For three bloody days, just 10 determined killers held a city of 18 million hostage. The sheer ignominy of this fact has jolted Mumbaikars — and Indians — out of their fabled chalta hai (anything goes) attitude, and into a burst of citizen activism. Even Mumbai’s business community has shed its habitual political timidity and filed an extraordinary public-interest lawsuit demanding that the government fulfill its constitutional obligation to protect its citizens.
But Indians shouldn’t just stop there. They should also demand reform of the country’s draconian gun laws — a holdover from British times — that prevent them from defending themselves. That would surely deliver far quicker results than waiting for India’s slow-moving political classes to plug the vast lacunae in the country’s security apparatus. A police officer stands guard as Muslims offer Eid al-Adha prayers in Mumbai.
After all, what was particularly infuriating about the Mumbai attacks was not just that the Indian government failed to prevent them, even though it had received repeated warnings. Nor was it their tragic death toll; Mumbai, after all, experienced worse in the coordinated series of bombings in 1993 and 2006. Rather, it was that had there been anything resembling meaningful resistance, the attackers never would have been able to stage the kind of spectacle they did. Before they holed up in the Taj and Oberoi Hotels, they seemed to operate with almost complete impunity, freely moving from one target to another.
The same duo that opened fire at Café Leopold — among the first targets — managed to escape undetected and join their comrades at the Taj Mahal Hotel — a few miles away — before the police could even catch their breath. Likewise, the pair that attacked Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus subsequently hopped over to Cama Hospital, where they killed three top antiterrorism officials, hijacked the officials’ van and sped away — shooting at onlookers the whole time. And while at the Terminus — named, ironically enough, after a fearless Maratha warrior-king — the two gunmen marched up and down the station emptying their machine guns into commuters as the police stood by paralyzed, bolt-action rifles and lathis (bamboo sticks) in hand.
The true problem was not a shortage of heroism in those three horrible days. The courageous staff at the two hotels was nothing if not heroic, likely saving as many people as the police watched being killed. At the Taj, one employee even took the bullets for a group of guests he was trying to escort to safety.
But if the hotel staff could take bullets, the question is why couldn’t they return them? The reason, as P.R.S. Oberoi, chairman of Oberoi Group, noted, is that none of the hotel’s security staff was armed, thanks to the country’s strict gun laws that make it virtually impossible to obtain permits. This is also perhaps why the gunmen moved around the city as if they owned it without fearing that anyone would shoot back.
India’s gun laws have their genesis in colonial policy when — following the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny — British authorities drastically restricted gun ownership. So notorious were these laws that even the great apostle of nonviolence Mahatma Gandhi condemned them. “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest,” he said.
Although the Indian government repealed these laws after Independence, it replaced them with ones almost equally hostile toward its citizens in 1959. It created a new licensing authority and gave it virtual carte blanche to deny permits. It also restricted private manufacturing to primitive munitions that no one wanted while subsequently banning imports, all of which has made guns prohibitively expensive.
The consequence is that India has among the lowest gun ownership rates in the world — four guns per 100 residents, according to estimates by Martin Killias and his colleagues at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. By contrast, the U.S. has a rate of 90 per 100; Canada, 31.5; Thailand, 16; and Pakistan, 12. But the most relevant comparison might be with Israel — another country facing a chronic terrorist threat — where 15% of adults carry concealed handguns, according to John Lott of University of Maryland.
One of the big obstacles to gun liberalization in India is the fear that more guns will lead to more violence, given that India is a tinder box of sectarian tensions ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. In fact, more gun ownership — especially by India’s minorities — might have a deterrent effect. But India could at least begin by relaxing gun laws for business establishments — malls, hotels, corporate offices — that are particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. These businesses could be allowed to acquire state-of-the-art weapons. In exchange, they could be held accountable for whom they entrust with the weapons and how they are deployed, creating an incentive for them to conduct their own background checks. Such a policy would not only make it easier for businesses to defend themselves, but it would also allow the government to direct more security resources toward airports, train stations, bus terminals and other public infrastructure that only it can defend.
No open society can completely protect itself against all acts of terrorism. Security resources are always finite and the potential terrorist targets always infinite. But India’s government surely can do a better job of protecting its citizens. Ultimately Indians can’t count on their government alone. They need to also reserve the right — and the means — to defend themselves.