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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
“In every village?’
“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
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
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
“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
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.
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
“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