Craftsman of Renowned Kashmiri Guns Struggle to Survive
As a little kid my elder brother and I spent most of our time at our maternal grandparent’s house. A room in the house held the fascination of all the children. It belonged to my uncle and the cause of our fascination hung obliquely across a wall.
My brother, my cousin, and I would quietly sneak into the room and stare with wonder at the object - a gun with a shining wooden butt. My cousin and my brother would tell stories about the gun which they claimed to have been told by my uncle - stories of hunting escapades, the catch always birds.
I remember all the children coaxing my uncle to show us the gun’s red bullets. We all dreamed of accompanying him on hunting expeditions. At the time we were unaware that the day would never come and that guns would take on an entirely different meaning in Kashmir.
The manufacture of these guns took place not far away from my maternal grandparent’s house in Bandook Khar Mohalla. As the name suggests, bandook means gun; khar means smith. Situated in the centre of Srinagar city, Bandook Khar Mohalla was home to scores of families devoted to making the renowned guns, whose craftsmanship brought fame to the locality. I passed by the locality hundreds of times in my childhood, totally oblivious of the people or their occupation.
Things began to change in 1989 when the armed insurgency started in Kashmir. The government banned the manufacture of guns in 1990. People who owned a gun had to surrender it in the local police station. I remember feeling a sense of loss, like a child losing a toy, when my uncle told me that he had to surrender his gun. I was 10.
The guns used by the armed insurgents and the military fighting them were much more advanced than the 12-bore single and double barrel hunting guns manufactured in Bandook Khar Mohalla and the ban was revoked after two years. Even though the ban was lifted, life was not back on track for the factories.
In the last decade, from time to time, I have read stories about the conditions of the craftsmen involved in gun-making and the men trying to keep the legacy alive. Only two gun factories are left in Kashmir, and on my visit to the two-room Subhana gun factory at Bandook Khar Mohalla I felt as if being reconnected to my childhood.
As I entered a small passage filled with discarded machinery, I could smell the decay. Inside a group of people were working diligently on tables made of rough wood. Near an open window Mohammad Amin Ahangar, 50, worked quietly while puffing a cigarette. The only local craftsman among 10 other non-locals, Amin has been in the business of gun-making for thirty years. He represents what is left of a once a thriving industry in Kashmir.
“This is all I know [and] that is why I am still at it,” says Amin whose family was one of the scores of families involved in the gun manufacturing business.
Today, while only two units survive, there is no dearth of a market for the guns. There is no way to get figures says Zahoor Ahmad, the son of the factory owner. But according to Zahoor, the demand far outweighs the supply. Zahoor has to refuse orders after selling his quota, which drives him crazy. It takes the Subhana gun factory just three months to manufacture their annual quota of guns.
Ashok Bisht, a resident of Dehradun is working on a gun barrel. Ashok along with other non-locals have come to work at the Subhana gun factory because of better money. “Even though the work here is only for three months, we come here because of better pay” says Bisht, adding that it would have been much better if they would be able to work here throughout the year.
“We have to pay [the non-local labourers] double the amount that they get paid in other places like Jammu,” says Zahoor. Locals, he adds, refuse to work for them, asking what will they do for the remaining nine months.
Subhana Sons Gun Manufacturers factory was started by Mohammd Subhan Ahangar in 1925. There were around 25 units in the locality until the 1960s when an order was passed by the Indian government making it mandatory to get the guns certified by the Indian Ordinance Factory.
“Since it involved a lot of paperwork and hassles like sending the guns for the test to a far away place adding to the cost as well, the locals couldn’t keep with it resulting in the cancellation of licences,” says Bashir Ahmad Ahangar, owner of the gun factory.
Subhana has a licence to manufacture 300 guns annually. The numbers have not changed over the years. The other factory facing a similar fate has a quota of 540 guns annually. “We have a market outside the state, in places like Uttar Pardesh, Madhya Pradesh but we are in a fix as what to say to a buyer when our quota exhausts,” says Zahoor.
“We approached the authorities many times with the request of increasing our quota but have been unsuccessful,” he adds. The quota for the manufacture of guns is decided by the Ministry of Home of Government of India.
The charge against the ministry becomes graver as the manufacturers allege regional discrimination. “Why is it that so many gun factories have come up in Jammu, and the quota for the guns keeps on increasing every year while Kashmir has seen a sharp decline in the sector? Both the regions were affected by the armed insurgency,” asks Zahoor.
In the the Hindu-dominated Jammu province, both the number of gun factories and their quotas have been on rise, while the two units in Muslim-dominated Kashmir province strive to sustain on their limited quota.
As I sensed an increasing hopelessness in the voices of all the people involved, I wondered about the promises of the government. What happened to the tall claims of promoting trade and industry? When the government is claiming to try to generate and encourage new venues of employment and opportunities, why is it creating hurdles for the Subhana gun factory? When asked about this, officials just pass the buck. A few months back the Divisional commissioner of Kashmir told a national paper that the issue is with the Ministry of Home of Government of India. Period.
With such a meagre output, the six families supported by Subhana gun factory are facing difficult times. Zahoor Ahmad is determined to keep his two children away from it. “There is no future in this industry. I don’t want them to go through what I have.”
Amin echoes, “I won’t let my children look at this [profession]. I have been unemployed for long stretches. I don’t want my children to do the same. My two sons are studying and they won’t be a part of the trade.”
Meanwhile Zahoor’s father, Bashir Ahmad, still dreams of regaining Subhana’s lost glory. “Of course my grandchildren will continue the trade. The government just has to increase the quota.”
Visiting the Subhana gun factory and hearing the stories of Zahoor Ahmad, Bashir Ahmad Ahangar, and Mohammad Amin Ahangar, I am faced by a dilemma I still find difficult to get used to. It is that hope, that trust that people talking to you have, as if a journalist can change the situation somehow, as if you can correct things. The only way that I can make a difference is by writing. This is the only way I know.