JAMMU: The Village Defence Committees (VDC) are on the agenda of virtually every counter-insurgency meeting held in Jammu and Kashmir. They even find place in the pro-active measures chalked out by the special panel of the Union Home Ministry to combat militancy. Set up for the first time in Doda district about three years ago, the VDCs have become a crucial component in counter-insurgency plans. The success of VDCs can be gauged by the fact that not even a single massacre has taken place in villages where the committees existed. Officials feel that the concept has prevented what they term as another large-scale exodus from militant- infested upper reaches of Jammu province. The idea of forming a civilian armed force came up in 1995 after militants killed a dozen people at Bhaderwah tehsil in 1995. The villagers were planning to migrate and the migration could have put the forces at a disadvantage since a lot of intelligence reports about the militants used to come from them. It was then that the idea of VDCs was proposed. "The idea was basically triggered by the fears of large-scale migration," says Inspector General of Police, Jammu zone, Kuldeep Khuda.
The VDC concept worked effectively in Doda district and now there are 633 such committees. Buoyed by the success in Doda, the VDCs were extended to Udhampur, Poonch and Rajouri districts as well. But militants have targeted Doda and Udhampur VDCs. This is said to be due to the vast size of these district and hostile terrain which prevents a strong-grid mechanism (link between various agencies with the VDCs). "The area to be manned in these districts is quite big and mountainous, it takes lot of time for the security forces to come to the rescue of the VDCs in case of an attack," says an officer. With the VDC members deciding to hold on in Doda and Udhampur and fight back, the militants, officials claim, are feeling the pressure. "The VDCs are preventing their free run and since a majority of these committees fall in the routes of the militants, the pressure has increased immensely," says Director General of Police Gurbachan Jagat. The statistics of attacks on the VDCs in Doda and Udhampur district reveal that the militants are increasingly targeting them. In Doda district alone the militants have carried out as many as 90 attacks on the VDCs during the first seven months this year as against 15 attacks last year. In the border districts of Rajouri and Poonch, the militants have not come into direct confrontation with the VDCs perhaps because of the uniform spread of forces.
"The presence of forces is far more in these districts and the districts are not as big as Doda and Udhampur. Since the area to be manned is not that larger, there is a strong-grid mechanism linking the VDCs with other security agencies effectively," says an Intelligence officer.
However, there are several areas in which the villagers have declined to form VDCs. These areas are particularly dominated by the majority community or are located close to the areas largely inhabited by the majority community. Officials say that the VDCs form a crucial component in any anti-militancy strategy and have played a dual role in the fight against militants. "One, by arming what could have been soft targets, a message has been sent across that an armed force exists out there to protect them," says Jagat and adds that this confidence "has helped prevent exodus of people." But the VDCs did have their share of controversies. The majority community members say that the VDCs, predominantly Hindu-dominated, have vitiated the communal ambience in the province. Bhaderwah-based businessman J.A. Bawa terms it as a communal force aimed at eliminating the majority community. "They have been given arms and they act as an extra-judicial authority. They are biased and comprise mostly of RSS and BJP members," he alleges.But Jagat denies such allegations. "The problem is that since the militants are unnerved by this concept they have launched a psycho warfare against the VDCs. They are spreading such wild rumors which have caused apprehension in the minds of the majority community members," he says. The VDC members have their cup of woes too. Their main grouse is the inability of the administration to provide them sophisticated weapons.
"We are up against militants who are armed with sophisticated weapons. And what we have are outdated .303 rifles. We have been requesting the administration to provide us sophisticated weapons but nothing has been done," says a VDC member of Choralla in Doda district. But officials say that the fears are baseless. "The .303s can be more effective than the sophisticated weapons if used properly. Sophisticated weapons have a very limited range which dents their effectiveness," says an officer.What's a VDC?
A VDC comprise 8-12 members depending upon the number of villages to be manned. The members are primarily ex-servicemen. The selection is done following screening of probable members and once the names are finalized they are taken to the Police Lines in their respective districts and imparted training in handling a .303 rifle for a month. Once they complete their training and go back, their brief is to carry out night patrolling in their villages. The members move around together. The head of the VDC, designated as a Special Police Officer (SPO), is given a monthly honorarium of Rs 1,500 which he has to share with his other members.
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