Why General Kalashnikov couldn’t sell the AK in India
Optimized for close range combat, light, easily-concealed, its tremendous firepower of over 100 rounds a minute, AK 47 leveled the playing field for terrorists.
Russia’s greatest small arms designer Lt General Mikhail Timofeyvich Kalashnikov was buried with full state honors in Moscow on December 27. The ceremony for the legendary gun designer, who died aged 94 on December 23, was attended by President Vladimir Putin.
General Kalashnikov visited India only once, in February 2004 where he kicked up a row. The star attraction at Defexpo, a biennial defence exhibition in the capital, was being escorted around the stalls at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan. He stood transfixed at the Indian Ordnance Factory board pavilion. On display there was a knock-off of his assault rifle with its distinctive banana shaped magazine. The pretense was so thinly veiled that the weapon was even called the ‘AK-7’. The general made his disgust known. The OFB had illegally copied his design. His protest had an instant impact. OFB shelved the AK-7. Izhmash, the Russian factory that has produced the rifle since it was accepted for service in 1947, however did not pursue the copyright violation. Andrey Vishnyakov, Izhmash’s fast-talking sales manager told me it was purely business. Russia hoped to sell the OFB the rights to make genuine AK-47s. Roughly two-thirds of India’s military hardware, MiG fighters, T-72 tanks and Kilo-class submarines, were of Soviet origin.
What had baffled the arms factory executive was that India had however not purchased the pinnacle of Soviet engineering design, the ruggedly simple AK-47 from Russia. They had instead, Vishniyakov told me ruefully, bought poorer cousins made in the Eastern Bloc. The Soviet Union had aggressively exported AK designs along with its ideology. But had not patented the design as rigorously. Now, its capitalist successor, the Russian Federation, felt the pinch from over a dozen countries that continued to manufacture the rifle.
The army then turned to Romania, Bulgaria and erstwhile Czechoslovakia that made cheap AK variants. Among the first AKs purchased for the Indian army were the Czech-made VZ-58, an assault rifle that outwardly resembled the AK.
The rifle also filtered into Indian folklore. Sanjay Dutt was first jailed for possessing an ‘AK-56’ in 1993 (actually, a Norinco Type-56, the Chinese variant of the AK). The Rashtriya Rifles, an army formation that fights insurgency in J&K since 1990, has two crossed AK-47s as its unit insignia. Despite the induction of the indigenous INSAS rifle after the Kargil war in 1999, Indian army units in militancy affected regions continue to be equipped with the AK. India continues to be one of the world’s largest importers of AK-type rifles. Again, these weapons aren’t from Kalashnikov factories in Russia but from Bulgaria. The home ministry has bought over 100,000 Bulgarian-made AKs in the past decade to equip police and paramilitary units.
A Bulgarian AK-47 with its distinctive black plastic finish cost just Rs 22,000 in 2011. This was significantly cheaper than the Russian AK variant made in Izhmash and Rs 5000 less than even the INSAS assault rifle. One home ministry official told me that the Bulgarian manufacturer, Arsenal, ran three shifts a day to keep up with the Indian order. Against this AK onslaught from the erstwhile Eastern Bloc, Russia’s Izhmash had only a small glimmer of hope, a modest sale of AK-103s, to the Marine commandos, a decade ago. Hopes of selling newer AK variants to the Indian army have faded. The Indian army is looking at a multi-calibre rifle, one that can shoot both 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm bullets, as the weapon to replace the INSAS and the AK-47. Izhmash now belatedly called the Kalashnikov concern since August this year, is out of the contest because it does not have such a weapon. Even Russia’s other option, India’s vast paramilitary forces, may soon be weaned away from AK imports. The OFB has developed yet another AK-47 clone, the Trichy Assault Rifle. India’s fascination for the AK-47 continues. Only that General Kalashnikov’s design may not roll out of a Russian factory.General Kalashnikov visited India only once, in February 2004 where he kicked up a row. ]]>