On the evening of April 16, Shyam Sunder Kaushal was at his tea shop when a boy from his neighbourhood came running to inform him that his daughter, Anjali Kaushal, 17, had collapsed. The girl was last seen standing on the balcony of her second floor house at Mangolpuri in outer Delhi, watching a marriage procession pass by. Everyone assumed she was hit by a firecracker. She was bleeding profusely and it was only in hospital that it emerged that she had a bullet inside her head. The bullet that struck her had evidently been fired as part of the wedding celebrations. Anjali Kaushal died two days later.
A similar case was reported in Gujarat’s Botad district last week. A 20-year-old woman, who was standing on the terrace of her house watching a marriage procession go by, was hit in the head by a bullet that was fired in celebration. The woman, Guni Mithapara, died in a Bhavnagar hospital two days later.
Kaushal and Mithapara are just two of several people who have been killed in incidents of celebratory firing this year. The victims of such firing include an eight-year-old boy in Shamli, a fourteen-year-old boy in Binauli, and a groom in Sitapur – all in Uttar Pradesh in February. On Sunday, a 10-year-old boy was killed in celebratory firing at his uncle’s wedding in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.
No legal deterrent
So far, there is no law to deter people from celebratory firing.
“There is no provision in law which makes the act of celebratory firing a criminal offence,” said Akash Vajpai, an advocate at the Delhi High Court who helped Anjali Kaushal’s father file a Public Interest Litigation on the issue before the Delhi High Court in May. “The question of criminality arises only when a stray bullet hits someone and materialises into a case of culpable homicide or attempt to commit culpable homicide, or if the gun is unlicensed. For a licensed gun, the license can get cancelled under the Arms Act. But there should be provisions in the law to deter people from indulging in the life-threatening act itself.”
Earlier this month, the Haryana government issued prohibitory orders under which it banned celebratory firing. In 2012, the Allahabad High Court had also passed an order restraining the use of arms in celebratory firing.
“These are the only two steps so far known to be taken against celebratory firing but their implementation and adherence remain a question,” said Vajpai. “In Uttar Pradesh, we have seen an abject violation of the court order time and again. And in the case of Haryana, the implementation of the prohibitory order is yet to be tested.”
Kaushal’s petition before the Delhi High Court asks for the practise of celebratory firing to be banned.
“I had lost my daughter,” said Kaushal. “The police was not doing enough. What else could I do? After the court’s intervention, the case was transferred to the Crime Branch and one person was arrested.”
In October, a non-governmental organisation filed another Public Interest Litigation over celebratory firing before the Delhi High Court. It asked for stricter norms regarding arms licenses in view of a steep increase in cases of celebratory firing. On being asked for records of such incidents by the court, the Delhi Police had responded by saying that it did not maintain separate data for cases of celebratory firing, but those indulging in such acts could have their arms licenses cancelled for violation of conditions associated with the licence.
The next hearing on Kaushal’s petition is listed for January 16. This petition asks for accountability on the part of the owner of the banquet hall or property in which celebratory firing takes place, as well as fixing civil liability – which includes reimbursing any victim of the firing for costs of hospital treatment and compensation to the family in case of death – a protocol under which station house officers are alerted with regard to marriage and other functions being held in their jurisdictions, and special exemptions with regard to evidence during prosecution.
“One of the biggest challenges in cases of celebratory firing is the lack of witnesses,” said Vajpai. “So some exemptions are needed to tackle these problems related to prosecution.”
Such challenges were seen in Anjali Kaushal’s case.
“In the absence of any witness, the police insisted that I become one,” said Kaushal. “But how is that possible? In my statement I had said that neither me nor my wife were at home at the time of the incident. I was informed by a neighbour, following which I did come across the wedding procession on my way back home but I did not witness the act [of firing].”
Kaushal added that the police expected him to identify someone they had arrested as the accused.
“The only person arrested so far is a criminal, who was already wanted by the local police,” said Kaushal. “The police claimed that he is a relative to the groom and was the one who was firing in the air. The police then started insisting that I should formally identify him as the accused. But how do I believe them? I was never shown the video footage on the basis of which the police claimed to have identified the man. My only hope for justice is the court now.”