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BJP backs them. J&K locals dread Village Defense Committees

Catch Team | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 2:26 IST
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The murder

  • NC activist Ishtiyaq Ahmad was killed by VDC member Kewal Sharma in Rajouri on Sunday
  • The killing has sparked demands for the disarming of VDCs

The politics

  • VDCs enjoy the solid backing of the BJP and RSS
  • The arming of a section of Jammu Hindus through VDCs has created communal tensions

More in the story

  • What are the accusations against VDCs?
  • Why they continue to survive
  • Is there a justification for VDCs?

Update: Mother, son killed by VDC member in Rajouri

Four days after a Village Defence Committee member shot dead a youth political leader Ishtiyaq Ahmad in Rajouri, another member of the pro-government militia in the district today killed a woman and her four year old son. The deceased have been identified as Shamim Akhter 35, and Tawheed Ahmad.

The VDC member Mushtaq Ahmad of Mohra Dhaveen village in Budhal area of Rajouri district opened fire upon the woman and her son after barging into their house at Samote village. The duo sustained serious injuries. Though villagers rushed them to the nearby sub-district hospital, the doctors declared they as brought dead.

Police has seized the weapon of the VDC member and the manhunt has been launch to arrest the accused. Following the killing, the people took to streets and staged massive protests.

The details of what caused the killings are not known yet.

On Sunday, Ishtiyaq Ahmad, a youth leader of the National Conference was gunned down by a member of a Village Defence Committee (VDC) in Rajouri. This has once again brought into focus the role played by VDCs that were set up in the 1990s to combat militancy.

Ahmad was killed by Kewal Sharma, a VDC member, in Potha village in Kalakote, over an alleged altercation over the distribution of ration in the area.

Read: What explains the mystery killings in Kashmir?

The killing sparked tensions in the village and it soon spread to other villages in the area. Thousands of people took to the streets and blocked the Rajouri-Poonch Highway for hours. The administration had a tough time controlling the crowd, which demanded immediate disbanding of VDCs in the area. It was only when senior administrative officials came and promised to take steps to disarm VDCs, that protestors dispersed.

The locals later apprehended the accused and handed him over to the police.

A trail of violence

This is only the latest in a series of excesses attributed to VDCs in the region. So far 196 cases of loot, rape and murder have been registered against VDC members in the Jammu region. Doda is the worst affected with 67 cases followed by Kishtwar with 27.

The 2013 communal riots in Kishtwar are said to have been triggered by acts of violence by VDCs.

But successive state governments have baulked at the prospect of disbanding VDCs. Jammu-based parties, particularly the BJP, has been vociferously against the move.

There are 26,567 VDC members in Jammu and Ladakh. Around 96% of them are Hindus.

The BJP is known to have close links with VDCs. For instance the party's MLA from Kishtwar Sunil Kumar Sharma is the son of a VDC member.

The RSS, too, has been vociferous in its support of VDCs in particular and the arming of Hindus in Jammu in general.

There are 26,567 VDC members in the 10 districts of Jammu region and the Leh district of Ladakh. Around 96% of them are Hindus.

Also read- Doublespeak: why do Abdullahs & Muftis often sound like the Hurriyat?

The VDCs continue to be armed despite the Supreme Court, in the Nandini Sundar and Others versus the State of Chhattisgarh case, ruled against the recruitment of a section of the tribals as ad hoc Special Police Officers (SPOs)

SPOs in Chhattisgarh as well as Jammu and Kashmir, are basically civil vigilante militias for counterinsurgency operations.

It is well known that many VDC members in J&K are subsequently made SPOs.

Why no one wants to disarm VDCs

The threat of militancy is cited as the reason why VDCs cannot be disarmed. But the Jammu region has by and large been free of militant violence. The only conflict related violence it faces is shelling from across the border and the occasional fidayeen intrusion from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

But a combination of factors have kept the VDCs armed: local politics, a sense of empowerment among local Hindus as well as a sneaking fear of the resurgence of militancy.

In contrast, the government has successfully wound up the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, a group of Muslim militants in the Kashmir Valley who changed sides to become counter-insurgents.

The Village Defence Committees enjoy the firm backing of the BJP and the RSS

Ikhwanis, as the members of the group are called in Valley, operated outside government control and were responsible for murders and rapes on a large scale.

VDCs have managed to survive despite widespread demands that they be disarmed.

The arming of sections of the Hindu community being through VDCs has created fear among Jammu's Muslims especially in the context of rising communal tensions in the region.

Many Hindus, on their part, are not willing to trust Muslims as they fear that militancy can resurrect itself any time.

The turmoil of the past two decades lends credence to their respective fears.

There have been 6 major massacres of Hindus by militants in the Chenab Valley: 17 killed in Sarthal in April 1993, 16 in Barshalla in January 1996, 17 in Sumbar in May 1996, 25 in Chapnari in June 1998, 35 in Kalaban in August 1998 and 22 in Kulhand in May 2006.

It was in response to these massacres that the state government in 1996 took steps to arm villagers. The offer to take up arms was made to both communities, but most Muslims refused to do so.

Reactions

The demands to disarm VDCs intensified after the 2013 Kishtwar riots but they subsided in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. The murder of Ishtiyaq has revived these demands. Leading the charge is the NC, to which Ishtiyaq belonged, and the separatists.



"VDCs have become a threat to the lives of the people. It is the responsibility of the government to disarm all those VDCs who indulge in crimes" said veteran NC leader Ali Mohammad Sagar.



Hurriyat (G) chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani also condemned the killing. This is a significant departure from his earlier silence on the killing of mainstream political activists in the past.



"Besides army and paramilitary forces, India has created another organised state terrorist force in Kashmir in the name of Village Defence Committee which is directly controlled by the Indian home ministry," Geelani said while terming the killing a lesson to the NC.

There have been 196 cases of loot, rape and murder against VDC members in the Jammu region

"These people (VDCs) consider themselves above the law and the state government has no control over their activities," he added.

Perhaps it is the presence of the BJP in the coalition government that has made the opposition to the BJP particularly intense. The VDCs are being seen as a threat to communal peace in Jammu.

"The government's reluctance to disarm VDCs is telling...The big question is if the government can disband Ikhwan which was used to combat militancy in Kashmir Valley why is it so jittery about taking on VDCs who are threatening the social fabric of the state?" asked Khurram Parvez, convenor of the Coalition of Civil Society.

More in Catch:

Two civilians injured in Pakistan shelling in Jammu and Kashmir



First published: 23 December 2015, 4:20 IST
 
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