Indian women are no longer content to turn their cheeks in the face of increasing violence against them.
When Dr Harveen Kaur Sidhu travels from her home in an upmarket neighbourhood of the north-western Indian city of Chandigarh, she always slips her lightweight .22 revolver in her bag. The gun is a new purchase – Sidhu got her licence only a year ago – but now the 33-year-old dentist won’t travel without it.
“I don’t have faith in the police to protect me. There are so many attacks on women these days. It’s everybody’s right to defend themselves. I think all women who are vulnerable should be carrying guns,” Sidhu said. She is not alone. A growing number of well-off, educated Indian women are turning to firearms for protection.
The trend is part of a broader growth of gun culture in the land once known for the non-violent principles of Mahatma Gandhi.
There are estimated to be 40m guns in India, the second highest number in the world after the US. Licences are hard to obtain and most are illegal weapons, many manufactured in backstreet workshops. Ownership levels per capita remain low – three guns for every 100 people in India – but there is strong anecdotal evidence that middle-class interest in firearms is rising fast.
One sign is the emergence of groups such as the National Association for Gun Rights India, founded in 2009, which lobbies for fewer restrictions on ownership of firearms. “We are not trigger-happy people. We are looking at [using firearms] as a last resort. We see [guns] as a force equaliser,” said Rakshit Sharma, the group’s secretary general.
His group, he said, receives “many inquiries from women who want to know how to obtain a gun and stay within the law”. The trend is strongest in regions where a tradition for firearms is well-established, such as Punjab in the north-west, due to local wealth, a strong martial history and a brutal insurgency that ended only 20 years ago.
The local taste for conspicuous consumption has also boosted sales. “Business is very, very good. Better than it’s ever been,” said Satish Kumar, a gunseller in Chandigarh, the Punjab state capital. “People buy weapons, 10% for security and 90% for status. People will happily spend 80,000 rupees (£9,600) on a foreign-made handgun.”
Kumar said only one in 50 purchases were made by women but the number was rising. Data obtained earlier this year under India’s newRight to Information law revealed that nearly 31,300 arms licences have been issued to women in the Punjab and 31,026 of them have actually purchased arms.
One recent enthusiast is Anita Dhiman Dass, who lives in Ludhiana, a prosperous centre of trade and farming 80 miles west of Chandigarh. Dass, 46, got her first gun three years ago, has three weapons on her licence and says a Ruger .22 pistol is her favourite. “It’s so light. I put it in my bag when I go shopping, to the mall, to the market or wherever. It is very necessary. There is so much robbery these days. They just snatch chains and bangles,” she said.
Like Sidhu, Dass said carrying a gun made her feel secure. Her husband, Ishwar, runs a car dealership in the town. His collection of 11 weapons includes hunting rifles and vintage shotguns. Dass said a four-year-old grandson was now “very fond of guns” and the family’s new puppy has been named “Sniper”.
Navdeep, a housewife in Ludhiana, said she had a shotgun at home for security when her husband was working away from home, and recently bought a lighter pistol for use outside the house. “A lot of lower-class men, they harass women, so a gun is very good way of telling them to back off. If I am coming home late at night on my own, it is very necessary. Even if the police come, it is too late,” she said.
The phenomenon may in part be a response to the failure of the state to inspire confidence among many middle-class Indians, particularly women. Almost all women interviewed by the Guardian said they felt an increased level of threat.
Average police response time: 23 minutes. A bullet arrives at 3,200 feet per second.