“When it was our time to study, we chose to pick up guns,” said 40-year-old Shiv Kumar from Jammu’s Doda district.

Back in 2000, Kumar signed up for the village defence group in Barshala, his native village, located in Jammu’s Doda district. These groups, established by the Jammu and Kashmir government in 1995, consisted of armed civilian volunteers who were provided weapons and training by the government in order to fight militancy in their villages.

Over the last two decades, the activities of these groups had tapered off as militancy receded in Jammu and Kashmir. For the last five years, Kumar said, they had not even been paid any remuneration, which was earlier given to them collectively.

Then in March this year, the scheme seemed to spring back to life. A letter from the Union ministry of home affairs to the chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir announced a slew of new decisions.

Members of these local defence groups would be individually paid a monthly sum of Rs 4,000 to 4,500, depending on how vulnerable the area was. The groups would be renamed the “village defence guard”. The letter also spoke of vacancies in these groups, saying that “the decision to fill up the same will be taken later.”

Kumar was not impressed. He has done little other work in his life. Even before he formally joined the village defence group in Barshala, he would help them out – it was common for civilians to help out the armed volunteers during the peak of the militancy.

He found another job as a teacher in a local private school, but even that is poorly paid. As a volunteer with the defence group, he explained, you could not go far from your village to look for work.

“You are responsible for the safety of the village and you are responsible for your weapon, which is kept at home,” he explained. “We can’t give up the gun because we have made enemies by fighting against militants. Nor can we apply for other jobs because of our age. How can we survive on a meagre monthly sum of Rs 4,000?”

“We feel trapped now,” Kumar said.

Money dries up

A village defence group comprises around eight to nine local residents of the village. When the scheme was initially introduced in 1995, at least one of this number had to be a special police officer – temporarily employed policemen who are not on the regular force. Unlike police staff, they are paid monthly stipends and not a regular salary.

Initially, this special police officer was entitled to an honorarium of Rs 1,500 a month. Later, the number of special police officers in each group was increased to three. Over the years, the honorarium was raised to Rs 18,000 per officer.

“The honorarium would be paid in the name of these three SPOs through a local police station and then it would be distributed equally among all the members of the committee,” explained Ratan Chand Sharma, president of Village Defence Group Union of Jammu and Kashmir.

“A single group would get Rs 54,000 per month, which would be divided among eight or nine members of the defence group,” continued the 59-year-old Sharma, who became a volunteer in Badanu village in Doda in 1997, who now drives a taxi for a living. “Every member would get Rs 6,750 per month.”

Ratan Chand Sharma. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

But a government decision in 2017 to credit the honorarium directly to the accounts of special police officers left the other members bereft. “Once these SPOs got money in their account, they refused to share it with other members like they used to. That’s why most of the [village defence group] members are without salaries for the last 54 months,” Sharma added.

According to official figures revealed in 2016, there were 4,248 village defence groups in Jammu and Kashmir, with about 28,000 volunteers.

According to Ratan Sharma, the volunteers then waged a long battle for a higher honorarium, and alternative modes of payment.

They even met Union Home minister Amit Shah early this year before the announcement of the new scheme, he claimed. The policy has left them dismayed – it promises less money and there is no clarity on how it will be transferred.

Arming civilians

Village defence groups were supposed to be an answer to the militancy that had spread from Kashmir to the Pir Panjal and Chenab Valley regions of Jammu in the early 1990s. While these were Muslim-dominated regions, they also had a substantial population of Hindus. The Chenab Valley saw mass killings of Hindus by suspected militants in these years.

Many accounts suggest that it was in the aftermath of one such episode that the idea of village defence groups took shape. Local residents of Doda district – especially Hindus – demanded that the government give them weapons for safety.

The idea caught on. Volunteers now recall that the Bharatiya Janata Party also pushed for arming Hindus against militants, even though the party was not prominent in the region back then. While the official scheme was open to both Hindus and Muslims, most of its takers were Hindus.

The Jammu and Kashmir government document outlining the scheme in 1995 says:

“The aim of the Village Defence Group Scheme is to organise a small group of volunteer armed civilians, in the identified villages along the borders as well as in depth areas of Jammu division. This is being done with a view to ensure the safety and security of such villages, infrastructural installations in and around them and to check the trans-border movement.”

Civilians had been armed and trained to defend border villages as well as important installations during armed conflicts with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, the policy document said. Not only did they help security forces in the battlefield, they also helped keep track of intruders at the border. The state police had issued over 2,500 rifles and ammunition to volunteers, the policy document said. However, most were ex-servicemen who were trained to use weapons.

The new volunteers of the 1990s were to be trained by the army, although their payments were routed through the state police.

Chakram Kumar, a member of a village defence group, with his rifle before embarking on his night duty in Barshala village. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

Shiv Kumar was 14 in January 1996, when a group of militants wearing army fatigues gunned down at least 14 Hindus in Barshala village. Reports from the time suggest militants might have gone on a killing spree because of rumours that a local Hindu was an army informer.

Days after the massacre, the first village defence group in the predominantly Hindu-majority village was set up. “Nobody took up the gun for money,” said Kumar. “The priority was our safety and we wanted to protect ourselves. I got a rifle in 2000 when I was 18. Even though I lived alone with my mother, I chose to defend my village. She was not ok with my choice but I convinced her.”

According to local residents of Barshala, which has three village defence groups, the volunteers were successful in preventing further attacks by militants. “There were hundreds of attempts by militants to attack our village after that episode but we, helped by the army, didn’t let them enter our village,” Kumar said.

By many accounts, the scheme proved effective in combating militancy and preventing the migration of Hindus from the Pir Panjal and the Chenab Valley. But it also meant volunteers and their families were targeted by militants.

A fading fight

As militancy receded in the mountainous districts of Jammu, the village defence groups were increasingly pushed to the margins. While their defence duties dried up, other work was hard to find.

In some cases, volunteers gave up their weapons and resigned from the groups. But many find it hard to leave.

Take 35-year-old Ganesh Sharma from Barshala village. Apart from his duties as an armed volunteer, he does manual labour for Rs 400 a day just to make ends meet. “We [the village defence group] do four-hour shifts at night and during the day, I go to work as a labourer,” he said. “For the last five years, I have been doing this duty for free because it’s about our safety.”

While they have not been paid for years now, they have to submit their weapons for inspection and turn up for training regularly at the district headquarters.

“We lose a day’s work for that. Also, we have to spend our own hard-earned money to travel,” said Ganesh Sharma.

Ganesh Sharma does manual labour to make ends meet. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

According to Ratan Chand Sharma, some volunteers had moved to Himachal Pradesh to look for work. “They were forced to come back by the authorities as they can’t leave their weapon back at home and work somewhere else,” he said.

Having made “enemies” because of their work as armed volunteers, they are loath to give up their weapons. Many feel they should not be asked to do so even if they resigned from the village defence groups.

“One of the demands we have made of the government is that the weapon stay with the family even after the volunteer retirement has retired,” he said. “They have given us a verbal assurance about that but nothing in writing.”

Shades of saffron?

While the village defence groups may have helped battle militancy in Jammu, human rights bodies have long accused them of harassment and violence against civilians under the garb of fighting militancy. Some of them were also accused of crimes like rape and drug trafficking.

In 2016, the Jammu and Kashmir government informed the state legislative assembly that there were a total of 221 cases against members of village defence groups, 23 were murder cases, seven were rape cases and 15 cases were for rioting.

Many of these crimes acquired a communal hue, since the defence groups were predominantly Hindu, operating in Muslim-majority areas. In the Chenab Valley, for instance, Muslims for 61% of the population, according to the 2011 Census. However, Right to Information queries revealed more than 90% of the members of village defence groups in the Chenab region were Hindu.

Kashmir-based political parties have often accused the government of arming civilians affiliated with Hindu rightwing groups. In fact, in 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological fountainhead Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh took credit for the formation of village defence committees in Jammu and Kashmir by saying that it had devised the “basic draft” of the policy.

In 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir police set up seven new village defence groups in areas around the communally sensitive Kishtwar town – a response to the killings of a senior BJP leader and a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary. The Kashmir-based People’s Democratic Party accused the Central government of “arming RSS workers” against Muslims.

Most volunteers candidly admit to being BJP supporters. “We are supporters, members and activists of BJP and we have been in constant touch with the party leadership over our problems,” said Ratan Chand Sharma.

He continued, “We haven’t picked up weapons to commit violence against a particular community but for our own safety.” If a volunteer “makes a mistake, he should face the law”, he added.

But that is cold comfort for Muslims in Chenab valley. “Given the current anti-Muslim sentiment and the targeting of Muslims and their religious places across India, we are apprehensive that the government might use these groups against Muslims,” said Asghar Khanday, a long-time Congress worker in Doda district who switched over to the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party a few years ago.

According to Khanday, there was no more need for village defence groups as there was little militancy in the mountains of Jammu these days. He did, however, support the demand of armed volunteers to be duly paid.

“They have fought a battle for the country and for their own safety,” Khanday said. “Like every other regular force, they should be given a decent pension so that they can live a better life. They gave 20-25 years of their lives fighting on the side of the government.”