Johri Rifle Association patron and coach Rajpal Singh has made it a mission to help impoverished youngsters in Baghpat district realise their dreams.(Sanchit Khanna)
Johri Rifle Association patron and coach Rajpal Singh has made it a mission to help impoverished youngsters in Baghpat district realise their dreams.(Sanchit Khanna)

Why a Baghpat village draws budding shooters

Rajpal Singh, patron of Johri Rifle Association and a retired Ayurvedic doctor, recollects how tough it was in 1998 to bring youngsters to the makeshift range.
By Ajai Masand | Hindustan Times, Johri
UPDATED ON OCT 28, 2018 01:24 PM IST

Two fierce German Shepherds roam the courtyard, their prowling eyes riveted to a huge banyan tree where a dozen-odd monkeys are causing mayhem and disturbing the tranquility of the place. Oblivious to the tussle between his two pets and the simian intruders, the keeper of the mansion – popularly called Numbardar in and around Johri Village in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh – stays put in one of the several rooms on the first floor.

Some 16 years back, he used to recline on his huge wooden bed overlooking the courtyard, closely monitoring the ‘shooting activity’ taking place in his compound. But Numbardar, now 100 years old, doesn’t bother coming down anymore; even a guttural call elicits only a feeble response.

That he once had an imposing presence can be gleaned from a small, weather-beaten photograph that hangs on the unplastered wall of the courtyard – Numbardar stands next to the lazing former India cricket captain, the late Tiger Pataudi with his cowboy hat firmly in place, and yesteryear Bollywood star, Sanjay Khan.

The courtyard once used to be the nursery for budding shooters from all overs Baghpat, a major sugarcane hub. Now, the only remnants of that ‘shooting’ era are a few broken pulleys lying scattered in the courtyard, five rusting green slates on which paper targets used to be set, and crushed lead pellets strewn across bald patches on the unkempt ground.

Hundreds of youngsters from impoverished background, driven by the hunger for a better life, thronged the mansion; many fulfilled their dream of winning medals for the country, while others turned coaches to nurture a new crop of shooters.

But now, the flock has moved to a new location, not far from where they trained under the banyan tree for nearly 16 years with bare minimum facilities. Then this used to be a bustling courtyard with scores of shooters toiling all day with sugarcane stalk, dummy pistols made of cast iron, brick and several other contraptions, taking aim at the 5-6 targets 10 metres away.

Rajpal Singh, patron of Johri Rifle Association and a retired Ayurvedic doctor, recollects how tough it was in 1998 to bring youngsters to the makeshift range. “I used to visit each house personally and try to convince the elders to send their children, especially girls, to the range to learn an art that would not only help them escape poverty later in life but also help in self-defence.

“Baghpat is a lawless region and guns and bullets have always been a way of life. I wanted to find a way to stop youngsters from taking wrong means to earn a living. So, I approached Numbardar and he was willing to give his courtyard to set up a shooting range. In the absence of resources, pulleys and dummy pistols manufactured in local foundries and firing stations made from disused wooden blocks went into the making of what today’s shooters would call a ‘non-functional setup’. Back then, it served the purpose.”

Rajpal recollects the day he sat at Seema Tomar’s house for hours to convince her parents to send their daughter to the range. Today, Seema, a pistol shooter, is a senior manager with Air India. She was the first trainee from the range to make it to the national squad and her portrait hangs prominently at the new range among dozens of photographs of shooters who have gone on to compete internationally. Since then, more than 50 shooters from Johri have donned India colours. Notable among them are 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Arjuna awardee, Vivek Singh, World University Games winner Ruby Tomar and trap shooter, Seema Tomar, silver medallist at the ISSF World Cup in Dorset, England (2010).

The Indonesia Asian Games in September too had three from the village -- Seema Tomar, rifle 3-position marksman Akhil Sheoran and air rifle shooter Ravi Kumar. “Seema has truly done us proud by winning several national and international medals,” he says.

While the beginning may have been slow, what followed was something of a revolution. Today impoverished children as young as six years old come to learn a sport that could give them a better future.

Surrounded by sugarcane fields, the new range -- also a Sports Authority of India centre for shooting sport in the region now -- sees an unending stream of youngsters coming straight from schools and colleges, lugging their school bags and shooting paraphernalia. With dedication, they stand for hours polishing their skills while another set of youngsters waits patiently for its turn. Many travel 25-30 km one way, which shows how desperate they are to excel in a sport that can help escape the drudgery.

Sixteen-year-old pistol sensation, Saurabh Chaudhary, who won gold at the Asian Games and Youth Olympics, too first came to the Johri range but was sent back as it was a fair distance from his village. Hailing from Kalina village bordering Meerut, Saurabh later joined a club in Benoli (also in Baghpat), run by Amit Sheoran. The rest is history.

“Saurabh’s coach Amit Sheoran trained at the Johri club for five years,” says his relative, Neetu Sheoran, a coach at the Johri range. “Our coaching of the youngsters is to empower them with skills that can help them earn a livelihood. If they are good enough, they will go on to represent the country and win medals,” explains Neetu. “More than 500 youngsters who’ve trained at Johri are now employed with the army, air force, Railways, Uttar Pradesh Police, Punjab Police, nationalised banks and many other institutions, on the basis of their shooting skills.

“The Army Boys Sports Company and 11 Gurkha Regiment absorbs 12-14 youth from our club every year. So, in a way, it has stoked the ambition of youngsters, who see a better future and come here.”

Former international rifle shooter Ravi Jatav’s father used to sell eggs on a cart, and was headed nowhere with a meagre earning of R2000 a month. Jatav, thanks to shooting lessons learnt at the range, represented the country in various international events and is a UP police constable. Thanks to this St Stephen’s College graduate, his siblings are pursuing degrees in various fields.

Dolly Jatav, 10, one of five children of brick kiln workers, was just seven when she was brought to the new Johri range by her father. Three years on, she has won air pistol gold in the All India Inter-School and silver in the UP State Championships in the youth category. “We didn’t have the resources, so I used to assist my parents in the brick kiln to earn some extra money for the household. After joining the Johri club, I realised it was also important to study well. Now, I go to the nearby Welcome Public School. I started my schooling late, so I’m in class 3, but I am confident I will also do well in studies,” says the chirpy Dolly, who flits around the range and sees to it that the place is kept clean. She is the brand ambassador of Swachh Bharat campaign for Baghpat.

Most aspiring shooters here come from impoverished backgrounds -- children of labourers, farm workers and street vendors. But those like Dolly and Anjali Valmiki, whose mother is a housemaid, are moving towards a better future. Anjali’s mother still saved money to buy her daughter an air pistol worth R1.25 lakh. When her mother is unwell, 15-year-old Anjali goes to work in her place. Almost every youngster here has a similar story to tell.

With more youngsters wanting to take up shooting, there has been a spurt in the number of ranges in the district. There are more than 30 across Baghpat now, almost all of them opened by those who had trained in Numbardar’s old range but could not make it to the national squad.

A stone’s throw away from Amit Sheoran’s range is the Youth Shooting Sports Club run by a person with 80 per cent disability. Some 15 years back, Arvind Tomar used to hobble around the old range in tattered clothes, clutching a bamboo stalk. “I was stricken by polio when I was five months old. In 1998, Dr Rajpal opened a shooting range. I used to while away my time sitting outside the complex but after watching Paralympian Naresh Sharma do so well at international level, I also took up shooting,” says Arvind. Now, he coaches about 55 children in Benoli and says the sport has given him “a reason to live”.

In 2006, Arvind opened the range, and last year he acquired a customised car, which he drives from Benoli to the Karni Singh Shooting Ranges in Tughlakabad to train some of his wards. “My aim was to bring home a medal from the Paralympic Games. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the resources then,” says Arvind.

Kuldeep Tomar, who runs the Veer Sahamal Rifle Club in Johri that caters to more than 75 shooters, says, “We are not into it (coaching) for money. It’s about community service and how we can help uplift our youth. We don’t charge handicapped youth and girls. For the rest, it’s R500 per month.” Kuldeep knows how difficult it is for landless farmers and labourers to dish out even a few hundred rupees for their wards, having seen it all when he was an aspiring shooter at the old Johri shooting club.

He is confident very soon each club here will produce a Saurabh Chaudhary. “That’s the kind of determination each and every child has here. That’s the target they have set.”

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