He is a part-time politician and a full-time supplier of guns made in small “factories” of western Uttar Pradesh: guns of the illegal and unreliable variety. As a politician, he has no ideology, unburdened by the weight of political thought. He wants weapons, money, land and SUVs, and that’s all that there is to his politics. (“A man’s likes and dislikes, and his source of income are the only ideology that he needs,” he says.)

Rocky is a figure in white, from shirt to trousers to shoes that shine so much that they reflect the sun like mirrors. A few gold chains cover his neck; he has rings on four fingers, one of which is to keep his bursts of anger in check. His dyed hair is black as coal, and he wears big photo-chromatic glasses of the kind last seen on Rajesh Khanna in the Seventies. 

I am introduced to Rocky by Sinha, a “political assistant” to a high-profile neta in Uttar Pradesh.  Sinha says Rocky can make or break a politician’s career here, because of his sway over the gun business.

Rocky speaks with a humility most politicians display when they are lying before television cameras.

“Sometimes politicians do him favours like securing deals using their clout. Such deals are actually to secure some profit for him in return for the guns, which is risk-prone. At other times he asks for favours and ends up paying through gun supplies,” says Sinha. The respect he commands from workers across parties and the immunity he enjoys from political one-upmanship “games” is unparalleled, however. “Whether in power or out of power, everyone needs his guns.”

Rocky is also a farmer who believes in charity. He has opened dharamsalas and water kiosks, and funds schools. Through various creative subversions of the law and complex holding patterns, he has managed to own several hundred acres of the land in the Muzaffarnagar-Saharanpur region of western Uttar Pradesh.

Sinha, a frail, bespectacled man, introduced me to Rocky as “that journalist”. Rocky peppers me with questions, ranging from my marital status to my ancestral roots to my average income per annum. He gives me his number and assures me that he will soon have me travel with the guns. “Asliyat dikha denge aapko. Bas sting-ving ka chakkar na ho (You will see the reality [of the gun trade]. But no sting operation business),” he says with a smile that makes me uncomfortable.

Rocky speaks with a humility most politicians display when they are lying before television cameras.



hangel village lay at the edge of the suburb of Noida till a decade ago, when Greater Noida was just beginning to emerge as the next big concrete jungle in the National Capital Region (NCR). Back then, rickshaw pullers and auto drivers would refuse to come anywhere near it. Today it sits almost at the centre of the Noida-Greater Noida stretch. A booming retail market for sanitary ware, plumbing material and many other construction materials stretches along the road connecting the two suburbs.

Inside Bhangel, SUVs, sedans and other luxury vehicles have taken the place of tractors and bullock carts. A small temple stands in the middle of the village: the road leading up to it is still not an all-weather one. Dull brown and covered in dust, the temple is deserted, except for a priest who visits twice a day for an hour each.

Rocky makes me wait here.

In about half an hour, a Tata 407 mini-truck arrives with three men on board, including the driver. The contact person, Najeeb (name changed)—a slim, affable guy with a dark complexion—looks at me and smiles. “You seem to have reached early,” he says to hide the fact that he is late. He reminds me that carrying a mobile phone is risky, because not all the boys trust a stranger, and not all of them work directly for Rocky. “No batch is used more than once in six months. And it is important to keep a clean slate; the men should all be either freshers or at least have no criminal record. This is a seasoned batch and could be wary of phones, except for mine.”

Najeeb, who is a labour manager at Rocky’s farms, also doubles up as his front guy to supply his main produce—guns. After the warning about cell phones, he allows me to keep it but says that it should be used sparingly.

The truck, which looks like it was once blue, is used by a local dairy farmer to supply milk but had been converted to seat a few people in the back: a makeshift arrangement just for this trip. A small sign saying N/P (National Permit) is painted in red on both sides. This time, the men have been picked up from villages adjoining Noida since vehicles from the suburb are usually not checked as stringently, and because a Noida villager is richer and more business-oriented than the usual suspects.

Noida walon ke paise bolte hain. Log inhe ameer maante hain and jaante hain ki yeh bahut paisa lagate hain androoni shehron mein (For Noida residents, money talks. People consider them rich and know that they invest heavily in the interior towns),” says Najeeb as the milk truck races through the eight-lane Greater Noida roads.

Elections are around the corner and so the supply game has to be cleaner, hence the Noida van and the Noida boys. The van is empty and none of the travellers except Najeeb know where it is headed. Najeeb whispers something to the older of the two boys who is driving, and ten minutes later he is on the road to Sikandrabad, which is en route to Bulandshahr.

The other boy, who looks no older than 16, sits quietly, with a scared, nervous look on his face. He constantly looks towards the road, as if checking for people tailing them. Najeeb peacefully smokes a beedi. The silence is broken when the scared boy almost slips off his seat as the driver takes a sharp left turn. Najeeb laughs out loud and spews out a few abuses, needling the boy.

“Is it your first time?” The boy looks at Najeeb questioningly, to which he says, “Batao bhai! (Speak up!)” “It’s my second time,” the boy says and looks me back in the eye, this time looking more confident.

“What’s your name?” “Pintu.”

Once we are received by the boatmen, it is your call to either come back with us or to go with them. I shall introduce you and put in my word but we cannot take responsibility for your well-being after that.

Najeeb starts talking about politics, the upcoming elections, the Modi wave, Azam Khan, and uses the choicest of invectives for every leader of the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) in the state. He goes on to describe, second-hand, the experiences of many Muslims he knows in various districts during the rioting that has taken place in Uttar Pradesh over the past two years since the SP came to power.

Once we cross Sikandrabad, Najeeb gets behind the wheel himself. Forty-five minutes later, we pull into the old city areas of Bulandshahr. The truck zigzags through the narrow lanes. The aroma of Mughlai dishes being cooked wafts through some of them as we pass. Najeeb keeps abusing and shouting at rickshaw pullers and others on two-wheelers, shouting at them to make way for our milk truck.



e stop at a street full of flower shops. Soon we are on the second floor of an old house. The whole house—whatever of it is visible from the front door—seems filled with toys and baskets of rubber balloons yet to be moulded into the final shapes. The second floor is the storage for flowers, and here, a narrow way leads to an extremely dark section. On the edge of the alley is a kitchen, where dal is being cooked.

Najeeb pats the man cooking in the kitchen and they share pleasantries. Najeeb tells me, “Please make yourself comfortable upstairs. We shall prepare lunch.”

On the next floor is a barsati, an asbestos shed a few metres long. The asbestos is coated with soot from the fumes of cooking below. On the right is the street where the van is parked. In the front, along the length of the street, houses stand clinging to each other like matchboxes in a carton. On the terrace of the neighbouring house lies a black circular tub, almost a metre long, filled with water in which young monkeys are diving to save themselves from the sun’s onslaught.

Shortly after the evening azaan is sounded, Najeeb comes up, looking serious. He repeats what Rocky had made clear earlier. “We will set off in a few minutes for Dibai. Once we are received by the boatmen, it is your call to either come back with us or to go with them. I shall introduce you and put in my word but we cannot take responsibility for your well-being after that. The contract is usually taken by people whose identity I am not allowed to reveal, and who do not owe allegiance to anyone or anything but money.”

“Where will you go after that?”

“We will probably touch Khurja (a town) and then take the newly-built straight highway to Greater Noida and then through the (Greater Noida-Noida-Delhi) Expressway to Noida. I will personally drop you to wherever you say.”

When we leave Bulandshahr, the van is loaded with hand-knit wicker baskets, wider at the mouth and tapering to the base. There are at least 100 of these and in some of them, country-made guns—pistols, revolvers and 9mm—are stored. All have been manufactured at hideouts in and around Bulandshahr and stored in the house in the narrow lane. In local slang, these are referred to as katta, tamancha and desi rifle (pronounced “raffle”) respectively.

The van is on its way to Dibai. Just when the sun is setting on the Ganga, bathing its waters in gold, the van stops near the bank. The river is half a kilometre wide here, cutting through the muddy mounds that are two storeys tall, its flow stronger than the gusts of the evening breeze. The ground is clay, covered with dust, and is the land that the river gives up while receding in summer. A stone’s throw away on the left is a temple, painted white.

The Ganga makes a constant hissing sound, becoming loud in short bursts and then calm again. Najeeb pats me on the back and we walk to the temple. We sit on a bench outside, and he lights up a beedi.

I have a vague idea of what lies ahead: the guns will continue their journey over water now, smuggled by gun runners on a boat, people so unpredictable and suspicious that neither Rocky nor Najeeb will vouch for them.

I also have a clear knowledge of what happened to Arun Chandhary, a man who once took such a boat.



run Chaudhary was at the peak of his career as a freelance television journalist in 2006, and was the go-to man for most of the top Hindi television channels for stories from Bulandshahr district and adjoining areas. He had proven his mettle as a hard-hitting investigative reporter “with no political biases” during his stints with various local and national Hindi newspapers before he decided to make the shift to television.

By then, Chaudhary had learnt the tricks of the trade and managed to set up a small photography and videography business in partnership with his brother. “That was so that both our families had a steady flow of income. Print journalism did not pay enough to sustain me and my family. And television journalism was restricted to being a stringer. Nobody wanted a Bulandshahr correspondent,” he says.

Guddu Pandit had started as a cycle repair mechanic in Noida. He had numerous cases of murder, threats, extortion and attempt to rape registered against him over the years.

But stories from the district often received airplay at television channels. Bulandshahr is, after all, the constituency of the controversial party-hopping politician and ex-Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh, and his son Rajveer Singh. Kalyan Singh, considered a champion of the cause of the Lodha Rajput community from the region, was often in the news; mostly for the wrong reasons by 2006. His son Rajveer, who was the MLA from the Dibai constituency which falls in the district, had recently lost his seat to a newbie and a hitherto nobody: Shri Bhagwan Sharma alias Guddu Pandit.

Originally from eastern Uttar Pradesh (his old aides refer to him as “Jaunpuriya”, belonging to Jaunpur district), Guddu Pandit had started as a cycle repair mechanic in Noida. He had numerous cases of murder, threats, extortion and attempt to rape registered against him over the years. Chaudhary discovered that the smuggling of illegal weapons from Dibai, which is on the banks of the Ganga, had boomed within a few years of Pandit becoming its MLA.

Chaudhary decided to do an exposé. “It is obviously a journalist’s job to probe into such rackets and activities. I met many of his aides and even met his brother once and all said things like ‘yes, the trade has boomed’, ‘the money is flowing in’, etc. Guddu Pandit himself offered me a huge bribe once and said ‘kuch badhiya dikhaiye hamaare bare mein tv pe (show something good about me on TV)’.”

But Chaudhary would have none of it. He wanted to film the process of smuggling of the weapons. But what transpired at the banks of the Ganga changed his life forever. What happened that day is why he refuses to be photographed or filmed today.

Through his contacts, Chaudhury had managed to get permission to shoot certain parts of the illegal guns trade, footage that would look good on TV.

“There was no reason for me to fear or even worry about anything since I was being absolutely clear on my part about what I wanted. And my contact had known me for many years,” he says.

But his contact had warned him to follow instructions closely and try to avoid provocative questions. He was driven around, and then handed over to the boatmen.

“It was early in the morning, probably around 9 to 10 a.m., when I was taken aboard. There were three people and all of them were friendly.” The men had been excited about having a look at the TV camera, probably the first time they were seeing one. Chaudhary tried to win them over by taking their videos and showing them the recordings, also making sure to tell them that he was deleting them all. “I showed them that there were none left after deleting but one of the men started to grow suspicious. He asked me how much a cassette would cost and if I had another one. Knowing that I did, he said take this out and hand it over to us, which I did.”

I remembered the scars on Chaudhury’s face as I sat waiting for the boatmen. While Chaudhary had been a great swimmer in college, I could barely finish a lap in an Olympic-sized pool. And the Ganga is no pool.

Barely an hour into the ride, Chaudhary says he started asking about Guddu Pandit and how the racket worked. “This man, who was the eldest of the lot and so was more suspicious than excited, initially simply said that they were a gang of fishermen from an adjoining district and did the job of transportation to make ends meet. But later he also murmured that ‘guns speak louder than anything else in this country’.”

Chaudhary then focused his attention more on the man and started to ask him tough questions: some on the philosophy of guns, whether he had used one of the guns that he transported on anyone, and whether he was politically inclined towards a certain party. The questions seem to put the man off and he decided to sit further away from Chaudhary for a while. The men, Chaudhary says, then started to look at each other and went quiet.

And then suddenly, the man whom Chaudhary had been focusing his attention on attacked him with a dagger. His face was almost ripped open. The cut was spread across his face, both cheeks and a portion of the nose. As he bled, his face drenched in red, one of the crew threw his camera into the river while another held him by the collar and pushed him into the Ganga. “I did not know what had happened till a few seconds later when I started splashing in the water and the flow of the water started dragging me down with the river and towards the boat again. Realising I was going to die, I swam against the stream.”

Chaudhary claims he swam a few kilometres, at least, before he reached a small settlement along the river. There, a local man helped him get to a dispensary close by and get emergency stitches on his face before driving him to Bulandshahr to a private hospital. 

I remembered the scars on Chaudhury’s face as I sat outside the temple waiting for the boatmen. While Chaudhary had been a great swimmer in his college days, I could barely finish a lap in an Olympic-sized pool on a good day. And the Ganga is no pool.



t about 11 p.m., Najeeb offers me some food from the temple’s kitchen and says he is expecting the “change of shift”. Minutes later, a smartly-dressed man in his twenties, thin with a long face, wearing jeans, a mauve shirt, and black sport shoes, turns up and gives Najeeb a warm hug. They walk away towards the river, climbing down the stairs of the ghat. Najeeb has a noticeable way of dragging his feet on the ground while the man next to him walks with a swagger that the dons of Mumbai have in movies.

My decision to get on the boat would hinge on Najeeb’s feedback about the man in black sport shoes. He returns a few minutes later smiling, as if in approval. “This is Guddu,” Najeeb says, introducing the man whose moods would have a significant role to play in the next few hours of my life. “If you want to go, he will take you. But there’s no guarantee about others on the boat. As I had said, you are on your own.”

He raises his eyebrows to ask for my response. An edgy nod from me, and he says the boat is being loaded.

“So what do you want to write about? Kaunsi press se ho (What press group are you from)?” asks Guddu, in a soft but firm voice. He speaks a more robust version of Hindustani, the kind spoken in far western Uttar Pradesh, and not the more refined and respectful versions of Moradabad, Amroha or further east.

“I write for magazines here and there. This is just about writing the story of the guns.”

Ten baskets from the van are eventually shifted into the boat. They are heavy; it takes three men to move a basket. A little before 1 a.m.,  Najeeb shakes my hand and says, “Khuda hafiz”. He does not look back as he drags his feet towards the van. Guddu calls out, “Aao patrakaar ji (Come, Mr Journalist),” with special emphasis on the word “ji”: a mark of politeness and respect that comes out forced from his mouth.

It’s his way of saying he is making an effort for me.



here are  three other people in the boat. It is a diesel-powered riverboat, popularly called “steamer” as all big, powered boats were once. It makes quite a racket when started, much like the noise made by greasy, soot-coated, diesel-gulping generators kept at government offices. Boats like this one are usually used along the banks of the Ganga where the current is strong, as in Haridwar or Rishikesh and other places upstream where the river is young and violent.

I can see the picture of a peacock on the port side, lit up as it is by the halo of a near-full moon. The boat is three-fourths the size of a cricket pitch, coloured in faded patches of aquamarine blue. A bench made of planks runs around its side, skirting the engine room. The gun baskets are peeping out from under the planks. They have been covered with jute bags and tightly sewed off. Passengers have handles dangling from a rod that runs above the planks to hold on to.

The man with the controls, clad in white kurta-pyjama, ignores my presence while the one sitting next to him is guarding the four fuel cans, each of five-litre capacity. The two men sit close to each other at the back of the boat while Guddu sits in the middle facing me; an elderly man is next to him, wearing nothing but a blue dhoti, folded up till his knees, constantly shaking his spindly legs. He keeps staring hard at me; his wrinkled face with hollow cheeks remains expressionless. His chest hair is all grey, and he is bald save for a few specks of silver.

His dark, probing eyes make me nervous. Is this the same man who threw Arun Chaudhary into the Ganga eight years ago? Is he trying to find out if I know him?

The man on the controls pulls a coiled-up string to start the engine in one attempt. Going against the tide, the boat seems to struggle for close to 10 minutes till he manages to manoeuvre it to the middle where the current is more forgiving.

The sky is clear, it’s all moon and not a trace of cloud. The old man smokes beedi after beedi and keeps staring at me. Everyone once in a while, he shifts his gaze for a few seconds to look at the men handling the controls.

“So ask; what do you want to know?” Guddu suddenly punctures the silence in the air.

“Where are the guns made?”

“Where you came from. See, the problem is that these areas belong to farmers and farming is the main occupation. But farming does not pay well enough to sustain big families any more. Expenses have risen faster, much faster. So to augment their incomes many households in the region make these weapons.”

“In every village?’

 “No, now it has all become organised. Those who know the art of making weapons are given contracts every month. It is a chain and one has to be part of it to benefit. Some villages have many manufacturers while many others have none. Have you ever seen the locally made guns?”


“Then you know how easy it is to manufacture kattas (a single shot revolver that usually takes .38 calibre bullets). Tamanchas (are single-barrel shotguns; often the two terms are used interchangeably and the usage also varies across north India) require a little complicated expertise but good workers do a fine job with them.”

The business model of the weapons trade is straightforward. If you are introduced to the racket, you get a trial order and based on the quality of the product future orders are placed: all in person, keeping cell phones totally out of the picture. Rocky is one of the guys who heads the racket and arranges for buyers and payments. He is the insurance cover for the manufacturers since he never makes payments in kind; it is always cash. He manages the supply chains and arranges for weapons to be transported to spots from where they can be delivered to the buyers.

Uttar Pradesh tops the list of states in the country in terms of private arms licences issued,  11.23 lakh licences. In comparison, the state’s police force has only 2.5 lakh weapons.

At times the guns are also hidden in tractors or bullock carts or supplied through human couriers, each of them carrying two or three guns when the security arrangements are tight or the target destination quite far off. Najeeb too mentioned supplying guns in his rucksack to a buyer in Aligarh once.

 “What is the kind of money involved?”

 “Don’t you know already? You can buy weapons ranging from ₹2,000 to ₹70,000- ₹80,000 nowadays. Elections aa rahe hain bhai, iss waqt toh demand bahut zyada hai (Elections are approaching brother, the demand is very high nowadays). And so is the money you can demand. A 20-40 per cent hike has taken place already at the end-user phase, and so the profits trickle down to people like us too.”



ne of the reasons the market for the illegal guns manufactured in Bulandshahr has picked up in the past few years is the crackdown by the police on the two other major arms manufacturing districts in the country: Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and Munger in Bihar. The police were able to trace some of the guns used in crimes committed in Delhi to Muzaffarnagar and caught some suppliers: people like Najeeb. Munger, on the other hand, has been the hub for the manufacture of sophisticated weapons including the rare replicas of AK-47s, the parts for which are smuggled into the country through the porous Nepal border. Anti-terror and anti-Maoist operations experts traced many of the weapons used by Maoists and terror groups like the Indian Mujahideen to Munger and since then, the crackdown on the manufacturers has been severe, leaving a void which Bulandshahr has now started to fill.

While the technological knowhow and supply of the smuggled parts, which are mostly picked up from grey markets in southeast Asian countries or Pakistan, has not yet reached Bulandshahr, it is now the top manufacturer of kattas and tamanchas in the country, sources in the Uttar Pradesh police say.

“In fact, the supply of the dealers is so well-spread and organised in the state that all of west UP and most of central UP till Lucknow is now a market of illegal weapons, including sophisticated rifles,” said a senior UP police officer presently posted in Lucknow, who has served for more than 15 years in west UP and has studied the illegal arms trade closely. “You can walk into a city with money in your pocket and chances are that if you are unarmed, new to town, and can pay top-end prices, you will be able to buy a gun within 48 hours. Suppliers will get a whiff within no time and you will have a range of items to choose from since suppliers also focus on new designs now,” he says.

The manufacturers and their suppliers also have informants within the police force and pay them so well that even a whiff of suspicion in an informant’s mind reaches them and they wrap up the manufacturing for a certain time. The AK-47s and other weapons are now mostly manufactured in the Nepal-Bihar region and smuggled in only for specific orders, that too over a long period so as to raise no suspicion. “Sometimes specific parts are smuggled in over a few months and assembled by the supplier in India before making the delivery,” says the police officer.

Uttar Pradesh tops the list of states in the country in terms of number of private arms licences issued. As per an affidavit submitted by the Government of India in the Allahabad High Court on October 9, 2013, 11.23 lakh private arms licences have been issued in the state. In comparison, the state’s police force has only 2.5 lakh weapons. And west and central UP districts are on top of the list: 25,586 people hold private arms licences in Meerut; 25,693 in Moradabad; 15,341 in Muzaffarnagar; 15,363 in Ghaziabad; and a whopping 45,917 in Bareilly and 48,436 in Lucknow, the highest for any district in the country.

The number of licences issued in Bareilly and Lucknow is higher than the licences issued in the whole of Gujarat: 44,882. The licence holders in the state include 6,000 people with criminal charges against them, who are mostly politicians or have political connections.

Politicians and people with political connections want to empower their men and the easiest way to do so is to procure illegal weapons. The demand for illegal weapons goes up drastically ahead of elections, ranging from moderate to extremely high respectively in case of corporation, panchayat, assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

All these weapons are simply given away as gifts for infusing a macho outlook. This trend of gifting weapons is a tradition now, and police sources say that with every election, the number of weapons manufactured and supplied goes up. “(UP) police’s internal intelligence estimates that in the past six months, close to one crore have been manufactured and supplied within the state while a similar number of weapons have been supplied outside the state. Of course, such large-scale manufacturing also leads to unusable weapons being circulated in the market but there is no way of estimating that figure,” says the police official.

The number of guns confiscated from suppliers ahead of elections runs into just a few thousands, which hardly hurts the manufacturers. To top it all, the maximum sentence for manufacture or supply of illegal guns is just five years, and suppliers like Rocky offer legal help as well as basic insurance for the families of people who are caught in the police net through their political and financial clout.

The crime figures of UP clearly show that illegal weapons are widely used for murder, extortion and other crimes of the state. In the four years from 2009 to 2012, the ratio of number of murders committed using legal weapons to the murders committed using illegal weapons rose constantly; it was 172:745 in 2009; 114:778 in 2010; 135:1,049 in 2011; and 145:1,575 in 2012, roughly 1:11 two years back. But the number of illegal weapons not used to commit crimes is much higher. “For every legal weapons licence, there are an estimated 40 illegal weapons on an average in the state.”

Almost three months before the Election Commission announced the dates for the general elections, the Uttar Pradesh police conducted an internal exercise to determine the number of illegal weapons in the state. In every district, the local intelligence units (LIUs) were asked to prepare an estimate of the number of illegal weapons in their jurisdictions. The figures sent by the LIUs in Uttar Pradesh’s 54 districts totalled up to 4.5 crore, said a senior police officer.

This means that on an average, every fourth person in the state owns an illegal weapon.

The International Action Network on Small Arms—a United Nations-recognised NGO that seeks to reduce the proliferation of small arms around the world—had estimated in 2012 that out of the 7.5 crore illegal weapons in circulation worldwide, India accounted for close to 4 crore, which is less than the estimated number of guns in UP today. “The raw material is freely available for manufacture of weapons now. People who have been in this business for generations have devised ingenious ways to replicate international quality arms in their backyards. In such a scenario how can anyone estimate the numbers? It is a futile exercise.”



he boat moves at close to 30 kilometres per hour, trudging past small settlements. The route being taken does not seem to pass any important town or city, making the boat almost undetectable at night. River patrolling in Uttar Pradesh is almost non-existent.

I ask Guddu, “So, why are the guns needed during the elections?”

“During rallies politicians have to show  muscle and their ability to defend their people. Celebrations require gunfire. These are the crackers for their henchmen. And the more guns a particular group under a politician or group of politicians possesses, better are the chances of them making an impact on the village voters. Guns can get any work done, and the villagers know it very well.”

It is, after all, a feudal society where machismo is celebrated, or at least respected more than a person’s ability to serve well. If a loyal voter needs help, a man with a gun and a man with organisational skills are sent with him, and his work gets done in no time. A man who has the ability to deliver results so quickly surely deserves to be voted to power. And a bahubali needs his guns.

There are signs that dawn is breaking, and I feel a current of relief and confidence through my body. The first pale blue light makes everyone on the boat rub their eyes open. On the mud mounds that we pass by, people who have had an early start are bathing and praying in the holy waters.



uddu asks, “Have you ever seen a (desi) rifle?” He pulls out a basket and unties the packing. Then he puts his hand in and pulls out a brand new rifle, almost half a metre in length. It is a non-automatic gun with a single barrel. 

The metal on it shines bright in the moonlight and the smoothness of its surface indicates that the smith has done a perfect job. The stock seems to have been made out of wood from an old, sturdy piece of furniture. The wood has been polished well and almost glows, dark beige. The barrel looks thicker than usual 9mm rifles, probably to make it stronger and to prevent it from bursting open when a shot is fired.

Barreta toh jaante ho na? Usi ki bullet dalti hai isme (You surely know what a Beretta is, don’t you? The bullet used in it is the one used in this too),” Guddu says, referring to the 9mm bullets. “Magazine wali guns bhi aati hain. But voh Nepal-Bihar mein zyada achhi banti hain, yahaan nahi (Guns that are compatible with magazines are available too. But the ones manufactured in Nepal and Bihar are of better quality, not the ones made here).”

He aims at me and pulls the trigger. It is an empty shot, but he has a whale of a time looking at my expression. It is probably a chuckle, but I gulp, what could have been my last. He then puts the gun back and settles it in softly, putting a few flowers around it, some of them roses, though the baskets smell of marigold. I notice that the sights of the rifle were made out of a piece of metal that looks like an old door bolt. The bolt had been hollowed out to fit in as a sight viewer.



ut of nowhere, we hit a small barrage. It is the only one on the stretch from Muzaffarnagar till beyond Bulandshahr. The men carry the boat out of the water after we alight. Two men smoking beedis are already present there. It is dawn and the men rush. Within minutes the boat has been carried across a kuccha road which leads to a steel barrage a few meters on the right and has been deposited on the other side of the river on brown slippery mud; the river looks a little narrow now.

 The baskets are safe, and Guddu gives the men a gentle nod after which they disappear into the fields across the banks. No pleasantries were shared, nobody spoke. The small fuel tank of the boat is filled up for the third time after Dibai and it starts off again; the noise does not seem to worry me now. It is dawn, and Guddu drinks water, mentioning that in a few hours we would reach Garh.

Back on the river, with the banks more bushy and green now, I ask Guddu, “So what is in it for you?”

He says he runs a scrap business and that he supplies useable iron scrap to a lot of manufacturers in the Meerut-Bulandshahr stretch. “As a favour to some of them, I started doing this chaukidari ka kaam (watchman’s job) a few years back. Initially the money was a bonus but gradually it has become so good that I make at least one trip every month to keep the finances going good.”

“How much is it now?”

“It is between ₹60,000 and ₹1,00,000 depending on the consignments. For Chacha too it is around the same,” he says patting the old man in the blue dhoti, who has now grown bored with me and just looks away, smoking his beedis. “For the boatmen, these two, it is around ₹20,000 each. And they arrange everything, including the temporary hideouts.”

Chacha, the two boatmen and Guddu then start chatting about various things that have happened in their lives since they last met. They seem more relaxed now. Chacha speaks in a trembling voice, but is very categorical in his statements. He exudes authority and the men in the boat respect him. He is a veteran and a man with influence on these waters.

The discussions are as random as they are interesting. “Food at someone’s son’s marriage was quite bad”,  “someone to whom one of the boatmen owed money was acting too stern even after repeated requests for more time”, “someone’s daughter is said to have run away with a neighbour but returned after two days; parents deny it, say she had gone to a relative’s place because her mother scolded her.”



arh Mukteshwar, or Garh as it is commonly referred to, is the second most popular site in the western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana region after Haridwar for the relatives of the dead to immerse the remains in the Ganga. Before the road bridge, with the NH-24 passing over it, at least 200 to 250 row boats can be seen on the left. On the right, across the river, some fishermen are at work.

The waters have created small embankments-cum-plateaus in the middle of the river. Our steamer heads towards the right bank, away from the noise and crowding at the south bank on the left. Fishermen give us short stares as we pass a few metres away from them, intrigued by the presence of the outsider while recognising the others instantly. Some even raise their eyebrows and nod to Guddu and Chacha

Chacha is extremely active now, his eyes sharp and looking across the banks, alert to danger. The steamer stops at a small island close to the north bank of the river, where another, smaller boat is waiting, with two men on board. The island is overrun with bushes, there’s hardly any space to walk. The two boatmen, both with moustaches, sturdy and tall, hand over the baskets to the men on the other boat with some help from Guddu, while Chacha watches over and keeps muttering “fatafat, fatafat (swiftly, swiftly)”. Immediately after the baskets are transferred, the steamer is turned around and heads for the other bank of the river.

“What happens to these baskets now?” I ask.

Chacha stares at me with menace. Guddu says, “The next batch will take the delivery from here, through other boats or the same boatmen, later on. From here they can be transferred through roads at night.” Garh is barely a four- or five-hour drive along NH-24 from Delhi and there is only one major checkpoint for commercial vehicles along the route. For private vehicles like cars and SUVs, however, there is no threat of being caught while supplying or carrying illegal weapons. Ghaziabad, Muzaffarnagar and Meerut are little more than an hour away, and can be reached through interior village roads, avoiding the highway altogether.

In short, for the illegal weapons to enter Delhi, the courier would have to take minimum risks.  Najeeb had told me earlier that deals for the customers from Haryana are made in Delhi, and the supplies and money exchange also happens at locations in the national capital.

As the steamer comes to a halt, Guddu asks, “Shaam tak rukoge? Agle launde se introduction kara dunga aage tak chhod dega shayad aapko (Want to wait till the evening? I will introduce you to the next courier, he’ll drop you till much further along the road probably).” On seeing my hands raised half in the air, he laughs out loud condescendingly and pats me on the back.

Chacha has whispered a few things to the two boatmen, who now look at me with  renewed suspicion. Guddu offers a handshake and heads off towards the temple, while Chacha and one of the boatmen head eastward along the banks, walking swiftly, barefoot. The other boatman walks with me till the market, saying, in a coarse voice, “Aage hotel vagairah hain. Kuch khana ho toh kha lo! (There are hotels ahead, eat if you are hungry!).”

I say “Okay, I’ll see” as he heads off in a different direction. At every step there is a feeling that someone behind me is walking dangerously close to me. I try to act as if the last night never happened. I walk at an even pace when I feel like running to the nearest bus station. I stop at a few shops along the way to show that I am not running away. I try not to remember that there was a boat barrelling across the Ganga on a moonlit night with a scruffy crew who would have thrown me overboard at the first hint of doubt. That the katta, tamachas and the desi rifles were in flower baskets. That the guns were covered with roses and marigolds.