What’s triggering gunfire at Indian weddings?
Dozens of celebrations have ended in tragedy this year, but the strangely feudalistic practice of 'happy fire' shows no sign of abating in North India
Earlier this month, Kamal Chauhan took his own life with the same revolver that had snuffed out that of young Rishabh Gupta two days earlier. Chauhan couldn’t bear to live after he accidentally killed the 20-year-old Amity University student in a case of celebratory firing that took place at the wedding of the latter man’s sister, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
It wasn’t an isolated incident, though: dozens of such celebrations ending in tragedy have been reported across North India this year.
In several instances, the marriages were short-lived – by dint of the groom turning victim. In February, also in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, 28-year-old Amit Rastogi was fatally wounded by a stray bullet from a round of celebratory firing as his marriage procession neared its end.
At another ceremony, in March, it was the turn of the groom’s father. Footage online, purportedly from Madhya Pradesh, shows Mansoor Patel dancing at his son Shekhar’s wedding as guests fire into the air. Mansoor suddenly collapses due to a bullet entering his skull.
As far as the rule book goes, firing into the air is unlawful in most places. But this strange, feudalistic practice, also known as “happy fire”, remains common in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and a few neighboring states.
In another sensational case reported last month, a woman died and three others were seriously injured when a self-proclaimed “God-woman”, Sadhvi Deva Thakur, started shooting on the dancefloor during a wedding function in Haryana’s Karnal district. As with other such incidents, video of the carnage has gone viral online – much to the alarm of authorities.
Another equally horrifying video, from earlier this month, shows a 25-year-old dancer being shot dead by an allegedly inebriated man as she performs on stage at a wedding ceremony at Bathinda, Punjab. Kulwinder Kaur is seen collapsing after being shot in the head from a 12-bore double barrel gun at almost point-blank range.
The practice continues even after a Delhi court said the menace of celebratory firing must be contained, for example through tightening procedures for granting of arms licenses. “Firing with guns and pistols during marriage processions has become a sort of fashion,” said Judge Manoj Jain as he handed down a 25-month jail term to 35-year-old Jasbir Chauhan, who fired in the air at his friend’s wedding in Delhi, killing the groom’s uncle. “If this is happening in the capital city, it will be certainly in a larger proportion in rural or remote areas.”
Guns, booze and celebrations – a deadly combination
Extravagance, live musicians and open consumption of alcohol are all part of wedding culture in North India. Guns and booze make these occasions dangerous to attend but nevertheless the revelry involved has a certain cachet attached to it, with participants eager to present evidence online via their camera-equipped smartphones. Only cases that result in injury tend to be reported, but often the parties involved reach a settlement among themselves instead of putting matters in the hands of the law.
Punjab already had a law banning firearms at marriage venues, but the recent spate of tragedies has forced the Haryana government to follow suit: it enacted a similar ban on December 5. Aerial firing will be punishable with six months’ imprisonment, with the onus placed on owners or management of marriage venues, and hosts, to ensure that guests do not carry weapons.
Hard to control
Even with stricter rules it is likely to prove hard to contain this gun culture. Where people are allowed access to guns – in Punjab alone, there are some 350,000 gun licenses – they tend to want to carry them.
Police Senior Superintendent Swapan Sharma, who investigated the case of Kulwinder Kaur, the dancer shot dead in Bathinda, told Asia Times: “In my district alone, we have recorded four cases this year. Though it is prohibited, people carry firearms to weddings as this show-off is considered part of the culture. It is hard for the police to keep an eye on all the weddings. It is a social problem and civil societies have to join us to educate the people and take a stand.”