Rajouri district, Jammu and Kashmir: Dressed in a dark, blue salwar kameez, a rifle in her left hand, Rekha Sharma, mother of three, was visibly angry as she stood on the flat roof of her storey-house, a vast expense of lush fields behind her and wavy hills beyond.
"Picking up the gun is the only way to survive," said Rekha Sharma, 47, the chairperson of the Beti Bachao Beti Padhaon Udyan, the national programme to educate girls, in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), as she spoke to us in an area called Upper Dhangri in the western district of Rajouri.
Dhangri, a Hindu-majority village of about 5,000 (about 30% or 1,500 are Muslim), about 10 km south of Rajouri town, sprawls over 20 km across a valley, a normally peaceful area where seven persons, including two children, all Hindus, were shot dead by militants—from Pakistan, according to police—on 1 and 2 January 2023.
Five were killed when militants opened fire on three houses in the village that evening. Fourteen hours later, an improvised explosive device (IED) outside the house of one of the victims exploded, killing two more people.
The militants were suspected of having planted the explosive, hoping to target senior police officers who would come there later, according to J&K police chief Dilbagh Singh. More than three months after the attack, no suspects had been named or arrested.
Rekha Sharma, the first woman to be issued a .303 rifle—once a standard-issue army weapon—about 28 years ago is a member of the village defence guards (VDG), a new name for an older, often discredited militia with a similar name: village defence committee (VDC).
When the militants struck, Dhangri already had nine VDCs, armed with 71 World-War-II-era .303 rifles between them. During the attack by militants, the only sign of retaliation was one bullet fired in the air by the owner of a garment store.
“Their (VDC) members had recently undergone training with the army, but were probably unaware and complacent at the time of recent attacks,” a police officer was quoted as saying in the Hindustan Times in January.
As the valley of Dhangri was swept by fear and insecurity, locals across Rajouri, demanded weapons to confront attackers, mostly homegrown militants who have carried out a wave of assassinations, killing civilians, policemen and Hindu minorities.
According to Home Ministry, 118 civilians have been killed after the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi removed Article 370, the constitutional provision that once accorded J&K some autonomy, on 5 August 2019 till 22 July, 2022. The number of civilian killings have risen till now with Dhangri killings being the first one of the year 2023.
‘More Guns Will Be Provided’
The VDCs, created in August 2022, before the attack on Dhangri, are a part of what union home minister Amit Shah on 13 January described as “a 360 degree net to wipe out militancy from the region”, a plan meant to provide security to isolated Jammu villages in remote mountainous areas.
The decision to create VDCs, according to Shah, preceded the attack on Dhangri. After the attack, security in Rajouri and Pooch, both districts that border Pakistan, were bolstered with 2,000 personnel of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
“Arming the VDCs means the Centre has accepted its failure,” Omar Abdullah, former J&K chief minister, said on 10 January.
“On 5 August 2019, the nation was told that with the abrogation of Article 370, the influence of gun culture will start to subside,” said Abdullah. “However, as is clear, that is not the case with the kind of attack we saw in Rajouri… and the number of security personnel being increased.”
“All this points to the fact that the situation is not under control,” said Abdullah. “The government is now compelled to take these steps.”
J&K lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha on 2 January promised new weapons to VDC members after he visited Dhangri village, a promise reiterated that same day by police chief Dilbag Singh, despite the past record of VDCs.
There are no data on their effectiveness—militants killed or attacks repulsed—but in 2016, the J&K government told the former state’s legislative assembly that 221 first information reports (FIRs) were filed against VDC members, including 23 murder cases and seven cases each of rape and rioting. Only six cases ended in conviction, a rate of 2.7%.
Created in 1995, during a period of widespread unrest and terrorist attacks on remote villages, more than 5,000 VDCs enrolled more than 25,000 over a quarter century. More than 90% of these VDC members were Hindu, as previous research (here and here) has shown, including in Muslim-majority districts.
It was in 1995 that Rekha Sharma enrolled in her local VDC. This time, she said, she had convinced 25 women to join its new avatar, the VDG. The government, for its part, said arms would be made available.
"No guns will be taken away,” said Singh. “If some guns have been taken away, they will be returned (to the VDCs) and more guns will be provided, if needed.”
‘With Guns, We Can Take Care Of Ourselves’
The J&K government is now arming villagers and training volunteers as VDGs. In the case of retired paramilitary and army personnel, it is replacing .303 rifles, which are single-shot weapons with 10 bullets in a magazine, with semi-automatic self-loading rifles (SLRs) with magazines that hold 20 bullets.
Rekha Sharma explained she was especially disturbed by the fact that a widow had lost both her sons in the Dhangri attack. “Taking care of ourselves” was a task that took precedence over all others, she said.
“After the attack, the people here, including elderly children and women, were scared because everyone was wondering what we will do if there is another attack here,” she said, adding that people had guns during the recent attack but did not anticipate an attack, given the recent peace.
"The self-defence committee has provided us with a chance to live with dignity instead of getting slaughtered meekly," said another armed civilian who has been on a VDC for 20 years.
After the recent attacks, Bal Krishna, 40, another member who picks up his rifle and stands guard says that the security forces can’t be deployed in every village.
When the militants struck on the evening of 1 January, Krishna was the only one who came out of his house and opened fire with his .303 rifle, which was unused for 24 years.
“Ever since people here got new guns, they feel safe," said Krishna, who said he first joined the VDC at 24 and now runs a garments shop.
Krishna said that after the first attack, few believed there would be another only a day later on 2 January, when even those with guns did not emerge.
“Now we patrol the area every evening to ensure our safety,” said Krishna.
New Credibility For A Dwindling Militia
It was in March 2022 that the union ministry of home affairs approved of a new programme to create VDGs in the “more vulnerable areas” of J&K, with no more than 15 in each group, headed by a special police officer—a semi-official appointment—usually a retired soldier, paramilitary or police officer. Each VDG unit reports to the district superintendent of police.
Every VDG was to get a gun and 100 rounds of ammunition, as VDC members received when they were trained and armed in the mid 1990s when a violent insurgency swept J&K, with militants pouring in over the de facto border with Pakistan, the line of control, which runs for 1,222 km along J&K.
The government announced that each VDG would be paid a honorarium of Rs 4,000 per month, while those who headed these units would get Rs 4,500. In June 2016, the government of J&K said 27,924 unpaid “volunteers” were serving in 4,248 VDCs across J&K.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a VDG said that the honorarium announced in 2022 had never been paid. Ajay Kumar, a former Dhangri VDC member, said the VDG programme was only sporadically implemented.
“However,” said Kumar, “we are thankful to the government for implementing it here now.” At least lives could be saved and militants held at bay, he added, until security forces arrive.
That view was echoed through Dhangri. Dheeraj Sharma, the headman or sarpanch of Upper Dhangri spoke of “peaceful nights” after the government began rearming the militia.
"Our only focus is to protect ourselves and the people around us,” said Dheeraj Sharma. “After the recent attack, the administration has taken our demands seriously and provided new weapons.”
The recent attacks have provided the militia with new credibility, which was battered after the crimes that VDCs were accused of.
Since relative peace returned to J&K in 2002, there were calls (here and here) to disband the VDCs. But successive governments did not. Over the years, governments took back weapons when members turned 60; others surrendered weapons when the honorarium promised was not paid.
The Risks Of Arming Civilians
The risk of creating an armed civilian militia was evident in the flood of criminal cases filed against VDCs, as the 2016 J&K government data previously quoted indicated.
In December 2015, a woman called Shamima Akhter and her three-year-old son were shot dead in Budhal village of Rajouri district by a VDC member, Mushtaq Ahmad, using his government-issued .303, after which locals demanded a ban on the VDC.
That same year, another VDC member, Kewal Sharma also used his .303 to allegedly murder Ishtiyaq Ahmed, of the regional political party, the National Conference, after an altercation in the same district.
In 2013, VDC members kidnapped and shot dead 16-year-old Shamim Ahmed Lone in the neighbouring district of Kishtwar, while a woman from the same district was kidnapped and raped by men backed and protected by the VDC.
A local resident, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from others, said VDC members were exploited by politicians to "terrorise" villagers for local political interests and to garner votes during elections.
“In the last elections, they played a very crucial role in making sure that a certain political party gets votes in the areas controlled by them,” he said, referring to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which swept state polls in the Hindu-majority Jammu region in 2014, the last time elections were held.
Retired police officers acknowledged that some VDCs were involved in crimes but said they played an important role against militants.
“With a weapon in hand, people can feel more safe and secure,” former J&K director general of police (DGP) Shesh Paul Vaid told Article 14.
"To avoid untoward incidents, the authorities should inspect weapons and provide proper training. The security grid should ensure tight control on them so that they can't misuse their respective weapons," said Vaid, who was responsible for setting up the first VDC in Jammu’s Udhampur region in 1995.
Vaid said those who had “misused their position as VDC members” had been “punished by law”, and “those found misusing their position in the future in any way will be punished”.
“Everyone is accountable before the law,” said Vaid.
More Deaths, As Arming & Training Continues
On 26 January, a 30-year-old called Rubina Koser, wife of Nisar Hussain a resident of Upper Marrah village in Poonch district died after the .303 rifle of her husband, a VDC member, went off accidentally.
She was the first victim of J&K’s civil militia in 2023.
On 5 March, a 35-year-old man died by suicide, shooting himself with the weapon of his elder brother, a VDC member, in the district of Doda.
Meanwhile, the arming and training of VDGs continues apace.
In the first phase of the rearming, 40 SLRs were provided.
"One SLR is being given to an ex-serviceman in each VDC, while the rest of the members will have .303 rifles,” said a senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media. “Where ex-servicemen are not available, the SLR is being given to a responsible villager with a clean record.”
The army, the CRPF and J&K police have started training VDC members in the districts of Rajouri, Poonch, Kishtwar, Doda, Ramban, Reasi, Udhampur, Kathua, Samba and Jammu districts. There are 4,125 village defence committees in the Jammu region with 5,200 VDC members in Rajouri district and almost 150 members in Upper Dhangri alone, according to officials.
The trainers demonstrated proper handling of weapons, cleaning and their maintenance, said officials. "Special training camps are being organised across the district to hone their skills so that they can tackle the terror threat effectively,” said a senior police officer quoted previously.
Army veteran Roshan Lal said villagers hoped to receive more weapons. “Several youngsters have applied for weapons… we are ready to work in coordination with the security forces to counter terrorists,” said Lal.
People's Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti said the rearming or militias had “exposed” the BJP's claims that the situation in J&K had become normal after the abrogation of Article 370, she said
"If that were the case, why bring more security personnel into Jammu and Kashmir?” said Mufti, reiterating her view that J&K required a political, not military, solution. “Why arm the local people with weapons? This only shows that BJP has failed in controlling the situation. Now they want to harass people and increase bloodshed by these measures.”
In Upper Dhangri, they did not quite see it the way Mufti did.
“With guns in hands, we can take care of ourselves,” said Rekha Sharma, as she recruited new volunteers into her VDG. “The Dangri incident has shaken all of us. So what if I am a woman? I can shoot enemies.”
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(Sajid Raina is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.)