The decision to intensify anti-militant operations by overhauling and reviving Village Defence Committees (VDC’s) in the Chenab valley, Jammu, has triggered a debate over the role of such committees in the past. The decision is believed to have been taken in the backdrop of two major killings in the region, including the killing of Bharatiya Janata Party state secretary Anil Parihar and his brother Ajeet Parihar last year in November. This was followed by the assassination of RSS leader Chanderkant Sharma and his security guard inside a healthcare centre on April 9.
The overhauling of the VDC will include purging elderly members, who are above the age group of 60, and replacing them with younger ones. As per the reports, “The process to replace 352 VDC members and 117 VDC SPOs who are above the age of 60 years has been set into motion.”
The revival of VDC’s grabbed the spotlight after a case was registered against People’s Democratic Party MLC Firdous Tak for his speech at Kishtwar area of Chenab valley for calling VDC members as “Godse brigade”. Tak said, “We don't want Godse Brigade, RSS brigade here in Kishtwar. We also don't want certificates from them, whether we are true nationalists or not.” He further said, “When Rashtriya Rifles, CRPF and the state police are already deployed in sensitive areas of the hilly district, why were VDC members provided with weapons?”
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An FIR was lodged against Tak under Section 153-A of the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC) (the main criminal code applicable in Jammu and Kahsmir) for promoting enmity between the communities, disturbing public tranquillity and for causing fear among communities.
Arming civilians? What exactly is VDC?
Village Defence Committees were setup in the mid-1990’s to ensure safety of the people by arming them with weapons for self-defence as well as strengthening efforts of the security forces to curb militancy and for checking cross-border infiltration. The VDCs were set-up in Doda, Kishtwar, Ramban, Rajouri, Reasi, Kathu and Poonch districts. As per the policy document under the government order Home-293 of 1995, the aim of VDCs was “to organise a small group, of volunteer armed civilians, in the identified villages along the borders as well as in depth areas of Jammu division.”
The reason behind the creation of VDCs was attributed to the meandering and hilly corners of the mountainous region with scattered and isolated hamlets, which made it difficult to station troops everywhere. Hence, it was found incumbent to train civilians to protect themselves and their hamlets. A meagre remuneration was given to the VDCs who were trained by the Special Police Officers (SPO) to defend the village against militant attacks.
The VDCs function under the supervision of SPOs who further function under the supervision of Tehsildars and Station House Officers. The order announcing the formation of VDCs read, “Above all, it is a manifestation of the will of the people to actively participate in the efforts to thwart the threat being posed to the national security and integrity.”
A reporter, who has been covering Chenab valley for over a decade, told NewsClick, “Currently, the threat of militancy is looming large on Chenab valley, that’s why the anti-militancy grid (VDC) has been intensified. At present, almost 23 youngsters are missing from Chenab valley. Its yet to be ascertained whether they have picked up arms or not but it has been speculated that they have. In the past, Muslims and Hindus both had participated in VDCs but this time, it has taken up a new narrative which is one-sided in nature. It has been turned into a Hindu vs Muslim issue and political parties are banking on it.” On this date, a total of 4,125 VDCs are present in the state.
Not a good track record
While VDC seem to have played a crucial role in tackling militancy, its members have also been involved in grave violations. According to figures, in 2016, around 221 cases including 23 murders, 7 rapes, 15 cases of rioting and others, were registered against the members of VDCs. Over a period of time, these committees were also seen to be working in connivance with state government.
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A resident from Doda, requesting anonymity, said, “VDC is now-a-days the armed wing of RSS. Earlier, when militancy was at its peak there was a lot of chaos created by VDC but partly, its existence was justified. But now its just an armed wing of BJP to pit Hindus against Muslims which enjoy impunity.” Many civil society members and human right groups including Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) have opposed the creation of VDCs in the past.
In 2013, JKCCS had noted in a brief report that, “The policy of the Indian State to control the people of Jammu and Kashmir through armed forces is entrenched and has resulted in numerous informal and formal networks of forces outside of the regular armed forces [i.e. army, para-military and police]. More specifically, these networks are referred to in Jammu and Kashmir as VDCs, Special Police Officers [SPOs] and Ikhwans. Arms are distributed, minus any training, and persons appointed as VDC members, SPOs or Ikhwans, have little or no clarity of the chain of command to control the activities of such forces.”
Cases not forgotten
In 2015, the killing of civilians and a member of opposition in Rajouri had roused the residents, who protested against VDC and demanded its ban. In December 2015, Shamima Akhter, a resident of Budhal village of Rajouri district, Jammu and Kashmir, was killed along with her four-year old son by a VDC member Mushtaq Ahmad. The killing of Akhter, which was the second one in the week had created panic among the villagers.
Earlier, National Conference Worker, Ishtiyaq Choudhary from Kalakote village of the same district was killed by another VDC member allegedly over an argument.
Not just 2015, in 2013 too, VDC members had created havoc in the villages. As per a brief report by JKCCS, 16-year-old Shamim Ahmed Lone was alleged to have been killed by VDC members following which a resident of Kishtwar was “kidnapped and raped by the persons backed and protected by VDC”.
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A resident from Kishtwar, requesting anonymity said, “The chaos that VDC had created in the past have not been forgotten by the villagers. When you give weapon to a civilian, there is a possibility that the person might use it to settle his personal scores.”
Entrenched Communal Strife
The news of VDCs being revived has deepened the communal strife in the region with Hindus applauding the decision while Muslims opposing it. Raiz Ahmad Zarger, chairman of the municipality in Kishtwar said, “One needs to understand that Kishtwar, Doda and Ramban are communally sensitive areas and such steps are going to further deepen the divide as its news has already. Residents of Chenab valley have seen major transformation in VDCs over time. Initially, there were few Muslims who participated in the VDC, but now it is dominated by Hindus. People are seeing it as a machination of RSS and BJP to create strife in the region. Even if they want to create VDCs, they should make sure that equal Hindus and Muslims volunteer.”
Meanwhile, the decision has been welcomed by certain quarters of the society. Appreciating the decision to revive the VDCs, Advocate Kaushal Parihar said, “We welcome the decision as it is meant to curb militancy and such a step was the need of the hour.”