The latest step by the J&K administration to weaponise and impart arms training to civilians in the Jammu region as part of the revival of Village Defence Guards(VDGs) programme of the mid-1990s to help the villagers fend off attacks by the militant groups, hammers home two crucial facts: first, that the Jammu region which was relatively violence-free, is decisively back on the radar of the militants.
Second, by recruiting more members for VDGs which are to come predominantly from the Hindu side, the government may end up allowing the communal ties to fray away causing segments of the Muslim population to complain about the sense of besiegement.
Either way, it is a confirmation that far from settling the security situation in the turmoil-prone region decisively in favour of the country, the Abrogation of Article 370 has only complicated it.
The renewed threats to Jammu especially those involving the Hindu community, are also proof that after having remained relatively free of sectarianism, albeit briefly, militant violence is turning towards communalisation of the conflict once again. This is likely to reopen old unhealed wounds.
Criminal cases against VDGs
There are around 221 criminal cases against VDG members in Jammu, 23 of which pertain to murder. There are also about seven rape cases, 15 cases of rioting, and three cases that are related to substance abuse.
The move to accelerate the revival of VDGs in Jammu comes just days after the militants struck at Dhangri village in Rajouri, killing seven people, including two children, and leaving 11 others injured.
Since then, parts of Jammu have been gripped by fear and security forces have launched a massive cordon and search operation to nab the attackers. As many as 18 fresh companies of the CRPF, comprising about 1,800 personnel have been deployed in the regions of Rajouri and Poonch.
A recent viral video footage showing J&K Police going after a motorbike on Jammu-Poonch highway that jumped a security checkpoint serves to highlight the concerns over the free movement of militant individuals in the Jammu region.
Concerns Over Additional Deployment
The remilitarisation of Jammu has attracted criticism from Valley-based political parties who have accused the Lt Governor administration of failing to prevent violence.
“The BJP government has failed to control the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. After the Rajouri attack, the government is now arming locals (village defence committee) with arms and ammunition,” former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told a gathering recently. “Such moves can only further the BJP government’s agenda of creating a wedge between communities. Such steps will also create an atmosphere of fear, suspicion and hatred,” she added.
Omar Abdullah, the vice-president of the National Conference also slammed the government for “admitting” that its claims to abrogate Article 370 to improve security and bring peace have "fallen flat”.
The kind of attack we saw in Rajouri and the situation in Kashmir, the numbers of security forces personnel are being increased at all this points to the fact that the situation is not under control. The government is now compelled to take these steps,” Abdullah said recently.
VDGs came under significant criticism as a result of which they were banned in early 2000s when the J&K state started emerging out of the insurgency phase and the Centre embarked on a slew of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) that included disbanded armed militia groups against whom there were allegations of abuse such as Special Task Force (STF), Ikhwan renegade forces as well as VDGs.
Communal Riots & a Spate of Killings Followed the 1995 Decision
The 1995 decision to put together Defence Committees in the villages of the Doda region followed the massacre of 16 Hindu bus passengers who were gunned down by the militants at Sarthal village in Kishtwar, triggering communal riots.
Subsequent conflagrations between the two religious groups led to the killing of 131 people between 1996 and 2001. More than 32 Hindus were killed in a glut of blood-letting at the hands of militants in the year 2001.
Around 660 VDGs were set up in 1995 initially in four districts of Jammu but later expanded into two more with each group comprising 10 to 15 “ex-servicemen, ex-policemen, and able-bodied young men.”
As for those civilians who wished to get drafted into the program but were never legally armed, they were to produce proof that they possessed weapons in the years 1965 or 1971 when Pakistan escalated guerilla campaigns in Kashmir and villagers were recruited on the Indian side to marshal a counter response.
Those who could not prove their credentials along these lines were supposed to procure weapons of their own, subject to permission by the district magistrates.
Five .303 rifles with 100 rounds each were distributed in each village through the District Superintendents of Police.
Under the last year’s revival program, each VDG head who was deemed in rank at par with a Special Police Officer (SPO) of J&K Police would be remunerated with Rs 4,000 and, if there the guard is serving in ‘vulnerable areas’, with Rs 4,500.
Earlier this month, however, the J&K High Court following a petition by the former VDG heads who were unhappy with the remuneration and change of their nomenclature to V1 and V2 categories directed the government to restore the previous honorarium of Rs 18,000.
Around 26,567 signed up for VDGs at the height of the security program in the 1990s. But as the members eventually became enmeshed in the allegations of serious rights abuses, the committees were disbanded.
BJP’s Political Manifesto
Restoring VDGs thus, also dovetails with the BJP’s political messaging that the government should cease what it believes to be singling out the people of J&K for appeasement policies.
The idea of reinstituting VDG was mooted early last year on the heels of concerns that militant attacks were getting frequent in the Jammu region. But now, the recent carnage in Rajouri seems to have given the proposal a shot in the arm.
On Monday, Central Reserve Police Force rolled out their first round of training to VDG volunteers in the Kandi area of Rajouri.
“Weapons were only issued to these people. They have to be trained properly. By staying and training with us, these people will be well-trained so that they can face the enemy,” Havaldar Laxman Singh of CRPF battalion 121, told the press. “Some weapons also need to be repaired. These people will be taught about the weapon drill and tactics to engage the enemy. I am surprised at the dedication and determination of these people. I am sure they will perform well if a situation arises.”
The training for the members is likely to continue for 10 days.
Situation in Jammu Still Fragile
Experts hint at the security situation in Jammu is in the flux and will continue to evolve, sometime adversely. “Post-2019, the Muslim areas of Jammu such as Pir Panjal and Chenab have been positioning themselves away from the larger political narrative of Kashmir. The approaches of the government to this shift are also similar,” says Zafar Choudhary, a Senior Commentator and Author.
“Militant infrastructure notices this. They are fearful that if Jammu becomes an entirely separate story then the political background of militancy is restricted to Kashmir. That shrinks their battlefield. As a result, we are seeing the calibrated militant activities in the Jammu region that are primarily aimed at inviting the state’s response.”
Senior counter-terrorism analysts said that the revival of VDGs shouldn’t be a problem at all given that the threat perception to Jammu is very real. “VDGs are a low cost response to low-threat situations,” said Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute of Conflict Management, New Delhi.
“They are ancillary to primary forces. They are there to engage the terrorists and buy time till the paramilitary forces arrive to deal with the situation. Given the events over the past few days, there is a credible threat from terrorists as they appear to be looking for security vulnerabilities. There can be no meaningful objection to the deployment of VDGs,” he added.
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)