Ready, aim, shoot…
From manufacturing illegal country pistols to winning medals at international shooting events, Meerut and its adjoining areas have come a long way from notoriety to fame
20th August 2018 was a momentous day in the Indian shooting scene. At the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhury created history as he clinched the gold medal in the 10 m air pistol shooting event in his debut at the event — thus becoming the youngest Indian to ever claim gold at the Asian Games.
Only two days later at the double trap event in Jakarta, 15-year-old Shardul Vihan claimed the silver medal, with a tally of 73 points, losing to gold medallist Hyunwoo Shin of South Korea by just a meagre one point.
There is, however, one factor that connects these two prodigies — the fact that both hail from the city of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh.
Not only Shardul and Saurabh, but Meerut has down the years produced a large number of shooters. Even the current number one in the 10-m air pistol world rankings, Shahzar Rizvi comes from the same city. According to the records of the Uttar Pradesh State Rifle Association, a staggering 2,153 out of the 6,968 registered shooters from all the 75 districts of the state are produced from Meerut and the adjacent city of Baghpat, which means that these two cities constitute a staggering 30% of the total number of shooters from UP.
In fact, according to Rahul Rajoura, a coach at the Dronacharya Shooting Academy in Meerut, “The shooters from Meerut constitute 35-40% of the total contingent that qualify for the finals of the National Shooting Championships from all over the country.”
However, Meerut has always had a history with guns, most of them not so pleasant. According to records in the Uttar Pradesh Police, every year, around 80,000 arrests are made in relation to crimes committed by illegal country-made firearms, most of which are made in factories in Meerut and its neighbouring villages. “Meerut has always been the gun capital of India. It still is, but it is no more a negative connotation”, says former shooter and current coach Kuldeep Kumar, who is also from Meerut. “It is no more a place where guns are held only for crimes, now they are used as instruments which make the India proud on the international stages”
In the city of Meerut and its neighbouring villages, there are a number of small and big shooting ranges, which lay witness to the tremendous passion that this part of the world has for the sport of shooting.
One such academy that lies in the heart of the city, on the hustling and bustling Delhi Road, is the Rudra Shooting Academy that is situated in the basement of the Guru Teg Bahadur School. What looks like was an old godown of the school, has been transformed into a practice range of 10m air pistol.
“Around 30-40 students attend our classes at a time,” says Deepak Tomar, a teacher at the academy.
“We have students of all ages coming to our academy. Children as old as eight years old come to train here,” claims Tomar, who also says that Shardul Vihan used to come and train at their academy when he was practicing for the 10 m pistol category. Classes start as early as 6.30 in the morning and continue till 9 am. But these early hours hardly affect the children, as they mostly come during this time of the day before their school starts. “Children and their parents here are very passionate about the game, and hence our range is packed most of the time”, says Tomar. They also have timimgs in the evening, after children come back from their schools, and also for people who come for practicing after they have finished with their jobs.
In whatever little time he gets from his job and his coaching duties, Tomar also hones his own shooting skills. He is himself a national level shooter. “I have always maintained a balance between my roles as an accountant, a shooter and a coach”, says Tomar.
Around 10 km from the Rudra Shooting Range is the Dronacharya Shooting Range, in a small urban village called Palhera. “Ours is the largest shooting range in Uttar Pradesh”, boasts Rahul Rajoura. “All top-level shooters from Meerut and its outskirts visit our range and practice here, as this the only proper state-of-the-art shooting facility in the region,” adds Rajoura, while training his students for the national championship trials to be held in Chennai. The Dronacharya shooting range is the only shooting range in the region that boasts of an indoor range for 10m pistol and 10m rifle, and two outdoor ranges for the 20m and 50m events respectively.
“Shooters of all ages come in abundance to our range, even as young as eight years old. When Shardul came to us he was only nine”, says Rajoura, who travels every day from Ghaziabad to Palhera, to take care of his shooting range, and train the youngsters for events and tournaments. “Shooting is my passion, I have invested all my life into it,” he says.
However, there is one problem that has created a major setback for the shooting range. Earlier, the Dronacharya Shooting Club consisted of an outdoor range that was suitable for 12-bore shotgun events — the single trap and the double trap, the event in which Shardul Vihan clinched the silver medal.
But a few years back, a housing society started developing behind the shotgun range. “As people started to move into the buildings, they started complaining about the sound of the guns and even came to us raising safety concerns. We took proper measures, and even built a net between the range and the society so that there is no chance of the bullets going there”, says Rajoura.
“Ultimately, they went to court, and the court sent us an order to close down our shotgun range,” says a dejected Rajoura. “All our bright talents had to go to Delhi to the Karni Singh Shooting Range, as this was the only other facility in North India that provided facilities for shotgun events,” adds Rajoura.
Interestingly, most of the young shooters that Patriot spoke to in the range came from families whose incomes were not high. Most of their fathers are farmers, drivers or perhaps a shop owner. However, in contrast, shooting has always been considered a ‘rich man’s sport’ considering the cost of the equipment required. However, according to Rajoura, “We buy pistols in bulk from manufacturers in Switzerland and Italy, and let our students use them instead of insisting they buy it. When they become qualified enough to play the game at a national or international level, we ask for funds from the sporting bodies and the shooting federations, who happily oblige,” says Rajoura. “So, we take around Rs 4,000-5,000 for people who opt for the 10m pistol category, which most of them do. The 20 and 50m events are however a little expensive,” adds Rajoura, while also admitting most youngsters opt for the 10m pistol event. “We also provide free training to all the children whose parents do not have the money to spend on shooting, but have the passion to do well in the sport,” adds Rajoura.
But it is not only the city of Meerut and its outskirts that boast of shooting ranges. In the 50-km stretch from Meerut to Baghpat which goes through villages that do not even have proper roads or houses, there are more than 25 shooting ranges, says Rajoura. In fact, the whole city of Delhi has around five ranges, 20 less than a small stretch of road. One of the most famous ranges in this area is the Veer Shamal shooting range in a village called Baraut. In fact, if one enters the lane in which this range is situated, the last thing that can be expected amidst the ill-constructed road and the smell of cowdung is a shooting range that has trained an Asian Games gold medallist. The range has just enough room to accommodate a few people after the 10m stretch of the shooting lane. It is in this place that Saurabh Chaudhury and many other shooters have honed their craft and achieved milestones at the national and international levels.
“Everyone training here comes from a family of farmers, and are either national or international shooters,” says Gaurav Kumar, a senior shooter and a coach at the range. “Many aspiring shooters from neighbouring villages like Johri and Binauli come to this range. Saurabh used to travel 50 km every day from his village Kalina to train here. Our academy is producing champions like Saurabh and Jitu Rai for the past 20 years”, says Kumar.
“The shooters and their parents put everything into this sport. This is a quality that makes shooters from this area so successful at big stages,” says Rahul Rajoura. Saurabh Chaudhary’s father, a sugarcane farmer, helped him at every step of his way as he travelled 50 km every day. “He even had to bear the sound of Saurabh’s pistol at different times of the day, as he had made a small practice target for him inside the house,” says Gaurav Kumar.
“We always wanted Shardul to become successful in some sport. So, we put him I cricket and badminton, but he left cricket as he was not interested in bowling and fielding, and the badminton coach told me clearly that he cannot pay the game at a professional level”, says Manoj Vihan, Shardul Vihan’s uncle.
“He first picked up a gun at the age of eight. So, after he started training at the Palhera shooting range near our house, the coaches were amazed at the accuracy of such a young kid. Even the shotgun was taller than Shardul himself”, says a smiling Manoj.
“But he has struggled a lot. He had achieved gold at every tournament till the pre-nationals, and he was only 10. When he qualified for the nationals, the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) banned Shardul for two years, as according to the rules, you cannot turn professional before 12 years”, adds Manoj.
“After his ban was lifted, he again started shooting and achieved a lot of medals both nationally and internationally, most of them gold”, says Manoj, showing Shardul’s numerous medals with immense pride.
“But the Palhera shooting range closed down and we had to take him three days a week to Dr Karni Singh shooting range in Tughlaqabad, almost 100 km from our home. So, Shardul used to travel 200 km every alternate day, just to practice. He even had breakfast and lunch on his journey”, says Manoj.
“The boy has struggled a lot, and after he received the silver in the Asian Games, it feels that it is the ultimate reward for all his struggles”, says Manoj, who was at Jakarta during his nephew’s crowning moment.
“It was an extremely proud moment for us, and we hope that he converts the silver into a gold in the upcoming World Shooting Championships in South Korea, and hopefully a medal two years later at the Tokyo Olympics”, says a proud Deepak Vihan, Shardul’s father.
Not just for the young
The craze for the sport of shooting is however not just limited to the young girls and boys of this part of western Uttar Pradesh. Chandro Tomar, 86, popularly known as ‘Shooter Dadi’ among the locals, holds the world record for being the oldest professional shooter in the world.
“I started shooting at the age of 64, when I took my granddaughter to her first shooting class in Meerut”, says Tomar, a resident of Johri village, 40 km from Meerut. “When she was afraid to shoot due to the sounds of the pistol, I grabbed a gun myself and started shooting just to get rid of her fear.
When the coaches saw that I had hit the target multiple times at my first shot, they encouraged me to take up the sport”, says the beaming 86-year-old.
“After that I continued shooting training and soon I participated in different tournaments around the state. Soon I graduated to nationals, and now I have participated in tournaments across the globe, in countries like England and Czech Republic, and have beaten people more than half my age to claim medals”, adds Chandro.
She says that even though her family, didn’t approve of her shooting at first, but now they have become extremely supportive. “I still continue to practice, and also train young aspiring shooters, who are not that strong financially, for free”, she says.
“The passion for the sport among the people in Meerut and the adjoining area is unparalleled. Not just the youngsters, but their family members, the coaches and the sports bodies have supported the cause extremely well”, says Rahul Rajoura.
“You can say that people from this part of the country are born shooters, and that is why we are so successful both nationally and globally. Bandookbaazi hamare khoon mein hai (Shooting is in our blood)”, concludes Deepak Tomar.