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Nirbheek & Nirbhaya

January 28, 2014

The state-run Indian Ordnance Factory of Kanpur has introduced the very first “gun designed for Indian women.”

At 500g (1.1lb), the firearm, named “Nirbheek,” is crafted to fit into a lady’s purse. The .32-calibre revolver has a “special titanium body” and a “pleasing-to-the-eye wooden handle” according to the general manager of the facility, Mr. Abdul Hameed. “The six-shot gun is easy to handle and it can hit its target accurately up to 15m (50ft).” The price of $2,000 (Rs. 1.22 lakh) places Nirbheek about $600 above an average revolver available in the Indian market today.

Perhaps, the authorities want to ‘empower’ women with self-defense mechanisms so that their own law enforcement apparatus (aka police) can be absolved of that responsibility. It is, therefore, not surprising that the police in and around Kanpur would think that owning such a gun “is definitely a good idea.” “If you have a licensed weapon, it increases your self-confidence and creates fear in the minds of criminals,” said the chief of police for Kanpur.

The potential purchasers are also driven by the same thoughts. About 100 guns have been registered for sale, of which nearly three-fourths are with women. These women believe that owning the gun will be empowering. “The gun will be my supporter, my friend and my strength,” was the feeling of one woman client.

A deep mistrust of the largely corrupt and inefficient police force has contributed to the prevailing climate of fear and uncertainty among women. The shocking headlines since the “Nirbhaya” episode of December 2012 have been shaking our belief in a free and just society. Crime figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau suggest the number of rapes is on the rise, and that one is committed about every 22 minutes.

Against this background, the makers of Nirbheek believe they have a valuable addition to the armory of the scared Indian woman.

More precisely, the option is available to a sliver of the Indian women – those who can afford the purchase and subsequently train themselves to handle the gun. Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of the Women Gun Survivors Network in the north-eastern state of Manipur, felt that naming the gun after the rape victim was an insult to the memory of Nirbhaya, because she wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

Nepram, whose organization has been studying gun violence in eight Indian states for several years, says having a gun doesn’t “make you safer, it actually enhances your risk.” “Our research shows that a person is 12 times more likely to be shot dead if they are carrying a gun when attacked,” she says.

According to, an international firearm injury prevention group, India has 40 million privately-owned firearms – second only to the US – but only 6.3 million or 15% of them are legal. There are no accurate estimates of how many women are armed.

The gun lobbyists in the US, such as the National Rifle Association, and their allies have been in favor of no less than assault rifles and high-capacity magazines for the defense of women.  Their supporters often testify in lawmaking bodies of the “peace of mind” and “courage” a woman derives from “knowing she has a scary-looking gun” when she’s fighting violent criminals. Here, the assumption is that sexual predators are ‘violent criminals’ who can be (easily?) distinguished from ‘normal people’. More often such imageries are conjured as attackers jumping out of bushes, larking in dark alleys, etc. On the contrary, statistics across the globe show that in less than 10% of the cases, rapes are committed by ‘strangers’ and in places unfamiliar to the victims. Studies have indicated that as few as 5% of men are psychotic at the time of their crimes and very few convicted rapists are referred for psychiatric treatment.

Various US data show that guns rarely get used to protect the hearth and home and even rarely women’s physical wellbeing. In the 1990s, a team headed by Arthur Kellermann of Emory University looked at all injuries involving guns kept in the home in Memphis, Seattle and Galveston, Tex. They found that for every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were seven criminal assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and 11 attempted or successful suicides.

The cost-benefit balance of having a gun in the home is especially negative for women, according to a 2011 review by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Far from making women safer, a gun in the home is “a particularly strong risk factor” for female homicides and the intimidation of women.

In domestic violence situations, the risk of homicide for women increased eightfold when the abuser had access to firearms, according to a study published in The American Journal of Public Health in 2003. Further, there was “no clear evidence” that victims’ access to a gun reduced their risk of being killed. Another 2003 study, by Douglas Wiebe of the University of Pennsylvania, found that females living with a gun in the home were 2.7 times more likely to be murdered than females with no gun at home.

Then there are children who tend to congregate more around women than men. Sadly, guns in home greatly increase the risk of youth suicides. That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics has long urged parents to remove guns from their homes.

The idea that guns are essential to home defense and women’s safety is a myth.  The concealed-carry option available in several US states is severely limited in the Indian context.  Even if Nirbhaya could afford a Nirbheek, it would not have offered her much help, considering she was returning home after watching a film in a theatre in a mall where she wouldn’t have been allowed to carry her weapon.

The rape statistics show that in 94 per cent cases the attacker was known to the victim. More often, women are raped in their homes and in their work places where they are less likely to be believed and even less likely to report. This is not exactly the scenario in which the gun is intended to be used.

Finally, if an armed woman shoots any of her attackers, the current Indian penal code is almost certain to make a murderer out of her. There is no equivalent ‘stand-your-ground’ law – the type of self-defense law available in several US states that gives individuals the right to use deadly force to defend themselves – in India.

If guns were to have the greatest liberating effect and cast a safety net around their bearers, the military institution would be the safest place on earth, for men and women alike. Yet, a country with the strongest defense forces is no less vulnerable than a nation with no standing army. The Scandinavian countries that boast the ‘best’ records on women’s safety have relatively stricter gun laws and do not advocate guns as deterrents for sex attacks.

In late January or early February, a bejeweled case carrying Nirbheek will hit the market.

“Indian women like their ornaments,” Hameed says.

Binalakshmi Nepram notes that the marketing of guns to women as a solution to rape and sexual violence is nothing more than an “admission of failure” of a system that is bound to uphold equality. And buying into the myth only means that the market wins.

Women riding chauffeur-driven cars may choose to slip a Nirbheek in their purse as a gift of a patriarchal society whose assumptions about sexualized violence and masculinities conflict with findings from research. Meanwhile, all the Nirbhayas riding in public transport or on foot will be left to defend themselves, from the ‘elements of nature.’

–        Subhodev Das


  • Geeta Pandey. “A Gun Designed for Indian Women,” BBC News Magazine, January 16, 2014.
  • Editorial. “Dangerous Gun Myths,” The New York Times Sunday Review, February 2, 2013.

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