Subscribe to our newsletter
Weekly updates with new Fifty Two stories
Hina sat on a charpoy under a neem tree outside her kutcha home in Pasai Nagla village in central UP’s Farrukhabad district. Her mother-in-law was bringing her rotis dipped in milk, an enforced dietary restriction. Hina’s lower jaw had been blown out by a bullet. She showed me the scars left by the stitches on her left shank. After the shooting, the surgeons had taken muscle from there to recreate her jaw.
Once, she had wanted to become the next Sapna Choudhary, the Haryanvi dancing star of the song ‘Teri Aakhya Ka Yo Kajal’ who’s attained national celebrity. Now, at the age of 19, she just wished she were dead.
Her life had changed two years earlier. On 30 November 2019, she was shot in the face while performing at a wedding in Tikra in Chitrakoot district. For a time before the catastrophe, Hina had been somewhat famous in the world of orchestra dancing. She’d performed in several parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and was counted amongst the best orchestra dancers in the Nat community spread across these two Hindi-speaking states. Her dancing had even made her financially secure.
After the gunshot, she was dependent on her in-laws for the simplest of activities. She spent her days watching videos of her old performances.
n 6 December 2019, a week after the firing incident, police in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, arrested Sudhir Singh and his relative. Along with a section of the Arms Act, they were charged with attempted murder and harbouring offenders.
Sudhir Singh, then 45, was the father of the bride. He was the village chief, from an Other Backward Class community which ranks slightly above the Nats, a Scheduled Caste, in the social hierarchy. Local police told me that Sudhir Singh spent 24 hours behind bars and was released on bail after depositing a personal bond of ₹50,000. “I have been charged just because it was my daughter’s marriage,” he protested to me. “I am being dragged into this for somebody else’s mistake.” He insisted that the groom’s family was to blame for inviting the dancers in the first place.
“I even begged them not to get dancers,” he complained. “But they were insistent that a wedding function remains incomplete without whores dancing.” He had little sympathy for Hina’s predicament. “I never met the dancer who was hit by the bullet,” he said. “We do not have any business with her and I am not at fault.”
The man who had shot her was Ajit Patel, Singh said. He’d spent “five or six months in jail” and was now out on bail.
What happened to Hina is an accidental occurrence in northern India, common enough for someone like Sudhir Singh to brush off with relative unconcern. India’s English-language media even has a deceptively innocuous phrase when reporting this kind of incident: celebratory firing.
According to a study by investigators associated with the Global Burden of Disease Study, released in 2018, India has the third highest number of firearm-related deaths in the world. I haven’t found any reliable data of how many of these are due to celebratory gunshots. But even back in 2014, when I was on the crime desk of a national news agency, I used to receive an item related to celebratory firing every alternate day.
Those three-paragraph news snippets came alive for me three years later. In 2017, I was at a wedding celebration in Kabrai in Mahoba district, part of the Bundelkhand region. The alliance was on the verge of being called off by the groom’s family because there were no dancers. After the entertainment was hurriedly arranged, I saw the dancers being touched inappropriately by men as shots were fired in the air. When I talked to the local cops about it, I was told to shut up, and made to sit in a police jeep until midnight.
As dance shows have come to serve as a status symbol at festive occasions in parts of North India, so has celebratory firing. “Having a gun is a status symbol for people living in small towns and the countryside,” Vikram Singh, former director general of police in Uttar Pradesh, said. Men at these events boast of the number of bullets fired.
Along with charges of attempted murder and harbouring offenders, Sudhir Singh and Ajit Patel were also booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. This is unsurprising because celebratory firings are also tied to caste assertion. Many who can afford to show off without risk of being persecuted indulge themselves, and Vikram Singh surmised that at least three-quarters of all gun-related incidents in the state can be traced to one upper caste community, the Thakurs.
Like much that’s wrong in Uttar Pradesh, the culture of celebratory firing is also a top-down one. As in the case of Hina’s assaulters, the practice has spread to non-dominant castes. “Generally, men with a deep-rooted inferiority complex pretend to be superior by brandishing guns or organising dance shows in their village,” Dr. Krishna Dutt, clinical psychologist at Lucknow’s King George Medical University, said. “Though this trend was started by dominant caste people, others too have started keeping guns or organising orchestra dances to signal their masculinity.”
A common factor across social boundaries is political power—so common, in fact, that it can even surmount gender differences. In a video that surfaced on social media in June 2021, Archana Singh was seen firing celebratory shots in a courtyard. Archana Singh is a zila panchayat member from Sultanpur, and the sister of former assembly member Chandrabhan Singh. In October 2020, a singer was injured by accidental fire during a birthday party organised at the residence of Bhanu Dubey, vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing in Ballia district. The singer survived only because of timely medical treatment.
Within Arms’ Reach
his craze for pistols among politicians, contractors and other local bigwigs started in the mid-1980s. “Initially, guns were kept by dominant castes like Thakurs, or people who were filthy rich,” B.K. Singh told me. He is currently an additional superintendent in the special task force of Uttar Pradesh Police. “The aim was not to kill or injure, just to establish dominance in the area. The poor man gets scared just by the sight of the gun. Until that point, guns were usually just showcase items—and they were rifles, not pistols.”
But then pistols started becoming prominent in Hindi films of the late 1980s and early 1990s, B.K. Singh told me. Heroes and villains, often cops and gangsters, would have a pistol tucked at their waist. It started as a fashion statement, B.K. Singh said, but then people started using it on festive, “happy” occasions, where alcohol is almost always in the picture.
Vikram Singh found that illegal arms were being produced in “almost every household” in some villages in western Uttar Pradesh, cheaper than the ones officially made at the gun factories in Munger, Bihar. (Ganesh Prasad, a veteran journalist who covers Bihar, tells an interesting story about Munger’s own history in this regard: Mir Qasim Ali, the nawab of Bengal in the early 1760s, established a factory in the area since the soil was rich in potassium nitrate, source of what is called soarra in the local dialect, a key ingredient in gunpowder.)
“Earlier, gun licences were issued after proper diligence. Now, all it takes is a phone call by a minister.”
One of the reasons for this proliferation, in fact, was the decline of the legal industry in Munger after 2000, when gun licensing procedures in UP and Bihar were made more complex.
In the 1990s, a small firearm likely cost around ₹20,000. Starting in the 2000s, though, it took as little as ₹5000 to procure an illegal pistol in Uttar Pradesh. Ganesh Prasad told me prices fell because of a supply glut. The drop in official demand due to onerous licensing rules led to the mushrooming of illegal outlets and heavy competition among them. Production became decentralised, and more sensitive to local demand.
This ease of access is borne out in the crime statistics. National Crime Records Bureau data suggests that gun-related deaths in Uttar Pradesh increased by 40 percent between 2010 and 2014. In roughly the same period, over 25,000 illegally-owned guns were seized from across 12 districts in western Uttar Pradesh.
In the last couple of decades, gun-making know-how has reached many parts of India’s Hindi-speaking belt. The raw materials required to cobble together rough and ready revolvers are easily available. Now, certain places in eastern Uttar Pradesh, like Azamgarh district, are notorious for the homemade gun trade.
Only the state has the resources to tackle the issues associated with the illegal gun industry. The laws around gun ownership are particularly stringent in India, at that: under Section 3 of the Arms Act, it is essential to obtain a possession licence to acquire any kind of arm. But the sheer reach of the illegal trade network makes implementation and monitoring extremely challenging.
In his 36 years in service, Vikram Singh recalled, there had been many crackdowns on homemade pistols but it had proved impossible to contain production and distribution.
Vikram Singh also claimed something that surprised me. Most of the weapons used in incidents of celebratory gunfire were licensed. “Actually, indiscriminate licensing is as much a problem as illegal licensing,” he said. It has simultaneously become easier both to acquire a gun, and legally possess it.
“Earlier, licences were issued after proper diligence,” Vikram Singh said. “Now, all it takes is a phone call by a minister. The licence is ready for anyone who wants it.” He estimated that 10 percent of gun licences are issued to people with a criminal history.
dance party for a wedding is a low-key affair for experienced dancers like Hina. They are usually booked as a group of four or five, for just as many hours. Each dancer performs at least five songs. They choose their own costumes, do their own makeup, and rehearse choreographies from YouTube in their homes.
Hina had been excited to wear a new orange lehenga for that fateful wedding event, on 30 November 2019. Her husband Puran Lal had scored the booking from a distant relative. “I looked very beautiful that day,” she said. “Like a bride. Shayad maine khud ko hi nazar lagadi.” Perhaps I cast the evil eye on myself. “I hate that orange lehenga now. I can’t look at it anymore.”
That night, the dancers began performing at 7pm. Hina and Puran Lal, used to celebratory fire at weddings, weren’t rattled by the gunshots to begin with. But soon it became clear that the frequency of the firing had reached dangerous levels. Puran Lal grabbed the microphone and requested the guests to stop. The entreaty fell on deaf ears.
A video tweeted by NDTV correspondent Alok Pandey captures the moments before the shot. The music suddenly stops. As the dancers look around to figure out what’s going on, a gunshot sounds. A slurry voice can be heard saying “Goli chal jayegi agar ye gaana chal jaaye…toh ek do fire aur ho.” Another bullet or two will be fired if this song is played. “Sudhir Bhaiyya, tu maar,” is heard in the background. Fire the bullet. A couple of seconds later, another gunshot pops. A dancer in an orange lehenga, with her back to the camera, clutches her face and falls to the ground.
Later, police officials stated that the incident occurred in the course of a heated argument between two persons. I learnt that the investigating officer in the case had been transferred. In fact, the final report in the matter was yet to be filed as of mid-March this year.
Sudhir Singh told me that he did not remember any such conversation addressed to him. “A majority of people that night were drunk,” he said. “All I remember is a dancer falling on stage after being hit by a bullet. I remember people shouting Ajit’s name when the incident happened, and nothing more than that.”
“A majority of people that night were drunk. All I remember is a dancer falling on stage after being hit by a bullet.”
He also suggested a sequence of events that doesn’t quite track with the video evidence. “A bullet is fired in the air as a show of happiness,” he said. “‘I am happy. I liked it.’ So it must have been that the dancer took a request to dance to that particular song. Then there could have been an accidental fire that injured her.”
(During my first conversation with him in July 2020, Singh’s story was that a distant relative fired the bullets in a drunken stupor, and only because he was pushed by someone.)
Hina fell on the stage immediately after she was shot. For a couple of minutes, Puran Lal and others couldn’t quite process what had happened. It was 9pm, and there was panic all around. “She was lying in a pool of blood and everyone was running,” Puran Lal remembered. “I went to my wife and, for a second, I thought she was dead. I took her in my arms and ran screaming for help.”
By this time, most people had fled the scene. It was only after their own driver arrived that Hina could be taken to the nearest community health centre. There was no doctor on call, so she had to be rushed to the district hospital, where she got preliminary treatment. A doctor there told Puran Lal that Hina would not survive the hour. He would have to take her to the PGI hospital in Lucknow, about 220km away.
But Puran Lal figured that there wasn’t enough time for that. He re-routed to Allahabad and had her admitted in a hospital there. A day later, Hina was finally taken to PGI for her jaw surgery.
The doctors told Puran Lal that he would have to wait 24 hours to know whether the surgery was successful. It took eight hours for Hina to regain consciousness, but it was a success. She survived.
f the gun-wielders are typically dominant-caste men, the dancers are usually women from marginal castes, for whom dancing is a traditional occupation. The Nat people have traditionally been entertainers—dancers, singers, acrobats. Because of the nature of their jobs and its precarity in recent times, they often migrate from place to place. There are now Nat communities in almost every North Indian state, as well as in Gujarat and West Bengal.
Hina, the youngest of seven siblings, had always known that she would work as a dancer after marriage. She knew women who’d started performing as teenagers and continued for as long as they got work. “Our family was so poor,” she said. “We didn’t know anything other than dancing.”
Her immediate family had never danced at marriages or other functions, but “I have seen distant relatives earning a livelihood from it,” she explained. “My father and brothers brought us food by doing daily wage jobs or other means, including begging.”
In her teens, she learnt dancing from the women around her, and began to dance professionally after she was married to Puran Lal. The work excited her. The colourful dresses, the makeup, the dance moves: she was fascinated by all that.
In communities like Hina’s, it is normal practice for men to seek out and manage event bookings for their wives. The men also often travel with their wives to events. “My wife earns and I eat,” said Rohit Kumar, from Jhakra village in Lakhimpur Kheri district. “I also take care of bookings for dance parties like marriages and other functions, across North India.”
His wife Sonam Devi is 20 years old, and has been dancing for four years. “The profession of dancing has passed on from mothers-in-law to their daughters-in-law and this has been practised for ages in India,” Kumar said. “My mother, who has now retired from this profession, is tasked with the upbringing of my two children, since my wife and I have to travel frequently.”
Kumar grows sugarcane and paddy on an acre of land he owns in the village. But it is simply not enough. “I never attended school because in our community, wives manage the household expenses,” he said. “The land is not enough to meet our requirements when the family is big.” Before the pandemic, Kumar’s family was able to earn about ₹20,000 to ₹25,000 a month. It’s now come down to ₹5,000 to ₹10,000 a month.
The men travel with their wives because, among other reasons, the safety of the women is under threat at these gatherings. Another resident of Jhakra village told me that he takes along a katta, an unlicensed country-made pistol, when he travels with his dancer wife.
“Once, during a performance, people from the village chief’s family came and asked my wife to sleep with them,” the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “When we protested, they touched her on the hip. One man groped her while another tried to overpower me.”
When the other dancers intervened, the man said, one of the village chief’s party pointed a gun at his head. The man who had groped his wife went on to bite her cheeks. “That was the day I decided to keep a gun, for our safety,” he said.
When I asked him how he managed to procure the katta, he said he started by making enquiries after the incident with the chief’s men. A friend of a friend offered to help: the weapon would cost ₹10,000 for which he needed an advance of ₹2,000.
“About a week later, I received a message to reach the market and follow a man on a motorcycle,” the man said. “When I reached a secluded place, the man with the motorcycle showed me the gun. He started telling me how he had arranged it with difficulty, so the gun would cost ₹12,000. That was ₹2,000 more than the agreement.”
But the man paid the amount. “We do not have any other livelihood,” he said, “but that does not mean our wives will get naked with any man just for money.”
Trapped By Tradition
eing taken for a sex worker is something that a dancer in her thirties, from Lakhimpur city in northern UP, is used to. For obvious reasons, she was hesitant about her name being used in this article. “People take us for granted. They think we are available for everything, including sex,” she said. “The audience harasses us in multiple ways, including throwing flowers, showering money, hurling abuses, or groping us on stage.”
She had been sexually assaulted by drunk men at several functions in her two-decade career as a dancer. “There is no such thing as a good audience,” she told me. “People get excited seeing us dance and then things happen in excitement, even crime.”
The reality is that there are very few options for the women outside of the work their community is associated with. “The Nat community totally depends on the woman to earn bread for the family,” said Chandralekha, a social worker and former sex worker from Nat Purwa village, about 70km from Lucknow.
Nat Purwa has something of a reputation. For centuries now, sex work has been a traditional occupation in the village. In the old days, zamindars from neighbouring villages patronised the Nat community’s entertainment in return for sexual favours.
“The community women are either into traditional prostitution or into dancing,” Chandralekha said. “All girls and women from our community who dance are often called prostitutes and men do everything to get into their pants.”
Chandralekha now guides the young girls of her village about alternate sources of income and how they can take help from the state government’s Department of Social Welfare. With the help of NGOs, Chandralekha has established stitching and handicrafts initiatives in Nat Purwa. She said she encourages women to drop sex work and participate in these ventures.
In Jhakra village, I met Kamala Devi. Also in her sixties, Kamala Devi started working as an orchestra dancer when she was 14 years old. She has now quit the profession. “I was a newly-wed girl when my first performance was scheduled. I was happiest in my early days and kept on doing it even after giving birth and managing my household,” she said. “In my time, too, the profession was not looked at with respectable eyes but it was not this dangerous because there were not so many guns.”
Community dynamics required girls to take up the profession, she suggested. “The men of the community do not believe in taking up jobs,” she said. “They engage in farming, but we are a landless community and at the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy.”
“In my time, too, the profession was not looked at with respectable eyes but it was not this dangerous because there were not so many guns.”
Nat girls don’t necessarily want to take up the profession any more, Kamala Devi explained. But they still dream about making it like Sapna Choudhary, who is from a Jat community in Haryana. “She has become a household name in our community,” she said. “But young girls need to understand that Sapna Choudhary had luck by her side, along with the hard work she did.” Choudhary herself is no stranger to sudden violence at her performances: when I called her she said she’d seen many instances of firing and misbehaviour. “Jo log orchestra dancers ko apni jagir samajhte hai, woh unki parvarish ka nateeja hai,” she said. These people think of orchestra dancers as property, because that’s how they’ve been brought up.
Kamala Devi was angry that the state had not intervened to assist the community. “Had the government provided us with resources,” she said, “we would have been in some other profession. We would not have been dancers who entertain the public risking their lives, only to be disrespectfully called whores.”
Rohit Kumar, on his part, told me that the show must go on. “We are Yaduvanshi, sons of Lord Krishna. We do this as a service to God.” None of the seven women I interviewed for this story said anything about devotion or religious duty. Some said they enjoyed dancing, and all of them said they were doing the work to earn money for their families.
Now, Kumar said, the dancers are asked to step aside when the firing starts. “We call the organiser on stage and ask him to control the crowd.”
His wife Sonam felt that the problem has less to do with the profession and more to do with regressive attitudes. “The problem is not with the profession but with the habits of men and the way they look at us,” she said. “When things go out of hand, we never go to those villages again. We inform other dancers as well.” She did not think it was realistic to consider leaving the profession. A small portion of their land had been mortgaged by her husband for the construction of their home.
“We have to get rid of this loan,” she said, “and I don’t see it happening anytime soon.”
n 2021, Hina was still recovering from her injuries, physical and mental. Puran Lal felt his wife was depressed. “She has lost her self-confidence,” he told me. “Earlier she used to do every household chore, dance, sing, play. But now she wants to be alone all the time. She does not eat properly or talk properly. I want to see her happy.”
The other dancers from that night have also been scarred. Two of them are terrified of taking new jobs. One took a six-month break and is still unable to perform in front of large gatherings. Jyoti, the fifth dancer, has not been traced after the incident. Puran Lal told me that people from Jyoti’s community had no idea where she had been living.
The groom’s family, which hired the dancers for that fateful performance, is yet to pay any of the women.
Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based freelance journalist who has reported from different corners of India as well as Nepal. He heads a network of over 2500 freelance reporters spread across South Asia. He has won international awards for his reporting on gender sensitivity and the Covid-19 pandemic. He prefers staying on the road, with his headphones on, hunting down stories, great bars and local cuisine.