Village Defence Groups : Is it an old wine in new bottle?
‘Terrorism is the tactic of demanding the impossible and demanding it at gun point’ – Christopher Hitchens
Colonel Satish Singh Lalotra
The northern most area of our country bordering the volatile nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan and China has always borne the brunt of destabilization, religious as well as ethnic violence and brought consequent misery to lakhs of its inhabitants imported as either under duress or exported by the later as part of a larger game plan. The fault lines of this area was very well under the radar of a watchful British colonial master who in the mid 19th century undertook some very far reaching steps to include the demarcation of British India from the tribal frontiers of the NWFP in the form of ‘Durand line’ named after the then British foreign secretary Sir Mortimer Durand as also upgraded the border areas infrastructure for its better integration with the rest of India. They in their wisdom thought that the above efforts would help them remove the sense of alienation in the country as also keep up them on top of Geo-Political situations wrought by the constant wrangling of events undertaken by both Czarist Russia and themselves as part of the now infamous ‘Great game’ .
Jammu & Kashmir willy-nilly has been caught in the jockeying of power play accentuated by these events due to its geographical proximity to the chess –board of Great game i.e. the central Asia. The long shadows of those days have albeit cast themselves in a different hue today in the form of non –state actors (terrorists) being launched by forces inimical to our interests from across the frontiers.Right from independence J&K has been in the eye of the storm both with its western as well as northern neighbor with the later demanding a pie of action to suit their own nefarious Geo- strategic goals. Though the erstwhile state’s brush with non-state actors to stoke separatism dates back to both pre independence and post- independence times, cut to the 1990s era the hydra headed monster acquired gargantuan proportions since 1995 when selected and targeted killings of minorities (read Hindus& Sikhs) spilled on to this side of the PirPanchal. Taking it into its realm the districts of Doda, Rajauri, Poonch, Kathua and Udhampur in the 90s, this scourge has off late become more vicious in its depredations with counter insurgency measures stymying its further growth in Kashmir valley.
To thwart such wide scale sweep of militants in Jammu division which saw inhuman killings in Barshalla in 1996 (16 killings), Thub village in district Udhampur (13 killings), champnari Doda in 1998, (26 killings) ,Thattri, Doda (15 killings) and so on the then state government of Jammu and Kashmir in September 1995 accorded sanction for creation of VDGs (Village defence groups) in all the ten districts of Jammu division. State government order (Home-293 of 1995 dated 30 September) signed by the then additional chief secretary (home) laid down the entire structure, command and control, analysis, and functioning of these village defence groups to take on this menace in a more professional way. Guided by the broader aim of active participation of the local population in the security of these villages and habitation along the borders in Jammu division as well as important installations in the vicinity, the idea of giving weapons to the locals for self defence was adequately exercised in 1947, 1965 and 1971 with good dividends accruing from the above act. For this purpose the then successive state governments had distributed about 2500 (.303 bolt action rifles) along with ammunition to the villagers, most of them ex-servicemen who were deft in arms handling.
Notwithstanding the above well intended measure, cut to the present times the menace that is staring at India is much more complex& opaque irrespective of abrogation of article 370/35 A. The changed nature of militancy with liberal doses of radicalism, sophisticated weaponry, modern and swift means of communication has become an industry itself with many big wigs taking their pound of flesh.This calls for revamping and shifting gears in forward movement of anti-terror operations. With the government having announced this March its intention of reestablishing of VDCs in the Jammu province, the MHA (Ministry of home affairs) has in its order stated that persons (V-1 Category) i.e. in most vulnerable areas shall be leading /conducting the VDG and paid Rs 4500/- per man whereas persons in V-2 Category who are just members of this group will be paid a uniform rate of Rs 4000/- per month. This is a complete volte face from its earlier stated and implemented compensatory package in the early 1990s. It needs no logic to know that the face of terrorism has become more ruthless and wide spread in its domain in the last three decades and when coupled with the inflationary trends that prevails worldwide the salary package instead of going north has slid south. More about it later.
With the MHA calling these volunteers as ‘Soldiers without uniform’ it doesn’t take away the seriousness with which these people are attached to. It is pertinent to mention here that in the 1990s a total of 4280 VDCs existed in Jammu and Kashmir which were a bulwark against these renegade elements. The above mentioned VDCs were founded in 1995 in 10 districts of Jammu division to take on the gauntlet in far off places with a recruitment of about 26,500 volunteers into these VDCs. But most of these VDCs were later on done away with by the previous state governments. In fact former PM & DyPM, Sh Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani at that time supported the ‘Dodabacahaoandolan’ in the wake of mass migration of the minorities under duress of Militant threats. Many VDCs fought bravely and lost their lives too. The bane of this whole issue was that no formal policy was in place for these committees so far and members were forced to surrender their weapons in police stations off and on. As if this was not enough only 3 members of a VDC or VDG were given the salary of a SPO (Special police officer) who would then distribute the salaries among other VDG members. A very adhoc method of compensation. A village defence group consists of approximately 8 to 10 able bodied male members of a particular area. When the scheme was launched in the year 1995 at least one had to be an SPO as stated above with temporary employment as a policeman and not on regular rolls of a police force. To add to the ignominy of the situation, these SPOs were on an initial honorarium of a measly sum of Rs 1500/- per month to be paid through a local police station.
A single group would get Rs 54,000/ – per month which would then be divided as mentioned earlier amongst 8 to 10 members of a VDG thus averaging about Rs 6780/- per month. As mentioned earlier the same amount as promised by the MHA now stands at Rs 4500/- as per the new framed guidelines. More over these SPOs when once credited with their consolidated salary never used to share the amount with their fellow members of the VDG. This has resulted in a most bizarre situation wherein despite the volunteers having put their life on the firing line are going unpaid due to another equally but connected bizarre order of the government since 2017 which laid down that the consolidated salary of the VDG will be distributed by the SPO in charge of that group. As I read the above problems in their entirety right from the time the Addl chief secretary of the then state government promulgated his order of creation of these VDGs certain questions beg serious answers which are listed down below….
(1) Most of the volunteers who opted for the VDCs in the mid-90s or early 2000 in areas like Barshalla of Doda etc have not been paid with their salaries as stated earlier in this write-up since 2017 till date forcing them to take up menial and other sundry jobs like taxi driving, ad hoc teaching to fill in their daily needs. Since these youths had taken up the arms voluntarily to protect their villages now they can’t apply for any other jobs because of their being over aged. Moreover since they having picked up the gun hence can’t give them up all of a sudden as they are now in the cross hairs of their enemies that they have earned over the years. What alternative arrangements the govt has done to save their skin?
(2) The new volunteers of the 1990s were trained by the army although their payments were routed through the state police. What checks and measures were then in place to make sure that a volunteer was paid as per his attendance and his due in the training scheduled for him?
(3) Why couldn’t the same volunteer be paid by the army training them on ‘Book debit system’ as done in the case of PMFs when attached for training with them?
(4) Was any scheme put in motion by the previous govts as well as successive after threats emanating to the family members of the VDC by the terrorists?
(5) There have been cases where the volunteers have to go even now for their regular weapon checkups and training to district headquarters all on their own payment with no remuneration coming their way. Who will pay for their loss of a day’s income if he is daily wager?
(6) What assurances have come in from the MHA in the last 4 months or so to upgrade and match weapon systems of these VDCs to take on these militants?
(7) Why did the govt in its 2017 order started crediting the consolidated salary package of a VDC in the bank accounts of SPOs and not direct credit into the accounts of individuals for better transparency?
(8) With the ‘Core banking system” in place in the country since 1994/95 it just defies logic as to why no forethought was given to better integration in this case too and ameliorate the sufferings of the VDC members.
(9) As per state government order number.. Home / 293 / dated 30september 95 para 5 ( C) Quote—Persons willing to purchase weapons from their own money and found eligible will be given gun licenses and then enlisted in the VDC.’ What a tall order from the composition of VDC point of view. Why couldn’t the same order of the Addl chief secretary say in so many words that weapons for the VDCs will be provided enmasse from the state police or resources? Is it an individual’s responsibility to safeguard his village from terrorist depredations or is it the govt who should take on the might of the militants? The above shows an element of ambiguity and pusillanimous attitude in the state government order which was put in motion that time.
(10) What were the circumstances under which the scheme was tapered off in the Jammu region only to be revived again after such a hiatus? Have the circumstances gone from bad to worse in the region for the scheme’s revival?
(11) Have those VDC members who were found to be involved in personal vendetta using their weapons now kept at a bay and away from fresh recruitment?
As if this is not enough to nail the erstwhile govts for falling short of doing due diligence in this case, the conclusion part of the state government order for setting up of VDCs says in so many words to raise the sagging morale of its citizens by active participation. What an irony. With the above mentioned points are we not trying to put the last nail in the coffin of VDCs? The price of peace is eternal vigilance which I am sure the govt realizes and acts upon with alacrity.