Along the way, almost all know where teen shooter Saurabh Chaudhary’s home in the small village of Kalina is — even 80 km away from the destination. The junior world record holder, Youth Olympics gold medallist, Asian Games champion and multiple senior World Cup victor in pistol shooting is now a poster boy in large swathes of Uttar Pradesh.
Saurabh, 18, is already being seen as India’s ‘best shot’ at the 2020 Olympics.
India’s shooters have bested traditional heavyweights China and the US. The genesis of the surge, many say, lies in the 2016 policy of allowing the lower age-group shooters to be eligible for the senior category. Shooting, they say, has grown younger since.
Saurabh’s mother, Brijesh Devi, a homemaker, isn’t acquainted with English but words such as “national camp”, “manual target” and “mental toughness” flow effortlessly in her conversation. With her younger son representing India at the world level, these are “household phrases”.
But it’s been quite a journey. Though the Chaudharys now have a personal range in their backyard, there was a time when Saurabh used to place the target in his bedroom, taking aim standing in his parents’ room across.
“We had to get a range made at home. The village academy is always crowded. It gets difficult for him to train in peace,” his mother said. “A passage runs between the rooms, so we would stop walking when he practised. A new range is what he needed.”
Firearms and UP have a close relationship. Union home ministry statistics for 2018 showed the state has the most number of active licences — 12.77 lakh. Not surprising that it sends almost 1,000 entries for the rifle/pistol nationals each year, 25 per cent of the total entries. Meerut and Baghpat in west UP contribute a major chunk. Hundreds of shooters, mostly in their early teens, can be seen practising at the 25-odd shooting ranges within 80-km radius of the two districts.
“Saurabh used to practise at the academy — Veer Shahmal Rifle Club — in Binauli, but the range is always overcrowded,” said Amit Sheoran, Saurabh’s coach. “I started the academy with three shooters in 2012, but there are over 40 kids today.” Sheoran and some friends run three more academies.
The Veer Shahmal Rifle Club itself is a mere 10 x 15 feet room. It hosts around 30 shooters at a time. Only eight get to train at the targets, while the rest do the ‘holding’ practice — clutching a brick equivalent to a pistol’s weight to get used to the weapon. Space is the biggest challenge but numbers increase every month.
The love for guns in these parts is not new. Meerut lawyer Pesh Nawaz Khan, 80, said it has seeds both in sugarcane farming and love for game hunting. A personal gun has never been seen as a unique possession here. With the region’s history of violence and dacoity, firearms were needed for protection.
“For safety or pride, prominent families have always loved swords and guns,” Khan said. “Shooting enthusiasts hunted in the jungles until the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act kicked in,” recalled Khan, adding, “Hunting stopped but the love for firearms lingered.”
They started shooting targets instead. The Meerut Rifle District Association range was already there, built as early as in 1958.
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“Over the years, the sport widened its base and now even the not so well-off have taken it up. Shotgun is expensive, but airguns aren’t, so youngsters focus on 10m air pistol,” Khan explained.
Remarkably, most young shooters today come from modest backgrounds. Shapath Bhardwaj, the youngest shooter, at 14, to represent India at a world cup three years ago, is the son of a local journalist couple.
“I didn’t have my shotgun when I started, so my father got a dummy rifle made by a local carpenter. For a year, before I got an actual gun, I just did ‘dry practice’,” Shapath said. Dry practice is holding the gun and aiming at the target without firing.
Beyond UP, as one goes across to Madhya Pradesh, another shooting powerhouse, the ethos and milieu of the sport is in sharp contrast. Talent spotting in the more urbanised areas has a “system”.
Shooters like Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar, Chinki Yadav, Mahima Agrawal, Shreya Agarwal, Manisha Keer and Sunidhi Chauhan are part of this ecosystem. International medallists Mahima and Shreya are products of London Games bronze medallist Gagan Narang’s academy in Jabalpur. But here, too, many belong to poor families. Manisha is the daughter of a fisherman and Chinki Yadav’s father is an electrician.
Narang’s Gun For Glory (GFG) academy started in 2011 in Pune; the Jabalpur one began in 2014.
“We conducted talent hunts in schools that were initially reluctant,” Prashant Jain, the Jabalpur director, said. “Very few gave consent, but we still found talented kids. They are national shooters now.”
The third region, Kolhapur, may still have some way to go to match western UP, but veterans see great hope. In the last two decades, local shooters like Tejaswini Sawant, Rahi Sarnobat, Swapnil Kusale, Shahu Tushar Mane, Anuja Patil and Abhidnya Patil have bagged a spot on the sport’s international map.
“Things have changed so much,” said Tejaswini. “In the late ’90s when I started, there was no setup in Kolhapur. I had to explore each step myself. And now we are producing winners.”