Weddings, guns, funerals: Celebratory firings continue to kill in north India

Despite being a punishable offence, the practice of celebratory firings at weddings and parties continues to thrive in parts of north India, claiming lives and injuring scores of people. The easy availability of alcohol and the rise of gun culture can prove to be a deadly combination. Amit Bhelari and Mayank Kumar report from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh on how celebratory firings are resulting in deaths, including of children

December 23, 2023 05:27 am | Updated 03:40 pm IST

 Rekha Devi, 23, holds the photo of her husband Subhash Yadav, who was shot dead during celebratory firing at a wedding in Tetariahi village of Badhara panchayat in Supaul district, Bihar.

Rekha Devi, 23, holds the photo of her husband Subhash Yadav, who was shot dead during celebratory firing at a wedding in Tetariahi village of Badhara panchayat in Supaul district, Bihar. | Photo Credit: Nagendra Kumar Singh

It was past midnight on May 19 when Ankush Yadav, 13, left home to attend tilak, a male-dominated ceremony held at the groom’s house before a wedding. The event was being conducted just 200 metres from Ankush’s house in Thallu Bigha village in Ghoshi block of Jehanabad district, Bihar. While red vermillion was applied on the foreheads of the men, the women who had been called to entertain the 500-odd guests began dancing on stage.

As Bhojpuri music blared on, alochol flowed freely, and the tent throbbed with life, Ankush went up on stage. Minutes later, deafening sounds rang through the night and Ankush, a student of Class 7, suddenly dropped to the floor. A man called Priyanshu Kumar had fired a shot from a country-made gun and the bullet had hit Ankush’s stomach, say the police.

Recalling the events of that tragic night, 35-year-old Kusum Devi, Ankush’s mother, says a villager rushed to their house and informed them of the incident. When she ran to the spot, the place was pitch dark and quiet. The tent where the performers and guests in sparkly clothes were dancing energetically just moments ago was deserted.

“I walked 100 meters and saw a black Marshal car,” Kusum says. “I asked the people standing near it about my son. Initially they said that they didn’t know anything, but I could hear his voice. He was in pain.”

When Kusum peered into the car, she saw Ankush lying on the back seat in a pool of blood. The villagers told her that he had suffered a small injury and that they were taking him to the hospital. “They did not allow me to touch my son,” she says. “They drove away. I waited, but they didn’t return.” After two hours, the police reached the spot. They informed her that Ankush was dead and that his body had been sent for postmortem.

The practice of celebratory firings, where men fire shots in the air at weddings and birthday parties, is common in north India, especially in Bihar, Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. Though a punishable offence inviting imprisonment of up to two years, a fine of ₹1 lakh, or both, the dangerous practice continues to thrive, claiming lives and injuring scores of people. According to police data, celebratory firings in Bihar claimed 19 lives just between January and November this year, besides leaving over 35 injured. The maximum number of cases were reported in the Shahabad region, which includes the Bhojpur, Rohtas, and Kaimur districts. In 2022, 99 incidents of celebratory firings claimed eight lives and left 36 injured. But official figures seldom include incidents which take place in rural areas, which are never reported unless the video footage goes viral.

‘A status symbol’

Kusum’s biggest regret is that Ankush was not treated on time. She says he was alive for an hour after he was hit by the bullet, but died because he was not taken to the nearest hospital, 20 kilometres from the village.

Ankush’s uncle Biranj Yadav, who accompanied his nephew to the event but left early, says, “Many people were on stage with the dancer. All of them were drunk. Some of them were waving their guns. Later, one of them fired a shot, which hit Ankush.”

Thirty-eight-year-old Suchit Yadav, Ankush’s father, is a farmer with 2 kathas of land (6.26 decimals). After taking a loan from his landlords, Suchit constructed a four-room house with ₹2 lakh. “I was hoping to paint the house by Diwali, but I lost my son before that. His room was next to mine. Today, it is empty. Who will stay in this room now,” he says weeping.

The room is empty except for a wooden cot and a grass cutter. Outside the house, Suchit’s buffalo and calf stare ahead listlessly. Suchit, whose only source of income is farming, is now left with one son, Luv Kush Yadav, 11.

Suchit Yadav, 38, and Kusum Devi, 35, lost their son Ankush to celebratory firing in Thallu Bigha village in Ghoshi block in Jehanabad district, Bihar.

Suchit Yadav, 38, and Kusum Devi, 35, lost their son Ankush to celebratory firing in Thallu Bigha village in Ghoshi block in Jehanabad district, Bihar. | Photo Credit: Nagendra Kumar Singh

Suchit was not at home when the incident happened. “I was in Kanpur selling vegetables. My wife told me about it and I returned to the village. I will never go back to Kanpur,” he says.

Thallu Bigha village falls under Lakhawar Panchayat. The panchayat head, Vijay Shao, terms the incident “unfortunate.” He says he has been pleading with the villagers not to engage in celebratory firings. “But who listens,” he shrugs. “Celebratory firings are a status symbol.”

The police say three rounds were fired on stage that night. Priyanshu, the accused, is the brother of the groom. The Ghosi police have arrested Priyanshu and his father Mithlesh Yadav. According to a villager, Mithlesh attempted to reach a compromise with the victim’s family by offering a sum of ₹4 lakh. But Suchit was firm that he would fight the case. The two accused have been charged under Section 302 (punishment for murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and provisions of the Arms Act, 1959. Both the father and son are in jail. The case is still going on.

‘Our family is ruined’

In Kotiya Pure Dhani village in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Kumar was setting up a tent for haldi, a pre-wedding ceremony where turmeric is applied on the bride and groom’s body, at the house of Phul Chandra Dubey on the evening of December 8. Dubey’s daughter was to get married the next day. As the guests danced to racy tunes, Pintu Mishra, Dubey’s nephew, suddenly fired shots in the air with a licensed pistol. Chaos ensued as Ajay fell down, unconscious. He had been shot in the head. He died the same day while getting treated at a government hospital in Prayagraj, 60 km away. Ajay was only 16.

“Our family is ruined,” says Suresh, Ajay’s father, a resident of the neighbouring Kundanpur village. “Ajay shared all the responsibilities of the family.” Suresh, a Dalit labourer with no ancestral land, says his son dreamed of starting his own work in the tent market after saving some money.

Pintu, 28, was charged under provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and Section 304 (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the IPC.

Just 140 km from Kotiya Pure Dhani village, in Qaiserbagh locality in Lucknow, Ayush Khare, 22, an undergraduate dropout who worked at a private firm, was killed during a pre-wedding ceremony of his friend’s sister. Ayush was the only child. During the festivities on December 10, Ayush got into an altercation with 24-year-old Tuskar Sonkar, a resident of Qaiserbagh with a criminal record. Tuskar took out a pistol and fired at Ayush, who died on the spot.

“Tushar is a history sheeter. He couldn’t believe that someone would dare to challenge him. He killed Ayush in a fit of anger,” says Sudhakar Singh, Inspector at the Qaiserbagh police station in Lucknow.

The police say celebratory firings take place irrespective of the communities to which the men belong. India’s rising gun culture and the easy availability of alcohol can prove to be a deadly combination, they contend.

Rajesh Pandey, a police official in Uttar Pradesh, says, “In my career spanning 35 years, I have seen at least 300 cases of celebratory firing where people have suffered injuries or died. Most of these cases came from rural areas. The accused were almost always intoxicated.”

In Uttar Pradesh, at least 15 such incidents in the last 11 months have led to injuries or death. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2021, 71 deaths were reported due to accidental firing in the State. The prevalence of celebratory firings forced the Allahabad High Court to act in 2014. Taking note of the gun culture during celebrations, the Court banned the issuing of arms licences by the district administration barring exceptional cases of threat. It added that private citizens possess nearly five times the number of guns compared to the Uttar Pradesh police. The Court stopped Uttar Pradesh from issuing arms licences after it emerged that 5,730 people with licensed guns were facing criminal charges, most of which related to celebratory firings. However, the Court lifted its ban in November 2017 after gun sellers petitioned it saying their business had nearly shut.

‘Our dreams are shattered’

On May 3, Subhash Yadav, 24, a male dancer, was shot dead in Tetariahi village of Badhara panchayat in Supaul district, 253 km from Patna. Yadav used to dance wearing women’s clothes — a folk form called Launda Nach. His death has left his wife, Rekha Devi, 23, distraught and financially insecure. She now has to take care of their three children on her own.

Three days after the incident, Vipin Yadav, the brother of the groom, was arrested by the police and charged under Section 302 of the IPC and provisions of the Arms Act. Months later, his brother-in-law Pankaj Yadav was also arrested. Shubhash’s father Suresh says Vipin and Pankaj were demanding that his son dance to a song of their choice. Vipin fired a shot from a country-made gun, and the bullet struck Subhash on the chest, he says.

“My son was an artist. He used to earn ₹5,000-8,000 at every wedding. He was interested in dancing from the age of 10 and I encouraged him. That was also the reason why he only studied till Class 5. I regret that he agreed to dance at that wedding,” says Phulia Devi, 45, Subhash’s mother.

Rekha Devi says the couple had been married for six years and were very happy. “Whenever he performed at a wedding, he would bring home food and gifts. He wanted our children to get government jobs. He wanted our youngest son, born last year, to become a successful officer. Our dreams are shattered,” she cries.

A few months ago, Subhash had bought a sewing machine for Rekha so that she could learn tailoring and contribute to the family’s finances. After the death of her husband, she has not touched the machine.

Gultan Yadav, Subhash’s maternal uncle, says, “One day before the baraat (the groom’s wedding procession), Anil had come home and asked Subhash to dance. He agreed; he was happy that he’d get some money. Who knew that such an unfortunate incident would take place?” He says the family has spent ₹2.5 lakh in fighting the case. In this incident too, the man who fired the gun in the dry State of Bihar was drunk.

The use of country-made guns

Brandishing guns and firing shots is seen as a sign of masculinity, says B.N. Prasad, Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the A.N Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna. “Not only dominant castes, but other castes including Other Backward Classes also engage in the practice. Every emerging caste wants to carry forward the dominance power structure. People show their strength to maintain hegemony in society. They used to demonstrate muscle power in earlier times; now, they use weapons. This is a feudalistic practice. It glorifies the image of the macho man,” he says.

As many deaths and injuries have taken place due to celebratory firings, the Bihar Police have come up with a new set of guidelines. “The organisers of all social functions have to sign a declaration form that no firearm will be used. Members from both the bride and groom’s side are asked to give an undertaking that weapons, including licensed ones, will not be used,” says Additional Director General of Police, Law and Order, Sanjay Singh. He says 100 people have been arrested and 21 arms have been seized in 2023 in connection with cases of celebratory firing. In such cases, the Superintendents of Police have been asked to cancel the licence of arms with the order of the District Magistrate and ensure that no licence is given in the future.

Amit Anand, the owner of Capital Gun House in Patna, says they provide arms to people only after verifying the documents with the District Magistrate’s office. “We don’t know how the buyers use them. That is not our job. Our business is already down; we only sell 2-3 guns every quarter,” he says.

Navin Kumar, a gun seller, says it is difficult to get an arms licence in India. “People have to go through several procedures to get the licence. That is why people purchase country-made guns which do not require any documents,” he says.

In most cases of celebratory firing, country-made guns called katta are used. These are available for ₹2,000-3,000. On the condition of anonymity, an illegal gun seller in Patna, says, “The demand for guns goes up during the wedding season. That is when we make good profits. Sometimes, I even sell a katta for ₹5,000. This wedding season I sold 20 guns. We also sell cartridges for ₹200-300.”

In the last nine months, the Bihar Police have unearthed over 28 mini gun factories that were running illegally in different districts and seized around 2,800 illegal weapons and over 18.000 live cartridges.

Doctors say they have dealt with many bullet injuries over the years. In the last 10 years, Dr. Kamendra Kumar Singh of Rohtas district, who is posted at the Narayan Medical College and also runs his own clinic Karuna Hospital in Bikramganj, has treated more than 450 cases of celebratory firing. “Initially, when they come to the hospital, they make excuses saying they got injured during an act of self-defence. It is during the police investigation that we learn that it was a case of celebratory firing,” he says. Most victims are young, adds the doctor.

Prasad says Bihar is still a semi-feudal society, which explains the trend. “Only when we move from a feudal system to a system of modern values will the problem stop,” he says.

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