By P.T. Bopanna
A public interest litigation (PIL) questioning the exemption given to Kodavas (Coorgs) and Jamma land-owners in Coorg district under the Arms Act was disposed of by the Karnataka High Court on Wednesday with a direction to the petitioner to approach the Union Home ministry.
According to a report, the PIL was filed by Chethan Y.K., a resident of Bengaluru, who claimed that the continuation of the exemption, granted to some class of persons by the British government in pre-Independent India in furtherance of their divide-and-rule policy, was unconstitutional, as it was based on irrational, fictitious and discriminatory grounds, such as race and ancestral land tenure.
A Division Bench, comprising acting Chief Justice Subhro Kamal Mukherjee and Justice B.V. Nagarathna, asked the petitioner to submit a representation on his grievance about exemption to the Union Home ministry within two weeks. The Bench also asked the Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs to dispose of the representation within three months.
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 Deputy Commissioner, Mr. 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.