India’s Village Defence Guards: Arming Civilians To Hunt Terrorists
“Self-defence is not only our right; it is our duty.”
– Ronald Reagan.
From time immemorial, self-defence has been considered nature’s eldest law. The precursor of a thriving society is its ability to defend itself against terrorism in all its manifestations. India, being the oldest and only civilization that’s still subsisting, owes its existence to its resilience against violence inflicted for centuries. Even as of today, India is battling on several external and internal fronts. And to defend ourselves against all forms of aggression, it is paramount that our ability to retaliate be decisive. Keeping this in mind, the Indian armed forces have re-initiated their programme of training and arming civilians in Jammu and Kashmir. The thought behind it is that no one can protect a man unless he learns to defend himself. Building on this viewpoint, the concept of “Village Defence Guards” came into existence. In this piece, we’ll look at its need and implications in our war against terror.
ORIGIN OF VILLAGE DEFENCE COMMITTEES
- The Village Defence Committees (VDCs) were raised in 1995 in response to the upsurge in militancy in Kashmir and then split out in Jammu. The VDC was set up as a force multiplier against militant attacks.
- After the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the valley in 1990, it became imperative for the state to contain millitancy from gaining its hold in adjoining Jammu districts.
- The demand for VDCs first rose after the massacre of 13 people in Kishtwar in 1993. Its objective was to arm and train the residents of remote hilly villages to defend themselves.
- The primary targets of VDCs were the areas where poor road networks delayed the arrival of security forces. The villagers, well-versed in the local topography, deterred many militant attacks and helped in their capture and killing. At one point, there were 1500 VDCs in Doda district alone. Each VDC is comprised of 10 armed personnel led by a Special Police Officer (SPO) as its in-charge.
- The VDCs played a crucial role in controlling militancy when it peaked in most parts of Jammu division. Due to its success, it was later expanded to Udhampur, Reasi, Rajouri, Poonch, Kathua, and Samba districts.
VILLAGE DEFENCE GUARDS SCHEME
- The Village Defence Guards (VDGs) scheme works on a similar basis as village defence committees. It’s fair to say it’s a more refined version of the Village Defence Committee programme. The VDG scheme was approved by the Union Home Ministry in March 2022 to set up VDGs (Village Defence Guards) in vulnerable areas of J&K. Changing the name of the committees was not the only alteration; the committees’ entire organisation was altered.
- Unlike VDCs, where only SPOs were paid, all VDGs are paid. In the VDCs, only the SPO leading the group was paid a remuneration of Rs 1,500 monthly. Under the new scheme, persons leading the VDGs will be paid Rs 4500 per month, while the members of the VDGs will be paid a monthly remuneration of Rs 4,000.
- Apart from the hike in remuneration, there are further advancements in training and weaponry provided to the village defence guards. The CRPF has been assigned to train the VDGs in the use of automatic weapons. The VDGs are given automatic self-loading rifles (SLRs) in place of older.303 rifles.
WORKING OF THE VILLAGE DEFENCE GUARDS
- The Village Defence Guards primarily comprising ex-service personnels identified by a panchayat-level committee will be trained by CRPF and will be given self-loading rifles (SLRs). The VDGs will operate under the direction of the Senior superintendent of police (SSP)/superintendent of police (SP) of the district concerned.
- The VDGs will not consist of more than 15 members and each member will be given agun (SLR) and 100 rounds of ammunition. Each group will be headed by a retired officer of the Army/J&K police. They would be in charge of night and day patrols, as well as the protection of religious facilities and public structures.
- The VDGs will be split into two groups: those who have a valid license to possess weapons and who have weapons provided by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, and those who have a license, weapons, or are willing to purchase weapons.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE VILLAGE DEFENCE GUARDS
- Protection against Militancy: The primary objective of the VDCs was to provide a layer of protection to the local population against militant attacks. They acted as a second line of defence for the safety of the general population. The VDCs were formed in response to the increasing violence and terrorism in the state, particularly in rural and remote areas where the security forces had a limited presence.
- Local Participation: The VDCs were based on the idea of involving local people in the defence of their own villages. The members of the VDCs were recruited from among the local population, who were familiar with the terrain and had a vested interest in protecting their own communities.
- Intelligence Gathering: The VDCs played a crucial role in gathering intelligence on militant activities in their respective areas. The VDC members were able to identify suspicious movements and activities and report them to the security forces, which helped thwart many militant attacks. The VDCs provided valuable support to the security forces by acting as their eyes and ears on the ground. They are also trained to assist the security forces in various activities, including search and cordon operations.
- Community Development: In addition to their security role, the VDCs also played an important role in community development. They helped in the implementation of government schemes and programmes, including those related to agriculture, health, and education. They act as a bridge between the state and the civilians and supplement the mutual trust between the armed forces and the local residents.
SIMILAR INITIATIVES IN OTHER PARTS
- Village Volunteer Force (VVF) in Manipur: The Village Volunteer Force (VVF) was very effective during Manipur’s peak insurgency. The armed VVF personnel, who were primarily made up of militants who had surrendered, not only engaged the militants operating in their areas but also greatly aided in gathering intelligence. However, these forces were led by liaison officers and area organisers who had been deputed from the CRPF and the BSF.
- Salwa Judum in Chattisgarh: Salwa Judum means “Peace March” or “Purification Hunt” in the language of the Gonds. It was a civilian militia specifically mobilised to counter the Naxalite violence in the Chhattisgarh region. Supported by the state government, Salwa Judum received military and police support to cleanse the region of Naxalite. Salwa Judum was primarily concentrated in the Bastar and Dantewada districts, with as many as 23 camps in the region. Though very effective in containing Naxalite violence, Salwa Judwa was accused of human rights violations during their operation. There were reports of recruiting minors in its group as well as cases of illegal killing propped up. Later, on July 5, 2011, Salwa Judwa was disbanded by a Supreme Court order.
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Overall, the formation of VDGs in Jammu and Kashmir is a response to the security challenges faced by the state and is aimed at providing a sense of security to the local population while also involving them in the defence of their own villages. In the past, this method of engaging locals in counter-insurgency operations had yielded positive results. Though some critics have their apprehensions regarding the weaponization of society, with proper management and monitoring, it can be taken care of. In the end, with Jammu and Kashmir being a border region and Pakistan pushing terrorists to target civilians, this initiative is the need of the hour. Moreover, this plan is an expression of the will of the people to participate actively and voluntarily in the efforts to help protect the integrity and sovereignty of the nation.