The message was clear: a group of terrorists would strike Lihota anytime. The Muslim watchman had travelled miles to convey this to his friends in a tiny hamlet in the foothills of the Himalayas in Jammu & Kashmir’s Doda district. It was July 1999, and not very far from there, a war was on in Kargil between India and Pakistan.
Lihota had only a few families, 39 people in all. Some of them had earlier been given guns by the Government. They were part of what had come to be known as Village Defence Committees (VDCs) in the Jammu region of the state. It had not taken much time for militancy to spread to these parts from the Kashmir Valley. By 1993, militants had struck at several places in Doda and other areas, attacking members of the Hindu minority. The terrain was rugged and densely forested, and hamlets like Lihota were at least a day’s journey away from the nearest Army or police camp. That is why the few VDC members in Lihota always kept their .303 Lee Enfield rifles by their side.
That day in 1999, it is not clear whether the residents of Lihota tried to get some help during daylight. But as night fell, nine VDC members took position in a picket overlooking the narrow path leading to Lihota. At about 9 pm, they saw heavily-armed men climbing up. They opened fire. But their weapons were no match for the automatic weaponry the terrorists had. In no time, the picket was overrun and some VDC members were killed. But still, the others persisted and put up a brave fight against the terrorists, who were forced to retreat. In all, almost half of Lihota’s population was wiped out that night. But had it not been for the VDCs and their guns, perhaps Lihota wouldn’t exist on the map today.
In the wake of the recent Kishtwar violence, with the Valley’s separatist groups and some mainstream political parties making a fevered pitch to disband VDCs, it is imperative to understand the dynamics of militancy in the Jammu region.
In the 1990s, militancy first reached Doda because of its proximity to the Valley. About 40 per cent of Doda’s population is of Kashmiri origin. While militancy burst out in 1990 in the Valley, it took about three years to pose a threat to the people of Doda, especially its Hindu population. As early as October 1991, militants had kidnapped a French engineer Silva Antonia from the Dul Hasti hydroelectric project site in Kishtwar (which was then a part of Doda district). In August 1993, terrorists stuck at Sarthal in Kishtwar, killing 17 Hindus. In January 1996, in another massacre, 16 Hindus were gunned down in the region. By the mid-90s, militancy had spread to other regions of Jammu as well, including Poonch and Rajouri. Between April 1998 and February 1999, more than 150 people of the Hindu minority were killed by terrorists in these two districts.
Fighting terrorism in these areas was a challenge for the Government. Deploying troops in a difficult area like Doda was a daunting task. Spread over 11,961 sq km, the district had 651 villages, and troop deployment here in the mid-90s was less than that in Baramulla district in Kashmir Valley. Terror attacks had triggered off an exodus similar to that from Kashmir Valley, where 350,000 Pandits had to leave their homes in the wake of an Islamist insurgency. Thousands of people began to arrive in Doda and Kishtwar town from villages in the region’s upper reaches to live in temples and other such community-owned buildings.
Initially, the administration sent them back along with a police party that would then camp with them in the village. “But this method had two [problems],” says the former Director General of the J&K Police, Kuldeep Khoda, who was then DIG of Udhampur-Doda range. “One: the force was getting sucked in permanently and we didn’t have an unlimited supply; two: such a measure was only taken once a massacre had already taken place.”
That is when the decision to involve civilians in this fight was taken. Initially, many were reluctant to take up the Government’s offer of arms and training, fearing reprisals from terrorists. But soon, many elders in villages, especially Army ex-servicemen, opted for it.
Right from the beginning, VDCs have had an effective role in deterring terrorists. Says Khoda, “Terrorists realised that if they have to create a fear psychosis, they would rather do it in a non-VDC village. They started avoiding villages with VDCs.”
The formation of VDCs also put an end to the exodus of Hindus. They felt secure and continued with their lives in their villages. But the VDCs had to pay a price for their resistance. In November 2000, VDC member Satish Kumar did not let terrorists enter his village Khala in Kishtwar. In his effort to fend off a massacre, he was himself killed.
Terrorists would target family members of VDCs—largely Hindu—as well. In December 2000, four children of a VDC member Gyan Singh were killed by terrorists in the Mahore area of Jammu. Between 1996 and 2007, at least 128 VDC members were killed by terrorists. The gravity of the situation can be gauged by the fact that despite counter- terrorism measures such as VDCs, many massacres of Hindus still took place. In June 1998, 25 Hindus who were a part of a marriage party were killed in Doda. In July, 16 others were killed in two villages. In July 1999, they stuck at Lihota, killing 15, but the bravery of VDCs prevented a bigger massacre. In August 2000, 11 Hindus were killed in Doda. In 2001 as well, the spate of killings continued, prompting the Centre to bring this entire region under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
In Poonch and Rajouri, the local Gujjar population was initially wary of taking up arms against militants. Though some of them acted as guides for militants trying to cross the Line of Control, they hardly harboured any anti-India sentiments. Through the mid 90s, terrorists perpetrated several massacres of the Hindu minority, including one during Vajpayee’s Lahore Bus Yatra in February 1998 in which 20 Hindus were killed in three incidents. But by 2001, there were several cases where terrorists of Pakistani origin, owing allegiance to groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba, began to harass and intimidate Gujjars, especially their womenfolk. That is when several of them took up the Government offer and joined VDCs.
Here, a few all-Muslim, all-women VDCs were formed as well. During a major operation launched by the Army in Poonch in 2003, codenamed Operation Sarp Vinash, to weed out terrorists who had infiltrated Indian territory, information supplied by a VDC led to the busting of a major terrorist hideout. Here too, VDCs had to pay a heavy price. In Poonch in February 2001, 15 members of a VDC, all Muslim, were burnt to death by terrorists. In June 2004, another ten (again all Muslims) were gunned down by terrorists.
In recent years, some cases of VDC highhandedness have been reported. But security experts say they are few and far between. Often, VDCs have been compared to the Salwa Judum, Chhattigarh’s anti-Maoist militia of civilians. But that comparison is silly. One, in Chhattisgarh, Maoists do not indulge in massacres of a particular tribe or community. Two, VDCs do not go out hunting for terrorists. That is why there is no possibility of civilian casualties that has almost been a norm in Salwa Judum operations. Three, the Salwa Judum mostly comprises of young men, some of them in their teens, which is again not the case with VDCs. “Comparison with the Salwa Judum is ridiculous,” says MM Khajuria, former DGP of J&K. “Those who do it are either uninformed or playing to the separatist gallery.”
In the coming days, the pitch for the disbanding of VDCs will only grow louder in a state where mainstream politicians are in competitive secessionism with separatist groups. Khoda feels that the VDCs ought to stay, especially along the LoC and in areas close to Kashmir Valley. But he says in other areas, where there has been no incident of militancy in the past five years, there needs to be a review of VDCs. “It had already been happening silently,” he says. “In several cases, the VDC members opted out themselves since they got a job elsewhere or turned old.” But now, with a real threat of the migration of the region’s Hindu minority looming large, these VDCs, it seems, will only have a larger role to play.