Once renowned gunsmiths for the army raised by the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, the Sikligars of Madhya Pradesh are now infamous for making illegal firearms for criminals across India.
An String Reveals crew travelled from Bhopal, the state capital, to the villages of the Sikligar community in the districts of Barwani, Dhar, Burhanpur and Khargone, which border Maharashtra. The terrain was difficult to navigate, but the journey to uncover the truth about the Sikligar community was imperative.
The crew reached a village near Palsood in Barwani district and met two Sikligars who make illegal weapons. They showed their equipment and said they sell the weapons for Rs 5,000-7,000. Using only bare hands, a hammer, and a chisel, the skilled Sikligar smiths can conjure a weapon out of raw materials in about 10-12 days.
“Our children remain hungry; hence, we make weapons. We buy iron rods for Rs 25-30 per kilogram from scrap. We fire a kiln, and a few others also use lathe machines to make more sophisticated weapons. Where is the option for us? Most of our people are helpless because of poverty, and we need money. When we have nothing to do, we move towards arms-making. We cannot die of hunger,” a Sikligar weapon-maker said.
A Life Of Poverty
Most Sikligars are labourers who lead a life of penury. About 20,000-25,000 Sikligars live in four districts of Khargone, Dhar, Barwani, and Burhanpur, which adjoin Maharashtra. Their main source of income is manufacturing illegal arms, which has become a cottage industry in many of these villages.
In the neighboring Dhar district, Desi Kattas (country-made guns) are being manufactured by firing a furnace in a house. The raw materials for these weapons come from old bicycle frames, truck springs, and scrap belts. Iron is melted and shaped with a 2-5 inch saw. The gun handle is made by beating a plank, and the barrel is made from a pipe.
In a dark room, a Sikligar worked alone, convinced by us to show us his weapons. He took out three revolvers.
Toiling alone in a dark room in one such makeshift sweatshop, a Sikligar worker showed String Reveals three revolvers that he had made and broke down the basic mechanics of his labour.
“This is half ready, the load is not ready yet, and there is still work left to do. This is 10 per cent, this is 50 per cent. The handle will be attached when it is ready. These iron rods are available at the hardware store,” he said pointing at his wares.
“A Mauser is available for Rs 5,000. We sell Desi Kattas for Rs 1,000-1,200, but there is no guarantee with these weapons. It takes 8-10 days to make a Mauser. We give you whatever we have. It is our family business, we learn by watching. Even our children can make these guns.”
Multiple raids have been conducted by the authorities on this small-scale industry. In a special operation a few days ago, Dhar police seized 125 country-made pistols, six Mausers, and two revolvers from the Sikligars community of traditional metalworkers.
“There are some pockets in Dhar where illegal weapons are made. We have arrested a few accused and seized 233 weapons. There are some modern weapons that are definitely supplied outside. Our inquiry is ongoing,” Dhar Superintendent of Police (SP) Manoj Singh said.
Sikligar Weapons Network
The Sikligars have been making guns in the densely forested hillocks of Madhya Pradesh’s Malwa-Nimar region for generations. A few years ago, the Madhya Pradesh Special Task Force (MPSTF) prepared a dossier that revealed that Sikligars have customers in at least 19 states.
After months of investigations, the MPSTF created a database of over 250 Sikligars who make country-made revolvers, pistols, semi-automatic pistols, and even carbines for criminals in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, Bihar, Maharashtra, and some southern states.
The Sikligars sell guns directly to customers or through couriers or agents in other states. Tribal men were once the most trusted couriers, but impoverished women are now being targeted. Sikligars used to receive cash payments through couriers or agents, but interstate gunrunners now transfer money directly to their bank accounts. Guns made by Sikligars can sell for anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 25,000.
Weapons made by the community have been used in some of the most high-profile crimes in the country.
In 2009, the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force (UPSTF) arrested a D-Company shooter in Lucknow who was allegedly assigned to attack BJP MP Varun Gandhi. The shooter had sourced the pistols from a Sikligar in the Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh through a middleman based in Mathura.
In the same year, banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) operatives used pistols made by the Sikligars of Burhanpur district to assassinate MP ATS constable Sitaram Yadav.
An accused in the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts case reportedly sourced pistols from Sikligars in Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh.
The Pune-based gang operated by gangster Santosh Jadhav, who is among the suspects in the high-profile Sidhu Moosewala murder case in Punjab, was also sourcing guns from Sikligars operating from forests of Sendhwa in Barwani district.
“We found out that they have some gangs with links to Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh. We can say that they are connected outside,” SP Singh said.
Apathy And Neglect
However, not everyone in the community is an illegal weapon maker. Some of the people String Reveals spoke to expressed their utter helplessness.
“Ten to twenty boys have joined this business in our village because there is no employment for them,” said Ajay Singh Chawla, a resident of Khalsa Nagar in Barwani.
“We used to make everything from swords to spears, but it later became illegal. Twenty per cent of the people are still doing it to earn a living,” said Prem Singh.
“I am not saying everyone is innocent, but more than 50-60% have left this business. Even so, the police still arrest innocent people and then demand a bribe,” said Magan Singh Bhatia, National President, Sikligar Samaj.
It is still unclear where the bullets for these guns come from. In an effort to reduce gun violence and the illegal arms trade, Manoj Kumar Singh, DIG of Ratlam Range, has proposed a barcode system for bullets.
“This is a demo round. There is a barcoding machine that costs 1 paise per round. Arms dealers enter the number of arms they have sold daily on a website. If we start monitoring how many rounds are being sold to each licensee and if the bullets are barcoded, this will help to stop gun violence,” he said.
The headlines sensationalise the Sikligar community’s involvement in illegal gun manufacturing, but there is a more nuanced story beyond the noise in media.
Centuries ago, the Sikligar Sikhs were the proud weapon makers for the armies of the sixth and tenth Sikh Gurus in their battles against the Mughals. Today, they yearn to return to the mainstream, but government neglect has left their villages in poverty and despair.
“If my house gets built, God will bless you. There is nothing inside my house, there is no one behind, I eat bread if someone gives it,” cried Dhool Singh, 84, blind and someone who does not receive a disability pension from the government.
“There is no work, no pension, I went to Panchayat office 10 times for disability pension but no one listens, Panchayat people don’t even respond,” said another blind Sikligar, 29-year-old Babbu Chauhan.
Daya Kaur’s family of 20 people live in a two-room Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (PMAY) house but do not get any other benefits.
“We never got the benefit of the Ujjwala scheme. We don’t have Aadhaar. Wood is not available in the rains. We slept hungry last evening,” she said.
Sikligarphalya, a village home to 300 Sikligar Sikhs, is located in the tribal belt of Barwani. It is accessible by a half-beaten track leading from the main road ahead of a toll barrier. After crossing the hillocks, the village becomes visible, 4-5 kilometres further down this path.
As String Reveals reached the village, many families gathered around the main meeting place. The village has no road, no electricity, no clean drinking water, and an Anganwadi centre that is only equipped to teach students till Class V.
“We do not want our next generation to make weapons,” said Ajay Singh, a Sikligarphalya native.
“Those who are involved in making guns will stop if they are given jobs or any other source of income to support their families. Our children want to study in the city, but no one is willing to accept them outside the village. There is no place for us in the mainstream,” others quipped.
“People have not reached out to them. I have also gone to the jail to talk to them. There is a lack of education. Disabled people should get a pension. I have given instructions to the police station in charge. I hope they will be in the mainstream soon,” SP Singh conceded.
Once the weapon makers for Sikh gurus, the Sikligar story is one of neglect and apathy.