In a desolate spot overlooked by dense forests, at the edge of a village in Jammu’s Rajouri district, stands Ram Pal’s home.

For several years, the remote location gave no anxiety to Pal, nor any other residents of Androla village, where homes are scattered across great distances, separated by fields and foliage.

But that changed on January 1, when two unidentified militants entered the neighbouring village of Dhangri, less than 10 km away, and killed four civilians. The next day, two more children died and 10 others were injured as a bomb planted near the home of one of the victims exploded. A week later, one of the injured died of his injuries at a Jammu hospital.

All seven victims were Hindu.

“All of us are afraid after what happened in Dhangri,” said Pal, who is in his 30s and owns a flour mill.

Forty-five men from the predominantly Hindu village have applied for guns. They have asked the government to enlist them in village defence committees and train them how to use the weapons.

Pal is one of them. “I have small children,” he said. “My parents are old. I desperately need a gun.”

Nearly three decades ago, the Union government had set up village defence groups in Jammu and Kashmir as part of a policy to arm civilians in the remote, mountainous districts of Jammu that the security forces found difficult to reach quickly during militant attacks.

Both Rajouri and Poonch districts, which together constitute the Pir Panjal region, are located along the Line of Control that divides India and Pakistan. While militants moving in from across the border and strikes on security installations are not uncommon, the January 1 killings was the first large-scale targeted attack on Hindus in the region in over 15 years.

After the killings, several residents from villages in these districts have signed up to fight militants. They are also demanding more guns from the government to protect themselves.

“We definitely need more men and weapons,” said Angrez Singh, who lives in Androla and retired as a subedar in the Central Reserve Police Force.

At least 24 residents of Androla village already possess weapons, allotted to them under the older scheme.

“If an intruder knows we are armed, they will not dare enter,” Singh explained. “The gun is our compulsion now.”

In Dhangri village, Tilak Raj Sharma with the photographs of two members of his family who were killed in the January 1 attack. Credit: Safwat Zargar.

A worrying departure

When the first gunshots rang out in Dhangri on the evening of January 1, residents did not immediately know they were in danger. “We thought people were bursting firecrackers on new year,” said Neeta Devi, who lost her husband and father-in-law in the attack.

Minutes later, two men, one of them in army uniform and carrying a rifle, dropped outside her house. “I was cooking outside,” recalled Neeta Devi. “They asked my father-in-law to show his Aadhaar card and told me to go inside. I thought they were soldiers or CID [Jammu and Kashmir police’s intelligence wing]. When I didn’t, they forcibly locked me along with the children in another room. Then, the shots rang out.”

It is not that the villagers in Dhangri were not armed to deal with the militants.

In a village of around 900 households, at least 72 residents had been allotted guns two decades ago.

“Our analysis showed that most of these guns were in an unusable condition,” said a senior police officer in Rajouri, asking to remain unidentified. “They had been locked away. Some people had disassembled the guns and stored the parts in different parts of their house.”

The residents of Dhangri had not felt the need to keep weapons close at hand. It had been a long time since militants had targeted civilians in the Jammu hinterland.

Militancy, it was assumed in Jammu, was a thing of the past.

“Nobody had expected something like this to happen in our village,” said Dheeraj Sharma, the sarpanch of Dhangri.

The Dhangri attack signals a worrying departure.

“This is not a case of animosity or rivalry,” said the senior police officer. “It’s a clear-cut case of targeted minority killing.”

Police believe the two men involved in the Dhangri attack belong to the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Nearly a month after the incident, the attackers have not been caught.

The clamour for weapons has not been lost on the government.

“The requirement is in the thousands,” said Mohammad Aslam, senior superintendent of police, Rajouri. “But we don’t have that many weapons to give.”

Three weeks after the Dhangri attack, the Jammu and Kashmir government revoked a 54-month-long ban on new arms licences in the Union territory. “Whoever wants to have a gun needs to buy his own,” Aslam said.

A resident of Dhangri shows the bullet marks on his neighbour's walls. Credit: Safwat Zargar

The shadow over Jammu

“I don’t think Jammu is as normal as it used to be,” said SP Vaid, former director general of Jammu and Kashmir police. “For the last 15 years or so, Jammu was completely terrorism-free. But events of the last one year indicate that there’s a concerted effort from across [Pakistan] to disturb Jammu.”

Ever since a Pakistan-backed armed uprising began in Kashmir in 1989, the centre of the militancy has been the Valley.

In contrast, the separatist movement failed to gain a foothold in the Jammu region.

Towards the end of 1990s and early 2000s, however, Jammu’s mountainous districts appeared to be in the crosshairs of militant groups. In some instances, the Hindu community, who were in a minority in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, were singled out for attacks. But by the end of the first decade of 2000, militancy had waned and remained largely confined to the Kashmir valley.

When New Delhi scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood on August 5, 2019, one of the main aims of the decision was to end violence in the region.

While a relentless, multi-pronged campaign has dealt a severe blow to militancy in Kashmir valley after 2019, it appears to be rearing its head again – this time in Jammu.

In October 2021, for instance, security forces launched one of the longest running anti-militancy operations in the forests of Pir Panjal region. The army lost at least nine soldiers in the firefight.

In August last year, five Indian soldiers were killed in a militant attack on an army camp in Rajouri district. Two militants were killed in retaliatory action by the army.

Vaid, who was the chief of Jammu and Kashmir police during the 2016 uprising in the Kashmir valley against the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, says several factors are responsible for the shift of militancy towards the Jammu region.

“First, they are trying to find recruits for militancy in Jammu,” said Vaid. “If they commit these massacres of minorities, there will be a backlash. If there is tension between two communities who have been living peacefully with each other, there’s a possibility that there are some boys who can be radicalised and convinced to join their ranks.”

According to Vaid, Pakistan is using former militants or those who have served their sentences in the Jammu region to reactivate militancy in the region.

Another reason, he said, is the need for militants to create a diversion from the crackdown on insurgency in Kashmir valley. “Jammu is hillier and vaster than Kashmir,” he said. “If you disturb the Jammu region, you will need more forces to handle the situation. Where will these forces come from? They would have to be diverted from Kashmir. The militant organisations would like that.”

A training camp for village defence committee members in Androla, Jammu. Credit: Safwat Zargar

The village defence committee

The decision to create a line of civilian defence was drafted in the aftermath of a series of targeted killings of Hindus in Jammu’s Chenab valley region in 1995.

On September 30, 1995, the Union government announced a village defence group scheme in Jammu and Kashmir, which was then under the direct rule of the Centre.

With the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir valley fresh in mind, the policy was also aimed at preventing a migration of the Hindu community from Jammu’s hinterland.

The idea of arming local residents in far-flung areas “was successfully tried during conflicts with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971”, the Centre’s policy document released in 1995 said.

Every village defence group, with around 10 to 15 local residents as members, was to be headed by a retired serviceman from either the army, paramilitary forces or the police.

Official figures revealed in 2016 put the number of village defence groups in Jammu and Kashmir at 4,248, with about 28,000 volunteers.

In an unforgiving terrain, where homes were spread across distances, it was difficult for security forces to be present everywhere. “The village defence committees have an important role to play as a force multiplier,” said Vaid, the former chief of Jammu and Kashmir Police. “In the past, they have engaged militants in encounters for hours until security forces reached the spot.”

New zeal, old concerns

With the dip in militancy, many of the armed groups lost their utility. While they were never disbanded, many members were asked to hand over their rifles. For several years, even the modest honorariums that each group was entitled to had stopped trickling in.

The Dhangri violence has made the village defence group more relevant again. But it is also true that steps to strengthen the scheme had been taken months before.

In August last year, the Union government announced a new Village Defence Guard scheme, which increased the honorarium paid to the members of the village defence committee to Rs 4,000-Rs 4,500, depending on the vulnerability of the area in which they lived.

Safety prospects are not the only consideration for those signing up to fight militants.

Amit Kumar, a 23-year-old from Androla who dropped out of school in Class XII, is looking forward to a regular income. “I know I am not getting any job,” he said. “But a monthly remuneration for being a village defence committee member can provide me some sort of livelihood till I find something.”

Amid the new zeal for local defence groups, many are cautioning against militarising civilians.

For one, the groups have long been suspected of widening the communal fault lines in the region.

Political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have in the past accused the armed groups of participating in communal violence and being “workers” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Separatists, on the other hand, have described these groups as an “illegal and terrorist force” indulging in “extreme form of state terrorism”.

The idea to arm civilians, particularly Hindus, in the volatile regions of Jammu has been all along supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party – even when the party was a small player in Jammu and Kashmir’s political spectrum. In 2014, a senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader claimed that the “basic draft” of the village defence group had been devised by the organisation.

While the scheme is open to both Hindu and Muslim volunteers, most of the village defence group members belong to the Hindu community. Many of them are vocal supporters of the BJP. “We are supporters, members and activists of the BJP and we have been in constant touch with the party leadership over our problems,” Ratan Chand Sharma, who represents an umbrella organisation of village defence group members in Jammu and Kashmir, told Scroll in June.

According to the Jammu and Kashmir government’s official data tabled in 2016 in the state legislative assembly, a total of 221 cases had been registered against members of village defence groups since their inception in 1995. Of these, 23 cases were related to murder, seven were for rape, 15 cases involved rioting.

In some cases, the easy availability of weapons inside homes has also led to deaths due to suicide and accidental firing. The guns have sometimes been used in settling personal scores by the village defence group members.

In August 2013, following increasing incidents of violence by members of these groups against civilians, the scheme faced a legal challenge. An independent legislator Sheikh Abdul Rashid filed a public interest litigation before the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, seeking a ban on the groups.

There is no clarity on what happened to the petition. But nearly a decade later, the targeted killings of Hindus in Jammu have given the village defence groups a new rationale. “There is too much fear after Dhangri,” said Sham Lal, a 66-year-old village defence group member in Baljaralan village of Rajouri. “Guns give us a sense of protection.”