Doda's forgotten army
8 August 2003
KISHTWAR: When Hari Ram wakes up just after dawn, he is still slightly surprised most mornings to find himself cradling a .303 rifle. Having retired from the Army in 1982, the one-time soldier hoped to retire to a quite life in the small mountain village of Pochhal. Just a decade later, though, he found himself heading Kishtwar's first Village Defence Committee, quasi-volunteer groups of local residents trained and armed to resist terrorist attacks. Nearby Thakrain chose not to join the VDC scheme; seventeen Hindus were killed there in a 1998 attack by the Harkat-ul- Ansar. As massacre followed carnage, the VDC scheme picked up. But now, Hari Ram and others like him could soon find themselves without their army. Several members of his 10-member VDC, hit by recurring delays in scheduled government payments, say they simply cannot afford to keep on working for the group. Low salaries The problem is widespread across Doda district, where salaries due to VDC members have not been paid since May. Several Special Police Officers, cutting-edge operational personnel recruited from local communities, have also not received their salaries. Special Police Officers are volunteers, paid just Rs. 1,500 a month. Doda district is policed by some 8,000 SPOs, various assigned to counter-terrorist units of security forces or to Village Defence Committees. Pochhal, for example, has three SPOs in its VDC, and all 10 members share their salaries. 'Most of the poorer VDC members', explains Hari Ram, 'used to work outside the village as labourers for at least a part of the year. The salary, small as it is, is the only way they can afford not to go.' When the SPO scheme gathered momentum in the mid-1990s, volunteers were assured those who performed well would be hired as proper policemen. From the outset, delayed wage payments marred the SPO scheme, but the promise of a job kept the volunteers going. Now, the strains are starting to tell. Earlier this year, 40 SPOs from the hard-hit village of Thatri mutinied. One, Meher Singh, now works as a cook in a private home in Kishtwar. 'I hadn't received my salary for six months', he says bitterly, 'and had to watch how people who had never done a day's work were hired as policemen.' Similar stories are common. Chhatru resident, Ravinder Singh, started working for the 11 Rashtriya Rifles as a mountain guide in 1992, and holds citations for his involvement in encounters which claimed the life of 27 terrorists. 'Others get medals', he says, 'and we just keep rotting here.' Only on website Two years ago, concern about SPO conditions led the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to announce several schemes to address the problem. About Rs. 5 crores was to be paid over five years to create a volunteer force made up of the best SPOs, who would receive a salary of Rs. 2,500. The kin of the killed SPOs were to receive Rs. 2,00,000, rather than the Rs. 1,25,000 paid even to the civilian victims of violence. The VDCs, for their part, were to be equipped with relatively-modern 7.62 millimetre self-loading rifles, purchased at a cost of Rs. 1.25 crores from the Assam Rifles. The website of the Prime Minister's Office proclaims all three schemes implemented. On ground, though, things are different. 'I was selected for the volunteer force and trained,' says SPO Shabbir Ahmad, 'but I haven't received either an appointment letter or my salary for six months.' Most of the SPOs The Hindu spoke to in Kishtwar had not even heard of the enhanced compensation scheme. And the modern rifles? 'Last fortnight, a VDC in Lateru fought off an attack by six terrorists', says Hari Ram, chuckling. 'Can you believe it, six terrorists with assault rifles, and 10 of our boys with these clunky old rifles. New weapons? Tell the people in New Delhi I haven't seen them.'