The Lady Has a Gun

In western Uttar Pradesh, the country’s gun bazaar, women are locking and loading. For UP’s men, though, this is a change they can’t quite comprehend.

The scene is typical of a political party office. Low white buildings, white cars radiating power, busy men in white kurta-pyjama swarming around speaking urgently into their mobile phones. But there’s something about this Kanpur scene that makes it distinctly UP: the abundance of guns tucked into belts and dhotis of these men and the super-sized face of chief minister Akhilesh Yadav beaming everywhere you look.

Romila Singh stands out in this testosterone-laden setting. She is a former Samajwadi Party corporator from Kanpur and the only woman arms dealer in a city which has a long and storied history as the country’s gun bazaar. It helps that Singh is almost six feet tall and towers head and shoulders above the men, including her two bodyguards. In a modest cotton saree and carefully applied makeup, she is more demure lady-of-the-house than fiery arms dealer. But her stories are tinged with violence.

It was 2005, and Singh the face of the Christian minority in the state, was travelling through western UP, which registers one of the highest rates of crime against women. It was not yet dusk when her car was waylaid near Muzzafarnagar. Her bodyguards made a run for it and an unarmed Singh was robbed at gunpoint. Crippling fear would have been the standard response for anyone else, but for Singh, hardened by years of campaigning in the violent heartland of the state, this was an attack on her pride. She applied for a licence and got herself a gun, as soon as she came back to Kanpur.

Kanpur is nothing if not an untidy bundle of paradoxes. It is one of the richest tier-II cities in the country but almost half the population still does not have an official electricity connection. There is the Cawnpore of posh clubs, colonial mansions, and Audi showrooms. And then there is the Kanpur, of lanes so narrow and haphazard that they resemble the whorls and folds of its alleged namesake, the human ear.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more striking than during a walk through Meston Road, which lies at the very heart of the city. This grid of alleys has been the supplier of ammunition to a succession of India’s stakeholders, the British, the army, and now the bahubali entourages of politicians. UP is leaving behind usual suspects like Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab to become the most armed region in the country. And the numbers claimed that this supposed gun-lust had broken gender barriers too. In UP, the women too were locking and loading.

The market on Meston Road, lined with some of the oldest purveyors of these goods, is also home to Neelam Gun House, Romila Singh’s gun enterprise. There are 148 licenced arms dealers in Kanpur and Singh is the first – and only – woman in those ranks.

After her encounter with the bandits, Singh didn’t just stop at buying a gun. She bought herself an entire shop. “Auraton ko zaroor rakhni chahiye gun, protection aur power ke liye,” says the widowed, single mother of two daughters. Singh might have battled in the murky waters of minority caste politics, but it is the label of the “empowered woman” that she takes most pride in. And she is not the only one choosing this fast route to “empowerment”. Reports claim that out of the 11,22,814 gun licences in the state, a good 15 per cent bear the names of women. To put that into perspective, that is close to about 2.5 lakh guns, the count of firearms available with the Uttar Pradesh police.

Singh, who now plays advisor to women seeking to arm themselves, revels in the “Gun Lady” tag herself, even though her business did not sell too many of those hyped firearms. “Rajput women often keep firearms on their person,” she tells me, referencing everyone from Joan of Arc to Rani Lakshmibai. “I hope that I too am an example for other women.”

As determined as she is to be tough, her colleagues on Meston Road seem equally determined to cut her down to size and remind her of the supposed shortfalls of her gender.

“Auraton ki kalai patli hoti hai, dum nahi hota kalai main unki,” says Gaurav Singh, pointing at my wrist and then at his own. The young man is the epitome of the famous Kanpur braggadocio, complete with the gun, the bike, the moustache, and the casual sexism. Gaurav, whose family has been a part of the firearms industry for three generations now, is the public relations officer at the Small Arms Factory.

The company launched Nirbheek in 2014, a .32-caliber revolver pitched as the “first gun for women”. Just a month earlier, a young woman’s rape and murder in New Delhi had angered the nation into a slew of protests. She was christened Nirbhaya by the media; and Nirbheek followed soon after. Gaurav tells me that that was a mistake, from a business point of view. The gun was simply a lightweight one but the “pink marketing” discouraged its true customers: men.

Out of the 11,22,814 gun licences in Uttar Pradesh, a good 15 per cent bear the names of women.

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

And what do the women buy?

A woman in Lucknow, he tells me, would prefer something that will fit in her purse while someone in Meerut or Bundelkhand would want a rifle to sling over her shoulder, a visible warning against assault. For some, it is like an expensive piece of jewellery to be shown off, without the slightest intention of use. According to him, Romila Singh falls into the last category. “Unhone toh bas show off karne ke liye licence liya hai,” he says with a dismissive toss of his head.

Despite her presence, political clout, and a shop full of guns, there is no way the men are going to accept her as one of them. The common perception remains that women are weak and passive and completely unable to retaliate to violence with violence. They may own a gun but who’s going to give them the courage to use it?

Before I leave the city, I ask Singh if she has ever fired one of her guns. “Main politics main hoon, main goli kaise chala sakti hoon,” she asks, almost incredulous at my question. “Bandook ke saath akela nahi lagta, bas.”