011

Aim high: An intricately carved butt is the hallmark of Kashmiri guns. - Photo: HAROON MIRANI   -  Business line

lf14guns5   -  Business Line

Kashmir's gun-makers, famed for their intricate workmanship, find their industry caught in the crossfire in the militancy-embattled Valley.

Even as guns blazed and bullets zipped across Kashmir over the past 20 years, in a strange twist of irony the Valley's famed gun-making industry fell into decline.

Producing some of the country's finest guns, rich in craftsmanship and finishing, Kashmiri gun-makers were much sought after. In 1989, however, with militancy on the boil in the Valley, a panicky Government ordered the closure of the gun factories in a bid to ensure the weapons did not fall into the hands of militants.

Little did it realise that the militants equipped with sophisticated AK47s and machine guns had no use for the archaic 12-bore guns produced here. Two years later the ban was revoked and the gun makers allowed to resume work under strict supervision. However, the factories are allowed to manufacture only a limited number of guns, with the quota decided by the Union Home Ministry.

“Our industry has never encountered any security-related problem, and security agencies have given us a clean chit,” says Zahoor Ahmad Ahangar, co-owner of Srinagar's Subhana Gun Factory, which has been in business from 1925 and is one of the oldest in Kashmir.

Ahangar's ancestors had migrated from Afghanistan in the 18th century. Skilled in weapons making, they were granted permission by the then king of Kashmir to make knives, daggers, arrows, swords and other such weaponry. Over time they progressed to the manufacture of guns.

Prior to 1947, Subhana and other gun factories were buzzing with activity, supplying thousands of intricately fashioned guns to the princes and elites of India. That was the golden period of Kashmir's gun-making industry. Most of the manufacturers were concentrated in Srinagar in one area which was named after them as Bandook Khar Mohalla (gunsmiths' locality).

The guns made in Kashmir have a trademark intricately-carved butt. The steady demand for these well-crafted guns kept the mohalla busy until the growth of militancy threw a spanner in the works. “After we were allowed to resume production in 1992, we were limited to just 300 guns a year,” laments Ahangar, adding that this quota is too meagre to provide a secure livelihood. Zaroo Gun Factory, established in 1940, is allowed to manufacture only 540 guns a year. “So we take on other businesses too and this (gun-making) has become secondary work for us,” says Ahangar.

The business has become unviable for the skilled Kashmiri craftsmen too and they are switching to other jobs. Only those who are too old to do any other work are carrying on with the craft, leaving the industry short on manpower.“People know that it is not sustainable,” says Ahangar. “We complete our gun quota in just three months, and after that we have to sit idle.”

Today there are just two gun factories left in the Valley and new ones cannot come up as new licences or registration cannot be obtained. The surviving gun factories hesitate to go in for modernisation as they fear it will invite scrutiny and involve a lot of paperwork, with the attendant risk of losing the existing licence.

Factory owners are angry that on the one hand the gun industry in Jammu is booming while it languishes in the Kashmir Valley. “There are more than 30 gun factories in Jammu and their quota runs into thousands with periodic increase,” says Ahangar. “Both regions are affected by militancy, but there is a bias here.”

A majority of the workers at the two gun factories in Bandook Khar Mohalla are non-Kashmiris who arrive for three months during the manufacturing and leave after that. “It is good for them, but we have to pay them extra as the work is for three months only,” says Ahangar. The workers are mostly drawn from Bihar and Chandigarh.

The factory owners have been pleading with the Government to increase their quota. “We have gone from every official to every leader, but nothing has happened yet,” says Ahangar, adding, “We even have clearance from security agencies.” The factories currently manufacture 12-bore single- and double-barrel guns that are mostly used in sports. Some are used to arm security guards outside banks and other establishments. Nearly all the guns produced in Kashmir are sold to various Central departments and buyers outside Kashmir. Within Kashmir there is an unwritten ban on the issue of firearm licence to civilians, with hunting too strictly prohibited.

Ahangar is confident that given a chance, Kashmir's gun industry can provide employment to a lot of people and once again turn into a booming sector like its counterpart in Jammu. “We have the potential to manufacture ten times the present quota,” he says. The factories have the capacity to double the present number of staff and increase production by four times, provided the Government gives a green signal.

Security officials remain apprehensive about the industry. “We know that the guns produced here have never been misused, but we cannot take a chance,” says a police official. The authorities hope that with an improvement in the Valley's security situation its gun industry can return to its former glory.

But Ahangar is not so optimistic. As he arranges the remaining guns at his factory, he is uncertain about the future but certain that his sons will not continue with this family trade any more.

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Published on January 13, 2011
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