Hari Ram gets furious when you ask him if the Village Defence Committees (VDCs) should be disbanded. The 28-year-old member of a VDC in Kulhand village, 40 km from Doda town in Jammu, believes that after the Kishtwar riots, “vested interests” have started the chorus for disbanding these groups.
“We will never hand over our weapons to anyone,” says Ram. The two-day-long riots that began on Eid was apparently triggered when Hindus pelted stones at a Muslim group in Kuleed village for shouting separatist slogans on their way to offer Eid prayers.
There are other versions too of what caused the riots, but a nervous state government has understandably clamped down on media coverage and it is difficult to pinpoint the exact sequence of the events. There are even allegations from the Muslims that VDC groups attacked them after the riots.
In fact, allegations are flying thick and fast from both sides — Hindus and Muslims. The recent riots have had that effect. To the residents of Jammu, however, that is not a new thing. Ever since militancy reared its head in the Valley in the early 1990s, the mutual distrust between the two communities has never been as deep as it is now. To a point that the area has turned into a tinderbox waiting to explode. And at the heart of this animosity are the VDCs.
The idea of VDCs was first mooted in 1995 by the government to protect villagers from militants in Jammu & Kashmir. By 1996, 10 districts of Jammu and the district of Leh in Ladakh had fully operational groups of armed villagers to defend against attacks by militants. Initially, members of both communities were approached, but most of the Muslims refused to take the offer, partly because many were sympathetic to the separatist cause, while others feared that accepting weapons from the government would make them the target of militants.
In Ram’s village in Kulhand, the idea of an armed group did not find acceptance until a decade later, when militants massacred 22 Hindus on 1 May 2006, among them many of Ram’s relatives. The villagers saw merit in the idea, and a VDC was formed of rifle-carrying members patrolling the village. “Now,” says Chuni Lal, a VDC member, “we have no fear of a militant attack.”
The flipside began to show soon after. Kulhand’s population of 4,000 is distributed equally between Muslims and Hindus, albeit all the five VDCs in the area comprise only Hindus. Each VDC has eight members, including three Special Police Officers (SPOs), who are paid a monthly salary of Rs 3,000 by the state.
It is the sight of these guntoting villagers that makes Ghulam Rasool Bhat uneasy. Bhat’s is the only Muslim family in a cluster of six houses. “If a communal riot takes place,” he says, “my family could be easily targeted.”
The Muslims feel there is no reason for continuing with VDCs as the Chenab Valley, comprising three districts in Jammu province, has been declared free of militancy. Reportedly, only two militants are still operating in the region, both in Kishtwar district. “When there is no militancy, who are the VDCs protecting the villagers from?” asks Hanif Hashmi, a Doda-based lawyer.
The Hindus see it differently. “If there is a revival of militancy, we will be sitting ducks,” says Kulhand sarpanch Krishan Chand. “Don’t forget Hindus have been massacred here a number of times.” Indeed, the past two decades have seen six massacres of Hindus by militants in the Chenab Valley. In 1993, 17 Hindus were killed at Sarthal, 16 at Barshalla and 17 at Sumbar in 1996, 25 at Chapnari in 1998, 35 at Kalaban in 1998 and 22 at Kulhand in 2006.
It was in response to these massacres that the government took the first steps towards arming the villagers. However, with militancy dropping considerably, these groups are now turning out to be the reason for a major trust deficit between the two communities. The decline of militancy has made the Muslims scared of armed Hindus in their midst, especially in times of communal tension. Hindus, on their part, are not ready to trust the Muslims, more so when the region, they believe, is still “dormant with militancy”.
In the 10 districts of Jammu province and the Leh district in Ladakh, there are 26,567 VDC members. Around 96 percent of them are Hindus. The Jammu zone also has the highest number of SPOs in the state: 15,366 out of a total of 25,474. Doda-based human rights activist Abdul Qayum Zargar pegs the total number of “armed irregulars”, including VDC members and SPOs, at around 50,000.
Not surprisingly, this presence of armed groups has led to the current situation where everyone views the other with suspicion, one that has only become stronger with numerous incidents.
When 16-year-old Shamim Ahmed Lone of Doda was killed a month before the Kishtwar riots, fingers were pointed at VDC members. Earlier, a 15-year-old girl from Kishtwar was abducted and raped by people allegedly backed and protected by VDCs. Two of them, Ranjeet Singh and Sanjeet Kumar, have since been arrested, while the rest are absconding.
Then, there was also the infamous Machil encounter case. In May 2010, an SPO allegedly lured three youth from Baramulla to the LoC with the promise of jobs, where the army killed them. This event, in part responsible for triggering the 2010 unrest in the Valley, was followed by the death of another youth, Mushtaq Ahmed, 25, in August 2012, when he was killed by two SPOs at Gaschar Darmi village in Doda.
The arrest of a police sub-inspector Shiv Kumar Sharma in Doda on 5 June turned the spotlight again on the role of SPOs. Initially recruited as an SPO, Sharma was arrested after the police found his hand in a grenade attack on a police station, which he had blamed on militants. He is now in jail serving time for false encounters.
Incidents like these have given grist to the demand for disbanding VDCs. To pursue this demand, Farooq Ahmad Kichloo, a cleric from Kishtwar, formed an All Parties Coordination Committee earlier this year, comprising Muslim members of political parties, including even the BJP. “If the government can’t disband the VDCs, it should also arm the Muslims,” says Kichloo.
This history of communal polarisation is inextricably linked with the history of separatist politics in the state. Muslims of the region are from Kashmiri ethnic stock and trace their political outlook to the Kashmir Valley, while the Hindus are of mixed Kashmiri and Dogra descent and identify more with the Hindu majority of Jammu and the rest of the country. That is why separatist politics has often found support from the region’s Muslims while the Hindus have seen it as a threat.
Today, the distrust runs deep, bordering on paranoia. This edgy social scene is lending itself to political manipulation. And at the centre of it is the issue of VDCs. After Arun Jaitley, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, was stopped from visiting riot-hit Kishtwar, the BJP worked up a political fury, claiming that the state government was supporting one community at the expense of another. Separatists in the Kashmir Valley called for a three-day bandh and sought disarming of the VDCs. The NC, the PDP and the Congress, however, realised that communal polarisation in the region will only split the Muslim vote among them, while the BJP will attract a big chunk of the Hindu vote.
Aware of the potential troubling dimension of the issue of disbanding VDCs, the state government has refused to be drawn into the debate. Soon after the riots broke out, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah immediately ruled out the involvement of VDCs. “Any decision with regard to VDC members would be taken by the police,” he said.
Though the government is jittery about taking a decision on the VDCs, there was no such hesitation in the case of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, a pro-government armed outfit comprising former militants, which was disbanded in 1996 after being blamed for a spate of atrocities.
Civil liberty groups in the Valley have cited the 2011 Supreme Court verdict that termed the creation of militia by state governments as “unconstitutional”. Invoking the apex court’s judgment, which was given with regard to the appointment of SPOs and the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, Parvez Imroz, president of the J&K Civil Society, says the ruling binds “all Indian states and is more relevant to J&K, where the idea of privatisation of human rights violations was conceptualised and crystallised”.
Khurram Parvez of the J&K Coalition of Civil Society seconds this. “If the state can disband the Ikhwanis and ease out SPOs, why can’t it take on the VDCs that are threatening to tear the social fabric of the state?” he asks.