Recent communal clashes in Kishtwar have brought VDCs back into focus. While Muslims question their relevance in militancy free Chenab valley, Hindus feel they are their only hope to survive in a once volatile region. Nasir Sarazi talks to people across sections to understand the divide.

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village-defence-committee-memberAfter 1993 massacre in Chenab valley a number of youth from different villages in Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban districts were recruited and armed by the government. These armed men later came to be known as members of Village Defense Committee (VDC).  The aim was to arm youth (mostly Hindus) from far off villages so that they could fight militants and take care of security related issues of their respective villages. Besides providing these men with weapons (initially 303 rifles) they were promised a monthly stipend of Rs 500 each by the government.

Majority of these committees were formed in Hindu dominated villages while Muslim dominant villages are still lack any proper internal security adding to their miseries. In the wake of any communal clashes Muslim in Chenab valley feel insecure because of free access to arms to these VDC men. Since its inception VDC has dominated the socio-political debate in the Chenab valley.

Even during the recent communal clashes in Kishtwar district various political parties questioned the role of VDC. But the debate was mostly driven by individual political ambitions and not by the serious reasoning. VDC’s questionable role in recent communal clashes has given fresh lease of life to this debate.

Mohammad Shafi Rangrez, a local pro-freedom activist says that government of India is using VDC as a counter balance force to suppress voice of the people in Chenab valley. “From last 7 years government is claiming that Chenab valley cent per cent militancy free. If so, then, what is the fun of having VDC’s in the area,” Rangrez argues. “It is just a tactic to suppress the freedom movement in the region.”

But on the other side Rana Gaje Singh, President Doda Sanatham Dharam Sabbah and convener J&K Village Defense Committee, feels that present communal clashes in Kishtwar district is the outcome of political tussle between ruling NC and opposition PDP. “In this battle for political hegemony it is our community that is on the receiving end,” says Singh. “Even the recent arrest of Sub Inspector Shiv Kumar alias Sonu is part of that game plan,” feels Singh.

After Kishtwar communal clashes fault lines between two communities are now clearly visible. While Muslims in Kishtwar blamed gun wielding VDC members for adding fuel to the crisis by firing on protestors, Singh defends their actions.

“Disbanding of VDC in the region will give rise to a mass movement against government. If Chenab valley is militancy free, as claimed by the government, then why high rank police officials need hundred of security men to move around,” questions Singh. “Government claim can be right but militants can comeback anytime as Chenab valley is connected by both Kashmir and Ladakh through mountain terrains,” feels Singh.

Rana Gaje Singh thinks in case of resurgence of militancy in Chenab valley Hindus will be massacred again as has happened in the past.

But Muslims living in the Chenab valley feel that the recent clashes were part of BJP’s larger game plan to polarize the region in wake of upcoming elections.  “Before every election BJP tries hard to use Hindutva card to gain footing in the region,” says Syed Asim Hashmi, a prominent lawyer from Doda. “Since Chenab valley is militancy free it is time to disband VDC altogether. There is no reason to keep locals armed. These armed men are threat to the peace in the region,” says Hashmi.

A majority of Muslims in Kishtwar, Doda and Ramban strongly believe that the role of VDC in curbing militancy is overrated. “Since its inception no VDC member has ever killed a single militant in entire Chenab valley,” claims Hasmi.

Locals believe that VDC’s have lost their significance as Chenab valley is completely militancy free. They are now using their guns to solve land disputes, petty matrimonial issues and using their power and influence in local politics.

“There was a need of creating VDC’s during early 90’s to provide security to far flung villages where army could not reach immediately. But situation is different now. They have become irrelevant now,” feels Naseer Ahmed Khora, a prominent Journalist and human right activist who is working on human rights abuses in this area from last 10 year.

While there are voice who strongly advocate continuation of VDC in the area for stability of the region, Rakesh Kumar, an active VDC member from Kulhand village in Doda district feels cheated by the very system that created him. “Six year back I was given a rifle with instruction to safeguard my village. I was promised a monthly stipend which I haven’t received so far. Now this riffles has become a burden for me,” says Kumar.

Kumar who joined VDC as a young boy feels trapped by his duties as he cannot simply abandon the gun and move on in his life. “I want to go out and do something meaningful in life. But what will I do with this gun,” says Kumar. “This gun cannot feed my family.”

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