Late Tuesday morning, Malo Devi, a farmer at Manatu 20 km from Ranchi, carried her infant grandson Gautam Mahto in her arms across the fields behind her house and had just set him down on a flat rock under a tree, before she started gathering dry leaves for fuel, when she heard a whizzing sound. Three-year-old Gautam lay bleeding, hit in the left leg by a stray bullet from the Jharkhand Jaguar Special Task Force (STF) police firing range, a few hundred metres from their home.
However, senior police officials continued to express doubts on Thursday over the villagers’ version, even as government doctors at Sadar Hospital confirmed that the injury was caused by a firearm. “The entry wound on the back of the child’s left foot is 1.25 cm large and the exit wound on the front of his foot is even larger. A bone got scraped and fractured. It is clearly a firearm injury,” said Medical Officer J.E. Tiga.
In the general ward, Raju Mahto, in his early 20s, tried hard to pacify his son who lay with his leg wrapped in bandages and cried all afternoon.
At Manatu, villagers expressed their bafflement and helplessness at the police carrying on firing practice in the immediate vicinity without any prior notice to them. The village lies sandwiched between the STF firing range to its south and hills being quarried and blasted to its immediate north. “I hid in a ditch when I heard the firing starting suddenly on Tuesday. A few minutes later I heard Malo Devi crying and calling out and I helped her carry Gautam back to their house,” said Balram Mahto.
The norm is that the local police station must notify villagers a day before firing practice is scheduled. “Sometimes they put a flag and even that is not visible from everywhere. No policeman has ever told us when the firing is supposed to start or end. Even on Wednesday, 15 of us went to the Jaguar camp and told the kotwal [officer] there that they must make an announcement and warn the village,” said Sanjay Mahto, Gautam’s uncle.
Senior police officials said the cause of injury had not been confirmed to them. “The injury could have been caused by a splintered stone; it is not yet confirmed,” said Superintendent of Police Saket Kumar.
A senior Jharkhand Jaguar police officer supervising the STF training camp said security personnel could not be held responsible for the incident. “The firing range is well fortified; a bullet cannot go out just like that. Also, the range of weapons being used was 400 metres, whereas the site of the incident is 900 metres from the training camp. The direction in which the firing was going on is 45 degrees to where the incident occurred,” said the officer declining to be named.
An officer of the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) 209 Battalion, which was using the Jharkhand Jaguar firing range for practice on Tuesday, said he was not aware of the incident.