Following two terrorist acts in Dhangri village of Jammu and Kashmir's Rajouri that killed seven, calls were made to revive Village Defence Committees (VDCs).
The authorities responded to the calls and handed self-loading rifles (SLRs) to villagers in the Jammu region and have started training villagers to defend themselves.
These villagers are being trained and armed under the banner of Village Defence Guards (VDGs), a new name for what were earlier called VDCs.
Here we explain why the calls were made for the revival for these villag militias, what's their history, and what's being done currently.
The calls to revive Village Defence Committee
The calls to revive Village Defence Committees (VDCs) were made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Jammu and Kashmir following Rajouri killings.
Around the same time when a BJP leader made the call, J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha and Director General of Police (DGP) Dilbag Singh announced that VDCs would be revived and upgraded.
On January 1, terrorists opened fire at houses in Rajouri's Dhangri village. Five persons were killed in the attack. Before fleeing, the terrorists planted an improvised explosive device (IED) near the house of one of the firing victims. The IED exploded the next morning, killing two children, taking the death toll to seven.
The deceased in the firing attack have been identified as Satish Kumar (45), Deepak Kumar (23), Pritam Lal (57), Shishu Pal (32), and Prince Sharma. The IED exploded the next day near Pritam's house. Prince is the younger brother of Deepak. Two persons killed in the IED blast on January 2 are identified as Vihan Sharma (04) and Samiksha Sharma (16). The two of them were cousins.
Following the attack, senior J&K-based BJP leader and former MLC Vibodh Gupta alleged that 60 per cent of the guns of VDCs have been taken back.
DGP Singh further said, "I am sad over the killings. It is a matter of grief. It is time to give a boost to VDCs. No guns will be taken away...If some guns have been taken away, they will be returned (to VDCs) and more guns will be provided if needed."
What are Village Defence Committees, what's their history?
The Village Defence Committees (VDCs) were first set up in 1995, according to The Indian Express.
The idea to set up VDCs was rooted in the arming of ex-service personnel in 1965 and 1971 wars to check Pakistani infiltration and espionage, noted The Express.
The VDCs were formed in Jammu region of J&K to offer self-defence capabilities to villagers in the face of looming terrorist threats. Under the scheme, each VDC used to have a Special Police Officer (SPO) as its in-charge and there were 10-15 other volunteer members, mostly ex-service personnel. They were given .303 rifles and ammunition. The SPO in charge of the VDC was paid whereas the rest were volunteers, noted The Express.
One key reason for the formation of VDC in the 1990s was to resolve the insecurity among the minority Hindus in J&K, who had already faced forced displacement earlier in 1990 from the Kashmir Valley due to terrorism.
Late BJP leader Chamanlal Gupta in 2001 said the VDCs played a key role in foiling terrorists' plans to displace J&K's minority Hindus.
Gupta, a Union minister at the time, told Rediff News, "I am happy to share with you that in continuation of those efforts we formed the village defence committees. Today there are 1,500 such VDCs in Doda. Each committee consists of ten armed persons. Thanks to them, militants have not been able to stage a mass exodus of Hindus so far. Of course they have been successful in killing people.
"People are in the mood to fight militancy. When the governor of Kashmir was present in Doda to mourn the killings, people told him in one voice, 'Give us weapons, give us training, employ our children and form squads, we will drive militants out of this state'."
However, as violence reduced in J&K, the number of VDCs was reduced. Moreover, the lack of government attention is also cited as a reason for VDCs' decline.
The Daily Excelsior noted, "For many months and even years, some of these VDC members had received no remuneration at all. Unfortunately, the role of the then state Governments, therefore, had been that of an apathetic nature instead of helping or cooperative one towards these Defence Committees. It all resulted in and created space for gradual disbanding of dozens of VDCs and therefore, removal of hundreds of its volunteers in Doda, Udhampur, Kathua, Rajouri etc but sill nearly 28000 volunteers of these VDCs continued with the 'mission'."
The new avatar Village Defence Committees
In 2020, the policy of Village Defence Committees was revamped and Village Defence Groups were introduced, members of whom are called Village Defence Guards (VDGs).
It was not just a change of name as the very structure of committees was changed. Unlike VDCs where only SPOs were paid, all VDGs are paid.
"In more vulnerable areas, the order stated that persons (VI category) who shall be leading/ coordinating the VDG would be paid ₹4,500 per month and other persons (V2 category) who are members of these VDGs on a voluntary basis will be paid a uniform rate of ₹4,000 per month," reported Hindustan Times.
The VDGs also function under the supervision of district SP/SSPs.
The recent Rajouri killings have led to a further boost of VDGs as they have been given self-loading rifles (SLRs) in place of older .303 rifles.
Notably, the push for VDCs and VDGs is in the Jammu region, where the violence has been relatively very little compared to the Kashmir region. Moreover, just like the 1990s, the massacres of J&K's minority Hindus and insecurity among them is a key driver to arm them.
How are Village Defence Guards being trained?
Authorities on Monday handed over self-loading rifles (SLRs) to the ex-servicemen acting as village defence guards (VDGs) in Dhangri village, officials said.
The Jammu and Kashmir Police held a special camp in Dhangri on Monday. It was attended by Rajouri Deputy Commissioner Vikas Kundal and Senior Superintendent of Police Mohammad Aslam, among others.
Around 40 ex-servicemen living in the area and identified by a panchayat-level committee were given SLRs along with 100 bullets each at the camp, the officials said, adding that most of these ex-servicemen had served in the Army and volunteered themselves to act as VDGs.
"We are thankful to the district administration for giving us the SLRs, which have a better firing range, and giving us an opportunity to serve as VDGs," ex-serviceman Roshan Lal said.
He said all the VDGs, especially the ex-servicemen, are ready to work in coordination with the security forces to counter terrorists.
Sarpanch of Dhangri Dheeraj Sharma thanked Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha's administration for fulfilling their demand.
He said during his visit to the village after the terror attack, Sinha had promised to provide new weapons.
"Our demand is fulfilled.... Although the number of weapons is less than what was projected, we are still thankful. We expect that more weapons will be provided in the coming times," Sharma said.
Additionally, the Indian Army has also starting holding sessions for VDCs.
Officials said the Indian Army held a special firing practice session for the volunteers in Mahadev Menka firing range in Sunderbani sector this morning.
Over 50 VDGs, drawn from different villages along the LoC, took part in the firing practice session which was held in coordination with local police, the officials said.
They said weapon handlers and shooting experts of the Army demonstrated proper use of weapons to VDGs who later practised firing.
(With PTI inputs)