On the evening of 1 January, Tilak Raj Sharma was at home in Dhangri with his family when he heard what he first thought were firecrackers. He quickly realised the bursts might be much more serious. Tilak Raj, aged 62, took out his personal weapon, a .303 rifle that was gathering dust in a steel trunk. It had been provided to him by the government in 1995 to protect his village against a spiraling insurgency that had grown in response to increasingly ‘undemocratic acts’ by the Indian state, but he had never used it.
Hearing cries, Tilak Raj rushed to his brother Pritam Lal’s house, a stone’s-throw away. “I first saw my nephew outside his house and he told me that somebody came and shot him and his father,” he told me. Inside, he found his brother’s lifeless body, and his sister-in-law locked away in another room. Tilak Raj’s nephew, Shishu Pal, later succumbed to his injuries in hospital.
Pritam Lal and his son were not the only victims that night. Suspected militants shot four people dead and injured six in three separate houses in Dhangri, a village in the Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir, close to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. Two of the injured also later died. The attack terrorised the area and outraged much of India, marking another step in an ongoing escalation of militancy in the Jammu region. In response, the government resurrected an idea it had first used decades ago, the last time that militancy spilled beyond the Kashmir Valley and into this part of Jammu and Kashmir.
Tilak Raj had received his weapon as a member of a Village Defence Committee, one of a large number of such voluntary groups set up in 1995 under a Congress government in New Delhi led by P V Narasimha Rao, but these had largely gone dormant in recent times. Last August, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led government approved a scheme to raise and arm Village Defence Groups in Jammu. But little was done about this until recent incidents of violence, and the Dhangri attack in particular, brought these VDGs back into the spotlight. Now, armed civilian groups are once again being activated in large numbers.
Dheeraj Sharma, the sarpanch of Dhangri village, told me that the Dhangri incident “was the trigger for the revival of VDCs,” still using the old acronym for the armed groups. He said that the government had realised the importance of VDGs, but this realisation came too late.
Bal Krishna, another VDG member, said he was the only Dhangri local to use his weapon on the night of the attack, causing the militants to flee. He recalled that he had received his rifle back in 2000 from the Jammu and Kashmir police. Dhangri had over 70 such men, armed by the government to defend the village, but the rest of them, like Tilak Raj, did not fire their weapons during the attack. I spoke to over a dozen armed villagers who said that the village was earlier so peaceful that they never expected something bad would happen. Bal Krishna believed he had prevented worse from happening: “The militants could have wreaked more havoc if I had not fired from my rifle,” he said.
Bal Krishna’s logic is shared by the government and loudly echoed by the mainstream Indian media, which has cheered on the return of the VDGs. Less discussed is the possibility that the government and security forces are surrendering their responsibility to provide security while empowering groups that have themselves been involved in violence and criminal activity in the past, even after the earlier wave of militancy waned in Jammu. Also downplayed is the fact that the VDGs are almost entirely composed of Hindus, and that many Muslims in the region have met the reactivation of the VDGs with a strained silence.
I approached numerous Muslim residents of Rajouri during a visit in January, but they all refused to discuss the situation, even off the record. One of them told me that the area’s Muslims do not justify killing innocent civilians and they believe that the attack’s perpetrators should be held to account. But, he added, “You know what the situation is. The atmosphere is communally charged. If I speak out, it isn’t feasible for us.”
Lines of control
At the time of Partition, Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state governed by a Hindu Maharaja, Hari Singh. Faced with the choice of joining either India or Pakistan, and fearing the loss of Muslim-majority Kashmir to Pakistan-backed fighters that had invaded the Valley, the maharaja signed an Instrument of Accession with India in October 1947, which Pakistan dismissed as void. Lord Mountbatten, then still the British-appointed Governor General of India, wrote to the maharaja that it was “my Government’s wish that as soon as law and order have been restored in Jammu and Kashmir and her soil cleared of the invader, the question of the State’s accession should be settled by a reference to the people.” The seeds had been sown for India and Pakistan’s rival claims over Kashmir, and the Kashmiri people’s hope of self-determination. Kashmir came to be largely under Indian administration but with a sliver of Pakistan-administered territory to the north and east, the two sides separated by the Line of Control instead of an agreed border.
After decades of Indian rule and simmering discontent, India-administered Kashmir plunged towards full-blown insurgency in the late 1980s. A new political party, the Muslim United Front, began to attract support in the Valley ahead of the 1987 Jammu and Kashmir legislative elections, which was cause for concern in the ruling National Congress administration preferred by the Indian government in New Delhi. After blatant vote rigging, the National Congress, in alliance with the National Conference party, secured a victory, and the administration began a crackdown on MUF leaders and supporters. Many young Kashmiris, including MUF supporters, joined militant groups and crossed into Pakistan to receive training and arms, before returning to the Valley to fight. With militant violence escalating, New Delhi imposed direct rule in the early 1990s. Militancy and government repression continued to spiral. According to Human Rights Watch, in trying to quash militancy the Indian government committed many alleged human-rights violations, including arbitrary executions and the killing of civilians and unarmed protesters.
Into the 1990s, militancy spilled over into Muslim-dominated areas of the Jammu region, including Rajouri district. While in Kashmir the militants relied more on guerrilla warfare, in Jammu they adopted ruthless tactics toward the civilian population, killing many Hindu residents in particular. In one instance, in January 1996, militants killed 16 Hindus in the village of Barshalla, in Doda district. In April 2006, at least 35 Hindus were killed in two separate attacks in the districts of Doda and Udhampur.
S P Vaid, a former director general of the Jammu and Kashmir police, told me that the idea of forming VDCs came in the early 1990s, when militants attacked Bagankote village, in Reasi district. Vaid, then a senior superintendent of police, said he had rushed to the village to find that the residents had fought back against the militants with axes and other sharp-edged weapons, killing two of them. “The villagers demanded weapons and said that they would fight the militancy,” Vaid recalled. He said that the police provided them with ten rifles and ammunition.
Recent incidents of violence, and the Dhangri attack in particular, brought these VDGs back into the spotlight. Now, armed civilian groups are once again being activated in large numbers.
The government eventually made a comprehensive plan and formed VDCs in every village of the Jammu region badly hit by militancy. Many of these were in mountainous areas such as the Pir Panjal range and Chenab Valley, without quick access for security forces. Each group consisted of approximately ten members from a particular area. When the scheme was launched in 1995, at least one member had to be a Special Police Officer – a civilian temporarily empowered as a policeman by the government but not part of the regular police force. These SPOs were on an initial honorarium of INR 1500 per month. Initially, around 5000 VDC members were given rifles; this figure grew to over 28,000 by 2016.
Thanks in part to the VDCs, the government eventually managed to rout militants from the area. Often the volunteer groups, with their close knowledge of local terrain and society, acted as the eyes and ears for Indian security forces on the ground.
As militancy waned – even in Kashmir, it was increasingly subdued after the early 2000s – the VDCs became more or less irrelevant. Some VDC members received no remuneration for years. But many did not give up their guns, and remained ready to fight even if the government stopped their pay.
All of this is now changing once more. Last April, one member of the Central Industrial Security Force was killed in an attempted suicide attack near Sunjuwan. In August, four soldiers were killed and two injured in a suicide attack by two militants on an army camp in the Parghal area of Rajouri district. And in January, weeks after the Dhangri attack, two blasts in the Narwal area of Jammu injured at least nine people. Security forces later recovered an improvised explosive device from a militant involved in the blast which was linked to the Pakistan-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, according to the director general of Jammu and Kashmir police, Dilbag Singh.
“Jammu used to be terror-free but the events of the last one year indicate that there is a consistent effort from Pakistan to disturb the region,” Vaid, who has three decades of experience in counter-militancy work, told me. Police and some independent political analysts maintain that the upsurge of violence in Jammu has come because security forces have almost wiped out the renewed militancy in the Kashmir Valley, pushing militants into Jammu as they search for a safe haven to regroup.
Vaid surmised that since Muslims in Jammu did not welcome the militants, they resorted to targeted killing of Hindus to create tension between the two communities. “Since Jammu is a communally sensitive area, they want to create a wedge between the two communities so that they will get an opportunity to recruit those boys who can be radicalised,” he said.
Zafar Choudhary, a political analyst and the editor of the Jammu-based news portal The Dispatch, argued that Muslims in Jammu, unlike those in Kashmir, were indifferent to the abrogation of Article 370. That provision of the Indian Constitution had granted statehood and special status to Jammu and Kashmir as part of the territory’s inclusion in India. Under Narendra Modi, the BJP-led government in New Delhi revoked Article 370 in 2019 and put Kashmir under forced lockdown to suppress popular outrage at the move. “The militant leadership might be assuming that the overall narrative of conflict post abrogation of Article 370 is getting restricted to the Kashmir Valley only,” Choudhury said. “They are trying to reactivate the Jammu division so that the region is linked with the Kashmir conflict.”
Choudhary also said that militants were under a lot of pressure in Kashmir. “There is complete domination of security forces in the Valley,” he said. “Now they are coming to Jammu to engage the entire security forces and widen the scope of fighting.”
Tragedy in Dhangri
The first victim of the Dhangri attack was 23-year-old Deepak Kumar, killed outside his house. Deepak’s younger brother, Prince, was wounded while trying to intervene and later died in hospital. Their mother, Saroj Bala, told me she could not remember how she had saved herself. “I have lost everything,” she said. “What pains me the most is that the militants were kicking the body of my son while he was taking his last breath.”
Brothers Pawan and Satish Kumar, aged 31 and 45 respectively, were also among those targeted. Their father, Satpal, told me he saw two armed men shooting at Pawan. Even though he was already injured, Pawan pushed his parents into a room for safety and locked the door. When they finally emerged, it was to find both their children fatally wounded.
“When I called Satish and told him that his brother had been shot, he said, ‘Father, I am also dying, please save me,’” Satpal said, weeping. “Satish died on the way to hospital. His last words were, ‘Daddy, who will look after my family?’”
During the attack, the militants planted an explosive device near the gate of Saroj Bala’s house. It exploded some 14 hours later, leaving two children dead and several injured. A senior police official told me the device went undetected as security forces worked to rescue the injured and restore order in the area. Residents in Dhangri pointed out that if the security forces had surveyed the area properly, the explosion and extra casualties could have been avoided.
Over 60 people have been detained by the Jammu and Kashmir police in connection with the Dhangri killings. On 9 February, the Indian Express reported the police saying that militants involved in the killings were still hiding in remote parts of Rajouri district, and receiving some local support.
Mohammmad Aslam, the superintendent of police for Rajouri, said that several agencies, including the National Investigation Agency, were looking into the attack. “We will crack the case soon,” he said. “We are investigating the local angle in it.” Aslam added that Lashkar-e-Taiba was apparently behind the attack. On 23 March, Dilbag Singh, the director general of the Jammu and Kashmir police, also blamed “infiltrators” from Pakistan. “Pakistan is trying to push more and more terrorists on this side of the Line of Control to execute terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir,” he told the media.
This version of events was contested by Dhangri residents. Saroj Bala, flanked by other locals, told Kashmir Observer soon after Dilbag Singh’s comments, “Terrorists from across the border would fire a single or twin shot to kill a person, but why were so many bullets fired? They [the attackers] killed people after checking their IDs.” Bala also asked who was providing shelter and support to militants from across the border, if the police’s version of events was accurate.
Militancy in Kashmir has risen again in recent years, and the number of attacks in Jammu has also been growing.
The Rajouri police remain confident that the reconstitution of VDGs after the attack would help maintain peace in the area. According to Aslam, the Jammu and Kashmir police, the Indian Army and the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force have held numerous training camps in Jammu to provide firearms instruction, as well as to check the condition of old weapons and replace or upgrade them as required. Since the attack, Aslam said some 200 new weapons have been provided to VDG members in Rajouri district. There are roughly 600 or 700 VDG members in Rajouri district, he said. Voluntary VDG members receive INR 4000 a month under the new policy, with the person in charge of each group getting INR 4500.
“In order to boost the confidence of people after the terror incident, it was important to arm the villagers, to give them a sense of security,” Rajinder Gupta, the head of the BJP’s local unit in Rajouri, told me. “It takes hours for security forces to reach the areas where the terrain is tough,” but armed villagers can engage militants on their own. Gupta pointed to how the VDCs had helped security forces fight militancy in the earlier wave of insurgency in Jammu.
Shuja Zafar, the chairman of the Jammu Muslim Front, echoed similar views. “The security forces can’t save everyone keeping in view the difficult terrain,” he told me, and civilians have a right to defend themselves. “I think providing weapons for self-defense is not a bad idea.”
But Meenakshi Ganguly, the Southasia director for Human Rights Watch, warned that arming civilians in a conflict situation effectively makes them combatants, placing them at greater risk of being targeted. “It can also lead to indiscriminate and excessive use of force, accidental attacks, and other risks,” she said. Ganguly pointed out that “there has been a spike in attacks on civilians, including Hindu and Sikh minorities, in recent times in Kashmir,” and the government should ensure the security of minorities in the region. She added that “the government should be doing much more to ensure security, including to address root causes and to provide a rights-respecting response.”
According to a village leader, Dhangri had nine VDG groups at the time of the attack, with around 70 weapons and adequate ammunition at their disposal. Yet only Bal Krishna opened fire. Bal Krishna told me he had not received any compensation for the last two decades, and had received training only once in that time. “I had almost forgotten how to use the weapon,” he said. “Most of the weapons are old, rusty and difficult to operate.”
Fire with fire
The VDCs were set up to help government forces fight militancy, but the groups have also been involved in lawlessness –and lawless violence – themselves. This has included settling personal scores, fanning communal tension, and also murder, rape, rioting and other crimes.
In 2016, the government acknowledged before the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly that 221 cases had been filed against VDC members. These involved various crimes, including 23 murders, seven instances of rape, 15 instances of rioting and three drug-related offences. Numerous human rights groups had earlier expressed concern over the VDCs’ role in rights violations and exacerbated communal tensions.
In 2014, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society documented such violations in a report titled “Outsourcing Criminality: A JKCCS brief on Village Defence Committees”. In particular, it highlighted the kidnap and rape of a 16-year-old girl from Kuntwara village in Kishtwar district at the hands of individuals backed and protected by local VDC members. The report noted that the Kishtwar region had also seen violence by VDC members supported by Hindu communal groups, leading to deaths, serious injuries and property losses. A couple of hours from Kishtwar, VDC members had allegedly been involved in the killing of 16-year-old Shamim Ahmed Lone, a resident of Thathri town in the Doda district.
As of 2013, over 95 percent of the VDC members in Kishtwar were Hindus, despite it being a Muslim-majority district. In August 2013, an outbreak of communal violence in the district left three people dead and over 80 injured. News reports highlighted the role of VDCs in fanning communal tensions. In one incident, Lassa Khandey was killed when a group attacked an ambulance that was carrying his son and brother to hospital. Khandey’s family alleged that VDC members from a locality called Hagalwad shot at the vehicle before pulling Khandey out and murdering him.
“The VDC members have no work since there are no militants here,” Khandey’s cousin, Mohammed Amin, told India Today at the time. “Their only job now seems to be killing innocent people.” Syed Asgar Ali, a member of Kishtwar’s legislative council, said the time had come to disarm VDC members and rehabilitate them. A resident of Kishtwar told Newsclick in 2019, requesting anonymity, “The chaos that VDC had created in the past have not been forgotten by the villagers. When you give a weapon to a civilian, there is a possibility that the person might use it to settle his personal scores.”
In December 2015, a woman and her three-year-old son were shot dead by a VDC member in Rajouri district. That same month, a Hindu member of a VDC shot dead Ishtiyaq Ahmed, a youth leader with the National Conference, in the village of Potha in Rajouri. According to reports, this followed an altercation between the two men over the distribution of rations. Amid calls to disband VDCs in the aftermath of Ahmed’s shooting, Nirmal Singh, the deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir at the time, dismissed the notion. Singh, a member of the BJP, asked whether a political party should be disbanded simply because a political leader does something wrong.
Just this January, in Poonch district, a VDG member shot his wife dead using his rifle.
In its 2014 report, the JKCCS wrote that the state’s continued support for these groups had meant the creation of informal armed networks outside the regular armed and security forces. These informal networks included not just the VDGs but also Special Police Officers and ikhwans – government-backed militias that were particularly active in the 1990s. Unlike the army, paramilitary forces or the police, these groups are given weapons with little to no training, and with no clarity on the chain of command.
The VDCs were set up to help government forces fight militancy, but the groups have also been involved in lawlessness –and lawless violence – themselves.
Calling for an end to the VDCs, the JKCCS noted the “privatization of human rights abuses” and the outsourcing of “criminality by the Indian State”. It noted that, apart from violating many international laws, the groups also contravene India’s Constitution and the rule of law. The JKCCS report called for VDCs and ikhwans to be immediately disbanded, and for SPOs’ power to be limited to traffic control so they were no longer tasked with controlling militancy or political activity.
“A few incidents might have happened, but not to a larger extent,” Rajinder Gupta, the BJP head in Rajouri, told me. “The Hindus never used weapons against their Muslim brethren to settle personal scores.” Gupta claimed the district does not have a history of communal tensions and that both communities have been living together peacefully.
According to the 2011 Census, Muslims comprise roughly two-thirds of Rajouri’s population, while Hindus make up around a third. Dhangri, however, is a Hindu-majority village. Dheeraj Sharma, the village sarpanch, argued that since Hindus are a minority in Rajouri district and are under attack by militants, they prefer to take up arms to defend themselves.
In Dhangri, according to a police official who did not wish to be named, Muslims owned only 20 weapons out of the 200 provided, with the rest given to members of the Hindu community. Zafar Choudhary, the editor and political analyst, said that Muslims participated in anti-militancy operations in Rajouri with security forces but did not show much interest in taking up weapons as they are not under attack.
“We provide weapons based on threat perception,” Aslam, the police superintendent, said. There are fewer VDG members from the Muslim community, he explained, which is why the community has been provided with fewer weapons. But, Aslam added, the government has revoked a ban on gun licenses in Jammu and Kashmir, so any resident can apply for permission to keep a gun.
S P Vaid maintained that arming villagers was a necessary measure. “The government wanted to gain the confidence of the people after the Dhangri killing, so that is why VDGs were re-activated,” he said. Choudhary, however, had a more wary view. Arming civilians is not an ideal solution for any government, he argued, and it can look like a political rather than a security strategy. “Civilians are not temperamentally fit to handle arms,” he said. “You need proper training.”
In much of the world, Choudhary said, “people are campaigning against the culture of possessing small arms,” but “here the government itself is arming civilians.” He also questioned official claims of normalcy in the region. “By arming the civilians once again three decades later to secure themselves, the state is back to square one.”
“As important as air”
In the village of Androla, around 20 kilometres from Dhangri, I met many young VDG members who were unfamiliar with the use of weapons and were learning to use them for the first time. Though the urge to have a gun was strong following the Dhangri attack, “neither the police nor the administration reached out to us for any training camp,” Angrez Singh, a 64-year-old retired constable of the Central Reserve Police Force, told me. “The situation is not good, as you can see.”
Singh was using his expertise to train new volunteers on his own. “Even though they can’t fire, I tell them how to use the weapon and how to take position when the need arises,” he said.
Singh believed there was no option other than to have VDGs in every village in Jammu. “The government should provide weapons to every household, be it Hindu or Muslim,” he said. “Ex-servicemen should be provided SLRs [self-loading rifles] because they know how to handle them, so that we can save ourselves and help the security forces contain militancy.” But apart from providing weapons, he added, the government should hold regular training camps for the VDGs as well.
“By arming the civilians once again three decades later to secure themselves, the state is back to square one.”
I spoke to at least seven VDG members in Androla, who were unanimous in saying that the situation had changed entirely after the abrogation of Article 370, with the region back on the radar of militants. They echoed Singh’s view on the need for more weapons, ammunition and training.
A senior police official told me that in Dhangri, most of the weapons provided have been given to Hindus. Muslims in Androla village were anxious as here too, they claimed, the administration only provides weapons to a particular community. “We also want weapons,” Kalaam Din, an Androla resident, said. “We will also fight the militancy.”
One of the attendees at Angrez Singh’s training session was 36-year-old Yashpal Kaser. He told me that on the night of 13 January, some masked men had knocked on the door of his house and tried to enter. When he asked them for identification, he said, they threatened him. “I took out the weapon and fired in the air, and they fled,” Kaser recalled.
The police reached the spot an hour later, but the men were nowhere to be found. According to Kaser, the gun he had been given saved his life and maybe other villagers’ lives. “Maybe they wanted to repeat what they did in Dhangri,” he said. Rahul Tazer, another young VDG member at the training session, told me that “the weapon is as important as air now to stay alive.”
Back in Dhangri, the sarpanch told me that if the village’s VDCs had been active, the militants would have thought twice before the attack. “They apparently knew that the villagers had guns but … didn’t know how to use the guns,” he said. “Now I think it is important for the government to revive the VDCs so that we can fight the militancy.”