Retaliation by some members has renewed the demand for disbanding them

A day after the communal clash in Kishtwar left most of the town’s market burnt and two people dead, it spread to Padder, a hamlet 60 km away.

There, a Hindu youth from a Village Defence Committee (VDC) allegedly fired into a rioting crowd, leading to the death of another person.

Even as Kishtwar is still under curfew, there is a cacophony of Muslim voices, led by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), from across Jammu and Kashmir, calling for the immediate disbanding of VDCs.

Though Hindus were mainly at the receiving end of the riots, which broke out on the day of Eid at Kishtwar, where the community is in minority, the retaliation by some armed VDC members at several places has renewed the demand for disbanding these bodies.

The BJP, protective of the VDCs because of their largely Hindu composition, has warned of mass migration of Hindus from the mountainous belts of the Jammu region if there is any attempt at disbanding these bodies or disarming their members.

State BJP president Jugal Kishore told The Hindu: “The demand… is aimed at clearing the place for militants to reoccupy… and restart their activities.”

VDCs, comprising seven or eight people, each armed with .303 rifles and rewarded with a modest honorarium, were set up in the 1990s mainly in Hindu villages to enable the residents to protect themselves from militants.

This was a period when militancy reached its peak, and VDCs came up as a cheap and effective alternative to deploying massive security forces in the mountainous areas of Doda, Kishtwar, Ramban, Poonch and Rajouri districts.

Dhok Development Committees (DDC) were also set up for the families living in high mountainous pastures, and they were given basic training by security forces in countering militant attacks.

Misuse of arms

Of late, reports of VDC members misusing their arms to settle petty disputes, and for terrorising and criminal activities, have strengthened the long-standing opposition of Muslim outfits to them. There are some 26,000 VDC members in the Jammu mountains, 90 per cent being Hindus.

Not just the PDP, but also separatist outfits like the Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, have stepped up a campaign against VDCs, alleging that their members are misusing their weapons to terrorise Muslims.

After the Padder incident, Mr. Geelani has urged Jammu Muslims to launch an agitation against VDCs. A very small percentage of Muslim villages in inaccessible areas were also given VDCs.

The argument against VDCs has gained salience in recent months also because of ebbing militancy from these areas.

“With no militants to use these weapons against, VDC members have begun misusing the arms and ammunition… against the local population,” said Shakir Hussain Siddiqui, a former member of the PDP, speaking on the phone from Kishtwar town. “… every other day, VDC members are threatening Muslims over land and other disputes. The arms should either be taken back or given to both the communities.”

For more than a month before the Kishtwar violence, reports of masked men throwing stones on houses at night and terrorising the population had been coming from Muslim villages of the Doda belt. Security forces have no clue so far to who did it, but people from both communities are pointing the finger at each other.

Says Siddiqui: “It appears as if this was the work of VDC members who have become emboldened because there is no check on their activities.”

Mr. Kishore, however, alleges: “A few days before the Kishtwar riots, stories began to be planted in local Urdu dailies about the hand of VDC members in the stone-throwing on Muslim houses.”

This, he says, was aimed at defaming these bodies and paving the way for the migration of Hindus from the mountainous districts of the Jammu division where they have already been in minority.

He alleges that the terrorising by masked men was done by ruling National Conference workers to put the fear of Hindus in them and strengthen the demand for disarming VDCs.

Padder, however, is one of the few villages with a dominant Hindu population. The Muslims here have begun saying that if the VDC of that area is not disarmed, they will migrate to Kishtwar.

Chopper stoned

Last Sunday, when the authorities in the Jammu division sent an IAF helicopter to Padder with reinforcements to restore order, the rioters threw stones to prevent it from landing. Since the helicopter was also supposed to evacuate one person who was injured in firing, he died of his injuries.