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The impact of small arms on communities takes many forms, from involvement in illegal production and trafficking as a means ofeconomic survival, to fuelling existing conflicts and creating a violent gun culture, where local disputes are invariably "resolved" using guns. Saswati Roy reports from India.

Daily living with terror

Since 9/11 the word “terror” has become known the world over-- its impact has become more vivid, glaring on us.

The television pictures of the air strikes on the “mighty” World Trade Centre, or some of the recent powerful explosions in many pockets of the world, turning human beings to disjointed bodies in a fraction of a second, are still very stunning to us. The sheer severity and suddenness of the incidents create a lasting impression in our minds. The magnitude and gravity of this violence gives a shocking jolt to us.

However, there is another facet of violence--another dimension of terror which manifests silently in the daily lives of people, which quietly creeps into the political, social, cultural and economic spheres of our lives. Small arms play a leading role in creating this violence. The type and number of small arms available these days, at the grassroots, is quite staggering.

Because of this, violence has increased manifold in poor countries like India. Small arms kill many people, in sporadic incidents, every day. And media reports on violent killings and pictures of small arms recovered by the police from illegal sources are also seen almost every day.

Recent increases in the use and trafficking of small arms are both the cause and result of under-development. Poverty,unemployment and hunger all drive young people to underworld criminal activities--they take up arms to fulfil their dreams. The illegal production and trafficking of small arms is an easy option for generating income. Often children and women are lured into transferring small arms with promises of very little money.

In India, most of the small arms are produced locally. These are produced illegally at home, or in secret production sheds. Many people are surviving economically on the production of small arms at illegal factories, weapons which are then sold on to the criminal underworld.

Feeding local conflicts

The use of small arms is particularly high in areas where there are already incidents of caste conflict and communal riots, places where innocent people are brutally murdered. And, for example, the Ranvir Sena (the private army of big land holders) in Bihar is also very quick to teach a lesson to poor landless low caste labourers--using the language of bullets.

Poverty and increased use of small arms has another dimension. The Naxalites (a Marxist Indian people's movement), who take up arms to seek justice for the poor, easily influence the poverty-stricken destitute population with their promises of justice. They give firearms training to rural youths and procure arms by illegal means--either stolen from government stock or secured from the illegal producers.

The excessive use of small arms is one of the major factors in the criminalisation of politics. Increased use of small arms to win elections has now made a mockery of the democratic electoral process. In the recently concluded Panchayat (grassroots local self-government) election in West Bengal, pre--and post--poll violence has shocked us all.

Many seats were reserved for women candidates to ensure women's participation in the political process. But this noble effort actually became insignificant in view of the fact that many women became dragged into a violent political arena. Many female candidates became targets of painful violence. And, in some cases, the wives or other female relatives of male candidates were not spared either.

There is a long Bill pending at the Indian Parliament to reserve 33% of seats for women in the Parliament. This Bill is being debated in many fora. But the question is--with growing violence in politics, who will dare to join politics in the first place?

A gendered dimension

In India it is a common experience that, in times of tension and terror, the men often flee from their villages to escape revenge and thus it falls entirely on the women to shoulder the household responsibilities.

When the only earning male member of a family is killed in a conflict, the wife has to try to rebuild the ruined family economy--or seek new avenues of earn-ing. In such a situation the family is completely devastated. For a village too, all development activities come to a halt for as long the violent situation persists. Thus the whole development process is affected.

Gun culture

There is a growing trend in “resolving” any dispute through the use of arms—be it political rivalry, land or property dispute, inter-family, community or ethnic conflict. The problem is very deep rooted: on the one hand, the use of small arms is thriving for economic reasons, on the other hand constant glorification of violence in the media is influencing the minds of people--especially the younger generation--who see the possession and use of arms as symbolising power.

The toy guns sold in the market, the regular display of rescued firearms from illegal sources on TV, the generous praises heaped on our security personnel for”gallantly” killing the “terrorists” in gun battles at the border--they all reinforce the gun culture.

Guns are fast becoming integral part of our culture. Holi is the festival of colour where “aabir” (the coloured powders) or coloured water is sprinkled on friends and relatives. These days toy guns are sold in the market for sprinkling the coloured waters. Diwali is the festival of light when the forces of darkness are driven away by lights and firecrackers. Different varieties of toy guns are also becoming popular among children as “firecrackers”.Gift shops abound with war toys.

A significant challenge

Unfortunately, closing down all the illegal centres of small arms production will not bring an end to the problem. Dismantled small arms are also brought into the country through porous borders and later reassembled and used within the country.

Small arms also have another alarming economic dimension--the arms trade of the bigger nations who survive on exporting arms to smaller countries. Thus the issue of small arms poses a big multidimensional challenge to peace-building at a local level as well globally. Our only hope lies with the people--the socially empowered people who refrain from leading life following the dictates of others, who refuse to take up arms.

Our only way out is food for all, education for all, jobs for all, and, above all, an equitable, just, social order where all live in harmony irrespective of class, caste, gender or religion.

This article is based on the discussions held at a seminar in Calcutta organised by WRI (India) on 7 June 2003.
Swadhina, 34/C Bondel Road, Calcutta 700019, India (tel/fax +91 33 247 0934; email mainoffice@swadhina.org; http://www.swadhina.org ).

Saswati Roy works with Swadhina, a Section of War Resisters' International in eastern India.