It is customary in the event of a firing squad being ordered to carry out an execution that one of the weapons has a dud bullet. But no one knows which one it is, because the gun discharges like all others. This is done to alleviate any guilt in taking a life and giving the conscience of soldiers an escape valve.
Never has it happened that all the weapons were loaded with duds.
The odds of that happening are extremely low. But, it would appear, the Bihar Police were undeterred by this statistic. At a guard of honour for former chief minister Jagannath Mishra, personnel shuffled into an awkward lineup, raised their rifles in imprecise fashion and fired what should have been a volley of bullets.
All 21 weapons misfired, and all that the crowd heard was clicks of the firing pin hitting dud bullets. If the occasion hadn't been one of sadness and tragedy, it would have been hugely comical. Imagine, if you will, a military execution: in which a blindfolded prisoner is getting set to meet his maker, and all he gets is a bunch of clicks.
But to be serious, how can things go so wrong? This was not a case of boy scouts being given a lesson in basic weapons training. These were professional, armed police engaging in a ceremonial activity. Obviously, unless firing pins had been removed from each of these weapons (and no one noticed when they were handed out), the only other cause of such a snafu would be bad ammunition. Bullets deteriorate if exposed to too much moisture and poor storage.
The guns used on that day seemed like .303 Lee Enfield weapons from another era. Bullets used for these guns usually stay active and at 100 percent efficiency for 10 to 15 years. Even these fossils in the ammunition world would have fired sporadically unless they had been fried in very hot temperatures or exposed to high humidity.
The other possibility is that the magazine springs may have tired out and the bullet did not go into the chamber. But 21 weapons suffering the same flaw simultaneously is not likely at all.
Although Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has red-facedly ordered a probe into this incident, not much is going to come of it. It is not the poor arms that the police have (the .303 gun is of the WW-II era and is thus older than 90 percent of Indians) but the failure to follow the protocol for a ceremonial event that is unforgivable.
A gun salute is a ceremony held across the world, and became the norm in the sixteenth century, when naval-to-shore battles were marked by vessels firing seven shot salutes and the shore, having more artillery, firing 21 in return as part of a traditional three-to-one gesture.
The usual procedure before ceremonial duty is to check every weapon and the ammunition being used, and conduct a dry run followed by a rehearsal on the range. This is meant to ensure that the guns and the bullets are operable. Only then do the personnel wear their full service dress and march to the funeral site. Clearly, this was not done. It becomes incumbent upon the police hierarchy to check its ammunition reserves, and see how much more of it is defunct.
One can only say that the incompetence that was seen on Wednesday is not only unacceptable but also unbelievable. The incident suggests that the rot runs deep: in the force, their guns and their bullets.
Updated Date: Aug 22, 2019 22:32:32 IST