A Kashmir gun smith's last stand
Storied Zaroo Firearms Manufacturer Nears The End Of The Line
SRINAGAR -- The small dark workshop packed with lathes and milling machines adjacent to the Zaroo family home is the center of a gun manufacturing business that has been supplying the Kashmir region with rifles since 1953.
For Farooq Ahmad Zaroo, who inherited the business from his father, Ghulam, each day brings a new challenge to keep the business alive -- today's problem is getting the electricity flowing again after it was cut off the night before. Crippling power cuts are a fact of life in Indian-controlled Kashmir's biggest city.
According to Farooq, things have never been the same since Indian authorities imposed a two-year ban on gun-making in 1989 at the height of a local insurgency against New Delhi. "This business has never recovered fully, in fact, it has been on a constant downslide," said Farooq.
India claims the restrictions are needed to prevent firearms from falling into the hands of insurgents, a ban Farooq believes is unnecessary given that the rifles he produces would be of no use to anyone interested in overthrowing anyone, let alone the well-armed state government.
The Himalayan region of Indian-controlled Kashmir has its own discrete identity in the world of gun making, a history that dates back to the Mughal Empire in the 1500s, and continued right through the British Raj until the present day.
In the early and middle decades of the 20th-century, Kashmir supplied thousands of intricately fashioned guns to the princes and elites of India, and in the years leading up to the Partition of India in 1947, local gun factories were buzzing with activity.
Noted for their stocks made of walnut, many with the leaves of Kashmir's famed Chinar trees carved on them, Kashmir-made rifles were highly prized before 1947, when Kashmir was an independent princely state, a golden era for local gun makers.
The first member of Zaroo's family to establish a gun factory in Kashmir was Faoorq's father, who came to the area from what is now Pakistan at the invitation of Maharaja Sir Hari Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, "for whom he made muzzleloader guns," said Farooq.
And the last member of the Zaroo family to earn a living making guns could be Farooq's son, Burhan Ahmad Zaroo, who joined the business after watching the number of workers dwindle from 50 to just two, today. "If I would not have helped my family in this business, it would have shut down before," said. Burhan "I won't let my kids do the same business if things continue to be like this."
In the past 10 years, declining demand for locally made rifles has reached a point where the market has completely collapsed. "The making and selling of guns is not easy in Kashmir," said Burhan. "It takes us a year or two to make and sell a single gun."
The rifles that come from the Zaroo Gun Factory take so long to fashion not just due to a shortage of workers, many of whom have opted for other trades. All new rifles must then be subjected to rigorous testing before they can be sold.
All the barrels, for instance, are sent to ordnance factories in other regions of India for inspection. After which they await government clearance. "The guns remain docked in the units for a year or longer before they finally meet the legal requirements allowing a sale and for our business to get any returns on it," said Burhan.
While it can be argued that such steps are essential for safety and security purposes, the fact is that "this process is time-consuming and costly, and the full scale of this responsibility lies with us," Burhan added. "This highlights the lack of any government intervention in aiding the revival of our business."
Like many Kashmiris who like to keep rifles more as a decoration than a weapon, Burhan too wanted one for his home. "But the only problem is that the Indian government has stopped issuing gun licenses and, as a result, no one can get their hands on a gun."
Other problems include corruption, with so many gun licenses issued illegally that at one point Indian authorities canceled all gun licenses issued between January 2017 and February 2018.
The third and fourth generations of the Zaroo family say they are just scraping by doing repairs. "The base has shrunk even further with an occasional licensed customer walking in just for the purpose of a repair on an old gun," said Burhan. It is a far cry from the 1940s, when more than 50 gun factories competed for business in the region.
Today, Kashmir has only two surviving gun factories, the Zaroo Gun Factory and Shubhana and Sons, whose owners are now looking to shut down and move on to another line of business. "Now the business is in the hands of God or it is up to the Indian government to revive it. If the government does not want to keep the industry going in Kashmir then they should give us any other industry," said Farooq.
Meanwhile, in Jammu, the Hindu-dominated southern part of the state, the gun-making business appears to be thriving, with around 30 gun factories and more than a hundred arms dealers benefitting from the decline of the factories in Kashmir.
As the last two Kashmir gun factories limp inexorably toward closure, bleeding skilled craftsmen to other industries, the Zaroo family blames government policies that discriminate against Muslims.
"The government is sidelining Kashmir due to the security scenario, which automatically benefits the factories in Jammu. We have no money and no support, there is only hope now," said Farooq.