By P.T. Bopanna
The Modi government has indicated that the exemption given to Kodava community (Coorgs) in Karnataka to possess firearms will continue, but a foolproof system will be in place to prevent misuse of the privilege.
Contrary to reports in a section of the media that the privilege could be withdrawn as the matter was being reviewed, the Union government has filed a statement before the Karnataka High Court saying there was no misuse of the exemption. The statement added that arms played a vital role in the religious and social customs of the Kodavas.
The Union government’s stand was made known in a statement filed recently by the assistant solicitor general of India C. Shashikantha before the Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka and Justice Mohammad Nawaz during the hearing of a PIL petition filed by Capt. Chethan Y.K. (Retd.), a resident of Galibeedu in Madikeri taluk of Kodagu (Coorg) district.
The statement on behalf of the Union home ministry stated that the exemption granted since 1963 to certain class of people in Kodagu (Coorg) district from obtaining licence to possess and carry firearms under the provisions of the Arms Act, 1959, was being reviewed along with the review of the entire Arms Act.
The assistant solicitor general of India informed the Bench that the home ministry has constituted a committee to review and suggest amendments to Arms Act, and the process had been initiated to secure the views of stakeholders.
The Ministry has asked the Karnataka government, the Kodagu deputy commissioner, and Central law agencies seeking their views on the exemption granted to Kodavas by race or Jamma-holders keeping in view the law and order situation in the region, and culture and sentimental issues of the local community. “In case the exemption is extended again based on the recommendations of stakeholders, such periodical reviews will be conducted to ensure there is no arbitrary extension of the privilege,” the statement said.
The Division Bench disposed of the PIL while directing the Centre to take a decision within eight weeks. The petitioner, in his plea filed in 2018, had questioned the legality of the notification granting exemption.
The special privilege to own firearms without license was granted to the Coorgs by the British in recognition of their martial traditions. This was continued after independence by a notification issued by the Union government in 1963 which exempted “every person of (the) Coorg race and every Jamma land tenure holder in Coorg” from the Indian Arms Act. There was no curb on the privilege even after Coorg, which was a separate state earlier, merged with Karnataka following the reorganisation of the states in 1956.
While granting exemption to the Kodavas in February 1861, the then Chief Commissioner of Coorg, Mark Cubbon, said in the notification : “In consideration of the exalted honour and loyalty characteristic of this little nation of warriors and in recollection of its conspicuous services in aid of the British government, it is my pleasing duty to notify hereby for general information, in virtue of the power vested in me by the government of India that provisions of the Arms Act, commonly called Disarming Act, are not applicable to the gallant people of Coorg.”
A proposal to do away with the privilege under the Arms Act was made way back in 1964 by the Central government. But the move was dropped, apparently at the behest of Field Marshal K M Cariappa and the then Union Minister C.M. Poonacha. The then Kodagu deputy commissioner, T P Issar, in his report, had said : “It is a well-known fact that the gun, the Odikathi (a small broad bladed sword) and the Peechekathi (a type of dagger) are as much a part of the life of a Coorg as the kirpan is for the Sikhs and the kukri for the Gurkhas. From my study of the old gazetteers and other books on the life and culture of Coorg and from my knowledge of their present day customs, I am in a position to bear out the truth of the arguments of the Coorgs that these arms are inseparably linked with many of their ceremonial occasions.”
“These examples have been given here to impress the point that withdrawal of the exemption will amount to creating difficulties in the observance of many of their rites and customs.”
“It will be very pertinent to state here that in spite of the freedom enjoyed by the people of Coorg in the possession and use of arms, their behaviour as citizens has been generally exemplary”.
In 1993, the Union government wanted to withdraw the unique privilege following reports that guns from Kodagu were reaching the Naxalites in Andhra Pradesh.
However, the Karnataka government informed the Centre that there has been no misuse of the privilege. The state government noted that two arms dealers had allegedly indulged in gun-running.
Subsequently, the state government tightened the procedure for giving exemption. Consequently, there has not been misuse of the privilege in the last two decades.
The customs of Coorgs are different from that of other south Indians. When a son is born in a family, a single shot is fired in the air to greet the newcomer. Similarly, when a Coorg dies, two simultaneous shots are fired in the air to alert the neighbours.
The Coorgs worship guns. The festival of Keil Murtha, is solely dedicated to the worship of guns.
EDITORIAL: Worshipping gun is an integral part of Kodava customs and traditions. The privilege to carry guns has been in existence in Coorg for centuries and has the backing of customary laws. During the rule of Kodagu rajas (1600 to 1834), there was no standing army. People were asked to render military service as and when the occasion arose. The Jamma land system in Coorg which is still in vogue, was originally a military tenure that called upon the Jamma land-holders to render military service in the event of a war or external aggression. The exemption to own guns without licence is a privilege not confined exclusively to the Kodavas, but all communities who have Jamma lands.
Due to competitive politics, vested interests have been trying to take away the privilege mainly from the Kodavas and the move is said to have the secret backing of a powerful elected BJP politician within Kodagu.
It is a well-known fact that Kodagu is a nursery of the Indian Army and the district has contributed a sizable number of locals to the defence services. In the circumstances, there is a need to nurture martial tradition. To take away the privilege to spite the community by vested interests, is not in the interest of a pluralistic society.
Since there is already a rigid control in place to regulate the exemption, there is no need for further control as this could be counter-productive and give a handle to elements who are trying to undermine the Kodava community on account of political considerations.