“In my opinion liberal grant of arms licences will reduce crimes, and not increase them (as some people imagine). The criminal will be afraid to attack law-abiding citizens if the latter are armed.” So declaimed a newly-appointed judge of the Allahabad High Court in 1993 in what was to be one of his first landmark judgments. Forward 20 years in time, and it is clear that Justice Markandey Katju has stuck to his guns.
As the Press Council of India chairman aims for actor Sanjay Dutt’s pardon in illegal arms possession case, it is clear that his stance has remained unchanged after all these years. The right to life, Katju had held, included the right to protect one’s life in self-defence. He went on declare the right to bear arms a fundamental right.
Incidentally, Dutt - whose cause Katju has spent the last week espousing - had taken the defence that the AK-56 rifle and the 9 mm pistol he had acquired before the 1993 blasts were for “self-defence”, not terror. The Supreme Court agreed with this explanation while acquitting him under TADA, but upheld his conviction under the Arms Act.
The case decided by Katju related to Ganesh Chandra Bhatt, who had applied for a licensed revolver. Despite getting the required clearances, his grant of licence was not recommended, without any assigned reason. Bhatt approached the Allahabad High Court, where Katju ruled that if an arms licence for a non-prohibited weapon was not granted within three months of being applied for, it would be deemed to have been granted.
Notably, the judgment was delivered a day before the 1993 bomb blasts. Katju drew on his knowledge of Hindu scriptures, citing the worship of weapons at Dussehra and the use of arms in the Mahabharata to support the argument that “possession of arms [in India] was regarded as a sign of dignity and self-respect.”
The judgment was subsequently overruled by later decisions, as ‘processing time limits’ that Katju introduced in his judgment were not in the Arms Act. In the post-Babri demolition atmosphere in the country, Katju opined that disarming Indians was a British policy adopted after the Revolt of 1857, and needed to be done away with.
“One has to see the present day conditions in the country. It seems that law and order is breaking down everywhere, and anarchy and chaos is becoming rampant… Even small time criminals are armed with country made pistols and bombs, while the more ‘sophisticated’ ones are using Kalashnikovs and AK-47s. This state of affairs must be taken into account while construing Article 21.”
The judgment argued that the right to bear arms is part of the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to protection of life and personal liberty. He also cited the US Constitution’s specific provision of this right. Katju had acknowledged that what he was doing amounted to “judicial legislation”, but cast aside his own aspersions by acknowledging that these days, “judges also legislate”.
Gun control debate in the US
A debate rages in the United States over gun ownership. The right to bear arms is expressly enshrined in the American Constitution, but comes at a heavy price. The country boasts a high gun violence rate and has seen some of the most gruesome gun crimes in the world, the most recent being the Connecticut shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children dead.