Village Defense Committees in Jammu - Some Thoughts on the Dangerous Ongoing Game

Kanta Devi, an erstwhile VDC Head in village Choura Kot, district Reasi (courtesy: Daily Excelsior)

The recent outrage and noise following the Dangri massacre of Hindus by terrorists brought to focus a rather interesting feature of the security apparatus in Jammu's hilly region of Rajouri and other such regions in and around the Chenab region. A major question asked in the entire debate was the conspicuous absence of the Village Defense Committees (VDCs) and their inability to fight off terrorists. Of course, people have at best only heard about VDCs, and there is little by way of popular writings till very recently that I have come across on this subject, so I am going to attempt to capture some critical moments of the emergence of VDCs, their role in fighting off militancy, some attempt at explaining their success, and how since 2010 there have been attempts to actually de-arm these groups, one way or the other.

Tracing the Origins

After the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir valley in 1990 (leaving behind an absolute sprinkle), the terrorists aided by Pakistani agencies had aimed to extend the pogrom into Jammu. By the mid 90s however, there was a modicum of control on the terrorists after a peak being achieved in 1995, when foreign tourists were kidnapped. With the ushering in of some kind of democratic government led by the National Conference, it was hoped that things would stabilise. However, what was seen was a horizontal spread of violence. While many would wonder why the terror attacks  started in Jammu region, it must be noted that staying concentrated in Kashmir implied constant heat in a small, concentrated zone. Fanning out of security forces would be essential to achieve two crucial objectives: make the movement seem pan-state in nature; and diffuse security force pressure by spreading them thin. 

The third crucial objective- incite communal violence to push local Muslims towards terrorism -  became obvious when one saw the turn of events in places like Kishtwar. For instance, after the killings of 14 Hindu bus passengers at Kishtwar in August 1993, riots broke out in that town. Similarly, several attempts were made to fan communal passions around the 1997 massacre of Hindus in Barshalla in Doda district. These were among the  objectives that would have in all likelihood led to the attacks in Jammu, though of course those Muslims of Jammu, especially the Bakarwals and Gujjars, who did not ascribe to the azadi line, were also equal targets as kafirs. Three massacres in particular stand out, which clearly indicate how there was a rather particular attack on those who opposed terrorism, one way or the other:

  1. Lehota massacre of 1998
  2. Prankote massacre of 1998
  3. Kot Chakhwal massacre of 2001 

Given these factors, it is not surprising how the birth of the Village Defense Committees took place. Of course, two names - S P Vaid, who also became DGP of Jammu-Kashmir Police, and Chaman Lal Gupta, who was MP from Udhampur. 

The idea of the birth of VDCs took place from an incident that Mr. Vaid recalled recently in a popular podcast. I shall put it as a transcript on it:

I was the SP of Udhampur in 1995. The incident took place in the village of Bagankote (today in Reasi district, Mohar tehsil). Terrorists had attacked that village and killed two people. The remaining villagers fought back against the terrorists with axes, sickles and pole axes and even managed to kill two terrorists. Later, people met me on my visit and told me that if they had weapons, they could have fought them....till then there was no government order, and there were no mobile systems either. I used the wireless and messaged the supervising IG to take it up with the government and Police HQ. I got the approval, and sanctioned 10 rifles, and that is how the first VDC of Bagankote was born. 

However, till the Vajpayee government's return in 1998, there was still some solid support needed. It was at this time that we saw the then MP of Udhampur, Mr. Gupta, repeatedly raise the issue and lobby with the government to strengthen VDCs constantly. One such incident was seen in 1999, when Mr. Gupta gave this statement on the floor of the house with reference to the horrors of 1998:

...Such incidents can be fought only by the local people, not by paramilitary or the BSF. VDCs should be formed in these places, as has been initiated by the government. Every village should have a VDC which has been provided sophisticated weapons, wireless sets, and an honorarium of at least one thousand rupees a month, so that they can defend themselves.

This model was pretty much made the norm and the results started to show in. The VDCs, which soon became mainstream thanks to government orders, proved to be rather effective in fighting off terrorists in more ways than one. As SP Vaid also told the podcast, many times they gave enough time buffer to the security forces to arrive by holding up terrorists. On many occasions, VDCs proved sufficient. Thanks to the VDCs' tireless efforts, terrorism literally stood wiped out of the region. 

Subversive Elements Worked Against VDCs

However, as has always been the case in Jammu- Kashmir, the jihadi elements found ways to target it. The first signs were seen in 2013 during Omar Abdullah's Chief Ministership, when the Kishtwar riots were repeatedly discussed deliberately from the angle of the minority Hindu led VDCs. The Eid riots, instigated allegedly by JK National Conference leader Sajjad Kitchloo, which saw targeting of Hindus and their establishments, instead saw propaganda for scrutiny of Hindus, who were part of VDCs, and were allegedly killing Muslims. Kashmiri Islamist politicians in particular led the charge via civil society, trying to claim that that interim enquiry report was wrongly in favour of a general need for VDC’s and blames the propaganda against them on people who believe in “radicalism”. What was fascinating was that two days before the riots in Kishtwar, the Valley-based separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani claimed during a prayer meeting that Muslims in the state’s Jammu region were being threatened, asking them to join protests against VDCs. Then MLA and separatist Er. Rashid even threatened a PIL for the disbanding of this 'extra-constitutional body'. This, when this was all that was said by the interim report:

(vi) that there is also evidence on record that the VDCs are doing good job as assigned to them. The propaganda against the VDCs is being spread by the people who believe in radicalism. It has come in the evidence that in case VDCs are disbanded it will bring an era of militancy again in the District and will land the district to a situation of “Land of Massacres” as known and called earlier during the militancy days.

The other reason for propaganda against the VDCs is that there is less number of Muslim community people in the VDCs. When VDCs were framed at that time the deserving persons did not volunteer to be members of the VDCs because of the fear of the militants and threat to their life by the militants but now the situation on ground has much improved.

The Government should consider the ex-army personnel and Ex. Police personnel to engage them as members of the VDC without disturbing the existing VDCs so that the false propaganda against the VDCs is taken care of and Participation of the people is exhibited. 

However, politics on the VDCs was forced to become clandestine with the pressures on Kashmiri parties. When Mufti Sayeed became Chief Minister with BJP's support, the elements of the administration started to disarm the VDCs. In 2018, under intense popular pressure and scrutiny, the government was forced to withdraw the order to disarm members of the VDCs in Doda, Bhaderwah, Kishtwar and Ramban areas of Jammu province. Further, despite announcements, like in 2019, to 'upgrade' VDCs, including personnel replacement, and then in March 2022, the steps remained primarily on paper. This, despite the recognition that security lapses and intelligence input gaps could only be covered with the help of VDCs, and that terrorism in the past three decades could only be checked because of these local inputs to the security grid.

However, this did not stop the administration from seizing weapons on the pretext of servicing. This was the case seen in Dangri, where the VDCs did not have their arms to fight off terrorists when they needed them the most. 

Communal Angle Remains

The communal angle of course becomes ever more important, given how Gujjars and Bakkarwals, mainly Muslims, have had to be the victims of Islamic Jihad after being declared Kafirs. This had in the past led to them working with the Army for Operation Sarp Vinash. As Lt. Gen (Rtd.) D S Hooda recalled in a pieece:

The success of Operation Sarp Vinash was in no small measure due to the support (of the Gujjars and Bakkarwals)....who provided intelligence to the Army and fought by their side. They also paid a heavy price for this support.

One year later, terrorists sneaked into Teli Katha village in the upper pastures of Hill Kaka and opened fire on the sleeping Gujjar families as retribution against the locals who had participated in Operation Sarp Vinash. There were 12 deaths, including five children. The toll would have been higher if some of the VDC members who were present had not resisted and fired back.

It is for these reasons again and again that such acts take place, because they want locals to become terror sympathisers. This has of course been a concern for security forces; however, what it really points to is the need for a strong de-radicalisation program. That clearly is nowhere in sight. 

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