Karnataka HC upholds Arms Act exemption for Kodavas: History behind community's right to own guns without a licence

·6 min read

The Karnataka High Court on Wednesday upheld the Arms Act exemption granted to every person of Coorg by race, and Jumma tenure landholders in Coorg (Kodagu district).

A division bench of acting Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Sachin Shankar Magadum heard the matter which was first filed on 30 June by 41-year-old Captain Chethan YK (retired), also a resident of Kodagu, who sought to know why only one race was given this exemption.

The judges in the case said: "The Kodava community which is a marshal community is enjoying the benefit of exemption since pre-independence and Jumma tenure holders are enjoying the exemption since pre-independence period. They have rightly been granted exemption for a period of ten years, it is not the case they have been granted exemption indefinitely. Exemption granted is subject to certain terms and conditions. Therefore, the Constitutional validity of the notification is upheld in the petition."

Take a look at who are the Kodavas and the story behind their right to bear arms without a licence.

Kodava people

They are a unique race of people who live in Kodagu (Coorg, as the British called it), the smallest district in Karnataka.

The history of Coorg and the Kodava people is one that is shrouded in a lot of mystery. There are a variety of theories as to the origin of the Kodava, including theories of them being either the indigenous inhabitants of their region, or of foreign origins prior to two thousand years ago.

As per the indigenous theory, the Kodava people were an ancient warlike tribe, who were indigenous inhabitants of Kodagu. This tribe learned and practiced agriculture in the area and over the centuries they got civilised and gained prosperity.

The foreign origin theory, which is more popular with the community itself, says they are descendants of the broad-headed (Brachycephalic) stock who entered into the Indus Valley during the Mohenjodaro period and later migrated down to Coorg.

However, the most popular theory among the Kodavas is that they are descendants of the Indo-Greek soldiers, who came into India with Alexander the Great.

Weapons in the Kodava culture

The Kodava community has a long history with guns, and historians say that their culture is intrinsically linked with firearms. There are festivals in which gunshots are fired in the air, and a gun salute is performed when a child is born or a person dies.

During the Kailpodh festival, celebrated each year on 3 September, all the weapons along with agricultural implements and vehicles are cleaned and decorated with flowers and worshipped.

The traditional sword and dagger also are a part of the Kodava attire, showcasing how intrinsically the arms are woven into their culture.

Exemptions from getting a gun licence

The British in recognition of their martial traditions granted the community a special privilege to own firearms without a licence in 1861.

One cultural reason for giving the exemption was that Kodava homes were far away from each other, in some cases could be as far as a kilometre.

"In older times when communication links were poor, a Kodava used to inform his neighbour by firing a single shot in the air about a newborn and two shots in case of any death in the family," a prominent Kodava, who lives in Delhi, was quoted as saying to The Economic Times.

The exemption was then issued by the Union government in 1963 under the provisions of the Indian Arms Act, 1959.

The Centre had issued a notification exempting "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.

There are conditions, however, to the exemption. In a notification, the Ministry of Home Affairs, said, "The arms or ammunition carried or possessed by any person being from Kodagu by race and every Jamma tenure holder in Kodagu and herein exempted while residing or travelling outside the district of Kodagu shall not exceed one rifle with 100 rounds of ammunition for the same and one smooth bore breech or muzzle-loading gun with 500 cartridges or the equivalent in leaden shot and gunpowder."

A home ministry official added that the exemption, valid till 2029, was given to the Kodavas as firearms were never misused in crimes or anti-national or anti-state activities.

According to reports, a proposal to do away with the privilege under the Arms Act was made in 1964 by the Centre. But the move was dropped, apparently, at the behest of Field Marshal K M Cariappa €" the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army €" and the then Union Minister C M Poonacha, who was also the former chief minister of Coorg state, before its merger with Karnataka.

'Discriminatory' exemption

In 2018, Captain Chethan (retired) filed a Writ Petition questioning the exemption granted by the Government of India to a certain class of people in the district in obtaining licence to possess firearms under Section 3 and 4 of the Indian Arms Act, 1959.

In his petition, Chethan, a resident of RT Nagar in Bengaluru, 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.

The petitioner had claimed that the MHA did away with the scrutiny of persons before granting licence in respect of the people belonging to the 'Coorg race', adding that this itself is not only derogatory to the citizens of the entire nation other than the 'Coorg race', but also possess a threat to the life and liberty as the people exempted are permitted to hold arms and ammunition without any scrutiny of their antecedents or criminal records.

However, the petitioner's concern was shot down by Additional Solicitor General M B Nargund appearing for the Union of India who said, "A kirpan is allowed to be used by the members of Sikh community and similarly, Gorkha community is permitted to use kukri."

Senior Advocate Sajan Poovayya appearing for Respondents Kodagu Samaja Bangalore and Kodava Muslim Association also opposed the petition saying, "It is not like that if there are 100 people in a house they can have 200 firearms in the house, the quantity of arms and ammunition and the types of arms are all specified."

Codava National Council president, Nandineravanda U Nachappa hailed the high court's decision and speaking to Indianexpress.com said, "It is a historical judgment by the high court. Few people without any knowledge about the community had gone to court challenging exemption given to the Kodava community. We have received these rights under the customary law since Kodavas' life revolves around the gun."

With inputs from agencies

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