Tales of the guns

Features Issue 125 Apr, 2012
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: ECS Media

The Nepal Police Museum is not just about the history of the Nepal Police but a window into bygone eras.

I stopped in front of a familiar object. On display behind the glass was a tin toy pistol, the kind I had toted during many Tihar festivals of my childhood. But the similarities ended there. This particular piece was an abomination. The toy gun I used to have had a slender barrel, from which escaped an ephemeral plume of pungent smoke every time the trigger was pulled. This one had a thick, grotesque barrel of rusty iron. A note said it was a hand-made gun. I checked with the policeman on duty at the museum if it was a real gun. He confirmed it. Real bullets came out from this particular ‘toy’! It reminded me of my childhood, but it was also an object as different from its original version as a criminal’s life is from his innocent childhood.

I was in the Police Museum at the Nepal Police Headquarters, moving amidst a collection of weapons. The first items on display in this section were spears, hatchets, swords and khukuris from over a century ago. Then came the collection of more lethal equipment—guns. Among them is a Martini-Henry rifle from the 1870s. Ancient revolvers of 45-bore caliber and decrepit muzzle-loading guns recline alongside such simple defensive equipment as a bamboo shield. There were crude guns of strange designs, most of which were hand-made by dacoits or rebels. I had heard stories of robbers operating in the vast jungles of the Terai. Now I was seeing the weapons that they had used during those days of terror. The robbers have gone. So have vast swathes of those jungles. Only these objects remain. The days when bands of robbers operated in the Terai surely must have been unpleasant days for people living in the region. But it can be a fun exercise for a visitor standing in a museum to look at the weapons and try to picture the kind of lives the men who used these guns led. A pair of handcuffs from the 1950s had me thinking similarly. ‘What notorious wrists had these been slapped around?’ I wondered.

The history of the handcuffs is unknown. But there is one item whose history is well known. It is a dirty bundle of cloth, as harmless as a piece of laundry. ‘Sucha Singh’s turban’ says a small piece of paper beside it. The turban’s color has faded, but notoriety still clings to it. Its owner had slipped into Nepal after assassinating Pratap Singh Kairon, a former chief minister of the Punjab, in 1965. He had been wearing this turban when he was arrested (given away, I would think, as much by his distinct headwear as by an informant) from Mahendranagar in West Nepal. That single piece of cloth is a symbol of one of Nepal Police’s greatest scalps.

All kinds of people have used Nepal as a haven in the past. Ascetics sought its isolated hills and mountains. The Terai jungles were the hideouts of dacoits. And high up in the harsh terrain of the mountains were the citadels of the Khampa rebels, from where they made sorties into Tibet to attack the Chinese forces. The guns that must have once pierced the stillness of the mountains are now silent. ‘Semi-automatic Sten gun, Larke, Gorkha’ reads a note beside a raven black gun. It was captured by the Nepal Police during a skirmish with Khampa rebels in Larke of Gorkha district. There is an irony in that small piece of information that isn’t lost even decades after the Khampas laid down their arms. I have been on a trek to the place from where this weapon was captured. I find it ironic that such an advanced weapon was being toted around decades ago in Larke, where even today only a few people can boast of owning a radio. Some of Nepal’s remotest regions were seeing the latest weapons when the Khampas were still at war with the Chinese. On display are revolvers and a Mauser pistol captured by the Nepal Police from Khampa rebels during encounters in various locations in Karnali, the least developed and poorest region of Nepal. Also on display are a few hand-made bombs—grim reminders of the time when the country plunged into civil war. It seems it was the fate of the poorest parts of Nepal to see rebels and weapons before they could see roads or anything else of progress.

Progress is the dominant theme as soon as the section displaying weapons ends. The first item behind the glass in the section entitled ‘communication’ is a big metal box. Wires run in and out of it. There is a jumble of knobs, switches, and dials. And although I couldn’t make out what the Chinese letters on the box meant, they at least helped me know one thing about this strange contraption: It was made in China. The small card placed beside it only contained the name of the model, where it was made, and the letters ‘H.F.’ My guess was that this box was a device for transmitting messages. A police officer later told me that it was a high-frequency radio set. He told me that it was a dynamo-powered set, so that the lever on it had to be wound to start it. Getting it started must have been a ritual, and it seems one would have got through to God quicker than to whoever needed to be contacted via this machine. The first few instruments on display in this section are all different models of radio sets that used the Morse code to transmit messages.

As I moved along, the year denoting the time to which a particular object belonged became more recent. Radio sets with smaller and fewer knobs and dials appeared. I was looking at the gradual progress of the communication technology used by the Nepal Police. A significant juncture in this progress is marked by the portable radio set, known as man pack. Antennae protruding, it is the bodily union of the instrument and operator. From there onwards, even smaller sets came into use. The age of the hand-held sets had arrived. But looking at the first hand-held sets used by the Nepal Police I wondered if one pair of hands would be enough to hold these large pieces. They seemed to have been made assuming that the hands of the Law are in proportion to its long arms. Another portable model, called Pocket Fone, is so big it would need a backpack to carry it in. The museum also has a relic that would be of interest to followers of the computer cult. The first ever computer used by the Nepal Police is on display, an ancient model with the logo of a rainbow-colored apple.

Equally archaic is the equipment that the Nepal Police team used during their Mt. Everest Cleaning Expedition of 1984. The equipments on display – a picket, tent poles, a section of a ladder – are all of wood. One can only imagine the kind of gear the Nepal Police Mountaineering and Adventure, a special wing of Nepal Police, must have had when they climbed Mt. Tukuche (6,902 meters) in 1976.

Like everything else, the Nepal Police’s uniform has undergone great changes too. Burly mannequins with thick moustaches have been dressed in uniforms dating back from the Rana era to the ones worn by the police today. The tunic worn by the late Police General Chandra Bahadur Thapa in 1950 hangs in the museum. Beside this august piece of uniform is a tie of yellow, maroon, and blue stripes—the first tie to have been ever worn in a Nepal Police uniform.

For reasons I shall never know, the sight of a police uniform caused great fear in me when I was a kid. I remember how as a kid I used to flee at the mere sight of a policeman. When too close to flee, I would offer a series of nervous ‘namastes’. The memories of my childhood fear of the police came to mind as I looked at the museum’s collection of uniforms of police forces from all over the world. They were impeccably ironed, were adorned with shiny badges, and numerous medals and insignia hung on them. The museum has police uniforms of numerous countries, including Denmark, India, Singapore, Sweden, Russia, Australia, Germany, and South Africa.

Nepal Police has earned international fame for its stellar performances as peace-keeping forces in various conflict zones of the world and for its assistance in various international efforts to fight crime. Souvenirs from numerous countries are proof of Nepal Police’s reputation in the international arena. Many countries and international organizations have presented the Nepal Police with plaques, flags, and gifts in recognition of their contributions. On display at the museum are souvenirs from Nigeria, Italy, Australia, Germany, Poland, International Police Association, Commonwealth Police, National Police Agency (Japan), Sri Lanka, National Police Academy (India), Interpol, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Every section at the Nepal Police Museum is a valuable collection of historical memorabilia. But I found the section displaying the weapons captured by the Nepal Police most appealing. It is a collection that reminds the visitor of the violent past. But people will also be relieved when they gaze at the weapons and realize that the days of violence have passed. In the silence of the guns is the sound of peace.