The Bihar government’s determination to crack down on illegal gun trading and crime and its reluctance to issue gun licences have taken a toll on Munger’s once flourishing gun factories, which are the oldest in the country.
Munger, which goes to the polls on April 29, rose to prominence in the 18th century when Kasim Ali Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, shifted his capital from Murshidabad to Munger and set up gun factories here. Since then, the tradition of gun-making has continued in Munger. So much so that it had become almost a cottage industry.
The British chose Jamalpur in Munger district as the site for the first rail locomotive workshop in the country because of the availability of skilled workers here, most of whom were the descendants of gun makers and fabricators of steel weapons.
However, Munger’s gun industry, which has always been a major driver of its economy, is in a shambles now. At the Baijnath unit, for instance, all its seven workers are on a strike, demanding a 30 per cent wage hike. “Their demand is justified, but how can I hike wages when the business is making losses,” Kumar asks helplessly. “In fact, I am only able to keep them because I have some income from other sources,” he says.
In 2017, the unit sold 140 guns, but sales came down to 46 in 2018. And this year, Kumar has sold only 20 guns so far. The Baijnath unit, which got its licence in 1950, is permitted to manufacture 119 guns a year. The strategic location of Munger, which is surrounded by the river Ganga on three sides and by the Kharagpur hills on the other, gave an impetus to the gun manufacturing factories in the early days. More recently, during the Indo-China War of 1962, Munger’s gun factories supplied the country with the much sought after .410 bore Muscut guns.
Even until two decades back, Munger’s gun industry employed at least 2,200 people. Now, barely 20-25 employees work in the four-five operational units, says Tarkeshwar Sharma, who owns Saukhi & Sons, which was set up in 1885.
The gun-making units in Munger are together authorised to manufacture around 13,000 guns per year. Uttam Kumar, 46, owner of Biro & Co, a unit set up by his great grandfather, has been unable to sell even a single gun in the last two years. Kumar has a stock of 200 guns worth about Rs 40 lakh waiting to be sold. Some of these guns were manufactured a decade ago.
Kumar says he would have had to shut shop had he not been earning a small income from agriculture and real estate. Till 2016, he used to employ nine workers at his unit. Today, he employs just one.
“Five decades ago, my grandfather used to pay wealth tax — he became so rich in this business. Now, we are nowhere near that bracket,” he says. His unit is licensed to manufacture 389 double-barrel shot guns and single-barrel breech-loading guns. Most guns in Munger are hand-made and the use of machines is minimal.
Thakur Naresh Singh, who owns one of the biggest gun wholesale shops in Munger town, throws light on the political backdrop of the gun manufacturing business. “The business was thriving when the Congress was in power. Then, during the Ram janmabhoomi movement in the 1990s when Kalyan Singh was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, there was a lot of demand,” he says, adding that the price of guns had shot up to Rs 20,000 — five times the market price in those days. Customers at that time included those from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, apart from Bihar.
But when Nitish Kumar became the chief minister of Bihar in 2005, there was a crackdown on the licence for the possession of guns, says Singh, who has been in the business since 1964. “This is at the heart of the distress,” he says.
Singh hasn't sold a single gun in the last one year and earns an income by repairing guns or by keeping others’ guns in his safe house.
Despite the collapse of Munger’s gun industry, illegal guns continue to be manufactured. Last week, the police arrested Mohammed Parvez Chand, supposedly the president of the Munger district unit of the youth wing of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), in connection with the recovery of AK-47 guns in Munger. The police have recovered 22 illegal AK-47 guns in the district in the last one year. Crimes committed in other states, including the national capital region, have often involved illegal guns that can be traced to Munger.
Most gun factory owners demand a liberal gun licence regime. Gyan Prakash Sharma, 60, proprietor at Armstrong & Co, says no violent crime in the region has been committed by those holding a valid licence. Easier access to licences would boost the demand for guns and also provide employment, he says.
“Munger’s identity was its gun factories,” says Thakur Naresh Singh. “I hope it doesn't become history.”