INDIA, the land of focused sharpshooters like Arjuna and Eklavya is a natural suspect for a nation that should love target shooting sports. And while it may not really live up to the proclivity of a well-oiled South Korean or Chinese machine, or the European prowess of an Italy or a Croatia, it certainly has shown an uptick in the last decade or so.
Of the 11 Olympic medals that India has won in Games held in the new Millennium, 4 have come in shooting.
1 gold (Abhinav Bindra in the 10m Rifle at Beijing 2008), 2 silvers (Rajyavardhan Rathore in the Trap at Athens 2004 and Vijay Kumar in the 25m Rapid Fire Pistol at London 2012) and 1 bronze (Gagan Narang in the 10m Rifle at London 2012) underline that potential for a country that has the most number of individual medals in this discipline along with wrestling (4 medals – 1 silver and 3 bronze). And the future for shooting is looking up, if the vibes at the shooting range of the Karnataka State Rifle Association (KSRA) at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) premises in Bangalore are anything to go by. A quiet revolution seems to be taking shape as the administration readies to accommodate a surge in interest in the sport.
I decided to visit the range through a shooting enthusiast and friend of mine, Pritesh, who spoke so passionately about the sport as we were having a chat during the Olympics and he mentioned how he and his dad visit for practice on weekends. Having tagged along with him last Saturday (18 August) I meet Mr. G M Krishna, the administrative officer of the range which was built during the National Games held in Karnataka in 1997 who tells me “Shooting has long confined to being a rich man’s game but we want to ease it up.”
As he speaks to me, a bunch of eager applicants to the KSRA wait for their interviews. Among them is a corporate honcho who’s got his son along. Later Mr. Krishna brings up the point that he also solicits sponsorships through connections cultivated at these meetings. The range, called the Jagdale shooting complex, was the result of a tripartite agreement among KSRA, the Karnataka Government and Jagdale Industries, whose founder, Nagaraj Rao Jagdale – himself a keen shooter – bankrolled the automated range.
I then decide to have a peep into the indoor air-conditioned 10m range where I chat up Prakash P N, a pistol shooter who’s part of India’s world cup team and also an executive committee member of the KSRA comes to the range regularly to practice and offers guidance to the young shooters being groomed here. Today, a bunch of young shooters, the 21 year old Rakesh, 20 something Deepa MP, the teenaged Jeevitha and an equally young Meghana are trying out for an all India event ‘Gun for Glory’ aimed at scouting talent for an All India competition.
Prakash runs them through the drill as the trial progresses. Sitting with eager parents on the sidelines I watch the shooters strut their stuff. The range doesn’t have an appointed coach yet (Prakash himself has coached by his father, P N Papanna) but that along with the fact that it remains open for only a limited time thus cutting down practice hours are things that the association wants to remedy. Prakash recalls the days when the range was not automated and barely a shadow of its current self (he says it’s currently ‘one of the best in the world’) but highlights that the association had always backed its shooters offering moral and psychological support that is just as critical for the success of a shooter as is the right equipment.
I get the feel that the eco system of support is about to get more sophisticated and relevant for a sport that presents a lot of logistical complications. For starters, if a civilian like you and me were to take up shooting, we’d have to apply to the KSRA and undergo a compulsory Civilian Rifle Training Course (CRTC), a rudimentary module that introduces citizens to firearms and their types. Then, there would be a police verification before you could be given a licence. Air guns are easy but good luck with getting the licence for a .22 or similar spec firearm. And the government regulations to import arms are still extremely restrictive.
Sample this: the government regulations make it pretty much impossible for a shooter to import rounds without the intervention of an association and only of late have they started allowing ‘shooters of repute’ to do it by themselves. That still leaves the young guns out. Or take the case of Deepa, a promising young shooter who just switched over to the pistol instead of her favoured rifle (which she shot at World Championships in Suhl, Germany and Pelzan, Czech Republic) because she wasn’t sure if she would still be allowed to shoot and carry around the paraphernalia required for a rifle if and when her parents get her married. Her story perhaps highlights the unique and myriad obstacles that shooters in India have to overcome to shine on the national and subsequently the international stage. The army shooters (such as the subedar Vijay Kumar, the silver medalist at London this year or Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, silver medalist at Athens in 2004)) have access to ranges and weapons relatively easily which often means that Olympic ambitions of young civilian shooters often backfire through reams of red tape.
But that doesn’t seem to have dampened the enthusiasm. Buoyed by the success at the Olympics and with a new set of heroes to look up to, talent only seems to have been emboldened. Rakesh Manpat, a 21 year old rifle shooter who’s also being supported by Olympic Gold Quest recalls how he picked up the sport after he visited this range with his brother. With rudimentary equipment early on, and not even possessing his own rifle, Rakesh honed his skills enough to impress Gagan Narang during one of the Olympic bronze medalists training visits to SAI. A potential Ekalavya Award (Karnataka’s highest sporting honour) recipient this year, Rakesh, who holds the national record in the 50 meter Rifle Three Position (Prone, Standing and Kneeling) even shifted residence to be closer to the range. He says, “I think if you’re dedicated enough and quite good at your training, the infrastructure doesn’t really matter and now that we have such a good facility here, it’s possible that you can beat the world also.”
It is perfectly possible that the next Olympic medal winner in shooting comes out of the clique of shooters at the KSRA range. Rakesh and the other shooters that day are made to run through a ‘champion of champions’ tryout module (a format where shooters with the lowest total score are eliminated after each shot) with Prakash supervising them. As the last shooters standing ready to take the final shot, Prakash incites the sparse crowd to make some noise to simulate tournament conditions. Someone screams at Rakesh ‘I dare you to hit the bull’s eye’. Another taunts ‘try to hit an 8…you haven’t hit an 8 all day!’ He takes aim. Bang! It’s pretty much the highest possible score – a 10.9. That probably is as symbolic a moment as any that hints at Indian shooting’s future being golden.