Caste inequality or cultural birthright? The debate over Kodava community's gun rights

The Kodavas, an ethno-lingual community living in the district, is one of the few communities in India allowed to possess and carry guns without a license.
Caste inequality or cultural birthright? The debate over Kodava community's gun rights
Caste inequality or cultural birthright? The debate over Kodava community's gun rights
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In traditional ancestral homes of the Kodava community in Karnataka’s Kodagu district, one is likely to find a host of weapons like the Odikathi, a small broad-blade sword, and the Peechekathi, a type of dagger. Alongside these knives is another kind of weapon that has become a source of conflict among communities in the district - rifles.

The Kodavas, an ethno-lingual community living in the district, is one of the few communities in India allowed to possess and carry these rifles without a license in Kodagu. The community considers itself to be a martial race, with rituals based around these weapons. The Kailpodh and Huttari festivals, which marks the harvest and hunting seasons, are celebrated by firing gunshots in the air. A gun salute is performed when a child is born or when a person dies.

But a petition filed in the Karnataka High Court in 2015, which was revived in 2018, threatens the privilege enjoyed by this community, on paper for the last 158 years, and in principle for centuries. The petitioner argued that the exemption is discriminatory on the basis of caste.

The central government submitted a statement to the High Court on August 13 stating that it is reviewing the exemption granted to a class of people in Kodagu to carry firearms without obtaining a license.

The exemption was issued in 1963 by the Union government under the provisions of the Indian Arms Act, 1959. According to the notification, "Persons of Coorg race and Jamma tenure (land) holders in Coorg" were exempted from obtaining license to hold certain firearms and ammunition till 1965. (Coorg is the former name of Kodagu).

In spite of proposals filed in the 1960s to drop the exemption, it was extended indefinitely in 1966 by the Union government and has continued till today.

The petition filed by Chethan YK, a retired army captain from Kodagu, in 2015, questions the need for the exemption 46 years after it was issued. The Ministry of Home Affairs informed the High Court that it would begin a consultation process to review and suggest amendments to the Arms Act, including the exemptions granted to the Kodava community. 

This consultation process has reignited a debate over the Kodava community’s gun rights and whether it is applicable in modern India. 

Kodagu’s history with guns

Scholars and historians argue that guns are intrinsically linked to the culture of the Kodava people. "Centuries ago, people living in this region were considered warriors. Kodavas were a part of the armies of various rulers before the British arrived and were considered soldiers or warriors. People from this region were expected to serve in the army at short notice. They were not given formal military training but since Kodagu is thickly forested, guns were used to defend people in Kodagu from wild animals," explains Boverianda Nanjamma, a statistician, scholar and translator of Kodava studies, and author of ‘Pattole Palama’, a book on Kodava culture.

The erstwhile Coorg province was ruled by various kings of the Haleri dynasty from 1600 to 1834 AD. During this time, kings did not maintain a standing army and instead handed guns to people living in the region for protection. The British deposed the then ruler of Coorg – Chikkavirarajendra Wodeyar in 1834. At the beginning of the British rule, residents in Coorg and other areas controlled by the British were allowed to possess and carry firearms.

It was only after the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 that the British in India introduced the Disarming Act, which outlawed the use of weapons in Coorg. But in 1861, an exemption was granted for a class of people in Coorg to possess firearms, for the first time by the then Chief Commissioner of Coorg – Mark Cubbon. 

The exemption was granted “in consideration of the exalted honour, loyalty and intrepidity characteristic of this little nation of warriors, and in recollection of its conspicuous services in aid of the British Government,” according to Mysore and Coorg, a Gazetteer by British historian Benjamin Lewis Rice.

In 1878, the British drafted a law, which later came to be known as the Indian Arms Act, in which the exemption granted to the people of Coorg was extended to two groups of people - “a person of Coorg race” and a Jama (read Jamma) tenure holder, who by his tenure is liable to perform military or police duties”.

The expression, "Coorg race" refers to the Kodava community, whose members consider themselves the original inhabitants of Kodagu district. Jamma land-owning families are an ancestry created in Kodagu after land was given to people who fought in battle for the kings who ruled before the British. The land was called 'Jamma' and it was given to people from the Kodava community and from communities like the Kodagu Mappila, Gowda, Heggade, Aim Bokala among others.

Did the British grant exemption based on culture?

The case in the High Court has rekindled the debate on whether the exemption granted to Kodavas by the British was based on the community’s culture or based on the community’s loyalty to the British.

The petitioner, Chethan, who is from the Gowda community and eligible for the exemption, argues that the British did not grant the exemption based on the culture of the people of Kodagu and insists that their loyalty to the British played a greater role. “After the 1861 notification was issued, carrying a firearm became a privilege in areas controlled by the British in India. The exemption granted to a class of people in Coorg became a ‘status symbol’ and a matter of pride,” says Vikas Rojipura, the petitioner’s counsel.

As many as six organisations representing Kodavas, Gowdas and the Kodagu Mappilas are respondents in the case. They point to the terms - “intrepidity characteristic of this little nation of warriors”, used by Mark Cubbon in the 1861 notification, as proof that the exemption was granted due to the culture and traditions of the people living in the region.

When the Indian government allowed the exemption to continue in 1963, proposals were made to do away with it. The Deputy Commissioner of Kodagu at the time - TP Issar - compiled a report in which he likened the Kodava community’s relationship with guns and weapons to the Sikh community’s relationship with kirpans (dagger) and the Gurkha community’s relationship with the kukri (knife). “It is a well-known fact that the gun, the Odikathi (a small broad-bladed sword) and the Peechekathi (a type of dagger) are as much a part of the life of a Kodava as the kirpan is for Sikhs and the kukri for Gurkhas. From my study of the old gazetteers and other books on the life and culture of Kodagu and from my knowledge of their present-day customs, I am in a position to bear out the truth of the arguments of the Kodavas that these arms are inseparably linked with many of their ceremonial occasions,” the report said.

Chethan, however, pointed to extracts published after Mark Cubbon’s death - 'Eastern Experiences' by Lewin Bentham Bowring and ‘The Imperial Gazetteer of India Mysore and Coorg, 1908’ - which credited the loyalty of the people of Coorg to the British as the reason for granting the exemption. Lewis Bentham Bowring served as Commissioner of Mysore between 1862 and 1870.

Extract from the book 'Eastern Experiences' by Lewin Bentham Bowring

“These documents filed after the 1861 notification mentions the loyalty of the people of Coorg to the British during the insurrection in Canara, which is a reference to the uprising in areas like Sullia and Bantwal neighboring Coorg,” says Chethan. He added that kukris and kirpans are non-gun weapons which are not banned from usage while there is a blanket ban on the use of firearms. 

Extract from The Imperial Gazetteer of India Mysore and Coorg (Page No 288)

‘Exemption creates caste hierarchy’

The petition further argues that the exemption granted by the British was continued by the Indian government even though it violated Article 14 (equality before law) and 15 (prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) of the Indian Constitution.

Vikas notes that the British were the first to introduce the term ‘Coorg race’, which is the Kodava community, while the other group Jamma land holders - are no longer in existence because no one has to mandatorily render military service anymore. He further points out people from communities other than the Kodava community are eligible for the exemption only if their ancestors held Jamma land, since no one is conferred such land anymore. “This creates a three-tier caste hierarchy in Kodagu based on the privilege to possess a gun,” Vikas says.

According to him, the Kodavas are in the top tier, while other castes, based on land tenures held by their ancestors, form the second tier and the Dalit and Adivasi communities including tribes like Eravas, Poleyas and Kudiyas, who do not have the privilege of possessing a gun without a license, form the third tier. “These communities have been disenfranchised for so long because of this exemption. They mostly work as daily wage workers in Kodagu. Why don’t we give them the same rights to possess a firearm?” Vikas questions, suggesting that the exemption is arbitrary. The argument stems from the fact that despite sharing a similar geographical heritage, these groups do not have the access to be exempted from the same laws.

Rani Appanna, a member of the Pale community, a Scheduled Caste (SC), says, “We don’t have the right to have a gun without a license. People in our community are not rich. We do not have a lot of land or maintain plantations. So, we are not fighting for this right when there are other basic needs to take care of.” She further points out that like the Kodavas, her community also fires gunshots during a funeral as a tradition. However, the Pale community does not have the privilege of an exemption for a gun license. “We borrow a gun from our neighbours for this,” says Rani.

Mohan, a member of the Krishi Karmikara Sangha, further points out that most people from the tribal communities live in 'line houses' and live a life of labour in coffee and pepper plantations. “There are very few Adivasis who are in a position to own a gun. They are mainly those who have land in the thickly forested areas,” says Mohan.  

The respondents, on the other hand, maintain that the Arms Act clearly states that the exemption is granted to Jamma landholders and includes communities other than Kodavas. “Lingayats, Gowdas, and Kodava Mappilas are also considered the original inhabitants of Kodagu. Further, the exemptions are granted only after the submission of forms and verification of land titles after which a certificate of exemption is given,” says Rawley Mudappa, a lawyer representing the group of respondents in the case.

The respondents also argue that Kodavas are not part of the mainstream Hindu religion and consider themselves to be a tribe. “Kodavas are a race and are not a part of the mainstream Hindu religion. The community is considered Hindu for legal purposes only because there are similarities in the practices of the people from the Kodava community and Hindus. But the question of caste does not arise here,” says another member of the legal team representing the Kodava Samaja, Bengaluru, on condition of anonymity. The organisation is a respondent in the case on behalf of the various Kodava Samajas in Karnataka.

Cultural significance of guns 

Historians say that the gun is linked to the life of a Kodava from birth and till death, and its cultural influence is one of the reasons why the British gave the community an exemption to possess firearms.

When a child is born in the Kodava community, four gunshots are fired to let residents of the village know of the birth. "In villages in Kodagu, houses are spread out far apart and as a community we get together when a baby is born. Hearing the gun shots, residents know that a birth has taken place and they try and help in any way they can,” says scholar Boverianda Nanjamma.

Similarly, when someone dies, two gunshots are fired so that residents can rush to help the families in distress. The residents of the district take pride in their association with guns and vehemently say that they are not misused. The district administration estimates that there are around 33,000 people exempted from holding licenses for their guns in the district.

But over the next eight weeks, the Ministry of Home Affairs will consult stakeholders involved in this issue even as members of the community say they will rally to protect their rights. “We have received a notification seeking our opinion on this issue. We have sought some time due to the floods and landslides relief work in the district to carry out the consultation,” said Kodagu Deputy Commissioner Annies Kanmani Joy.

All photographs courtesy: Codava National Council

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