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Kashmir: Bolstering VDCs
The season for probing solutions to the ‘nuclear flashpoint’ of Kashmir has taken off in a big way in western think tanks and media outlets. Not a day passes without one group and association or the other unfurling its own plans of conflict de-escalation, peace and harmony. A common denominator among the more sensible of these ‘Track II’ efforts is conviction that the insurgent gun and its un-muzzled carnage are the biggest problems confronting Jammu and Kashmir and that no reasonable restoration of normalcy can be obtained without defanging Jihad. The paterfamilias of Jihad Incorporated, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, personified this perpetual danger to peace and human dignity with the parlous slogan: "Jihad and the rifle alone. No negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues." My article proposes that the highroad to peace lies in strengthening the counter-insurgency and thus striking at the root of relentless Jihad, rather than skirting around false problematics of ‘alienation’, ‘winning back the hearts’ of Kashmiris or dialogue with Pakistan.
Village Defence Committees (VDC) were first launched in 1994 as the principal agency through which the people of Kashmir could defend against marauding cross-border terrorism. The timing of VDC formation coincided with total hijacking of indigenous Kashmiri agitation for political participation by Pakistan’s ISI (in a sense, polluting the dregs of an intifada with Jihad) and increasing realisation among Kashmiris and the international community that the issue at stake was terrorism and not self-determination. Villagers and ex-servicemen from among minority communities voluntarily approached law enforcement authorities and requested to be trained and organised into small self-defence cells to deter fundamentalist terrorists from willfully massacring and religiously cleansing J&K of non-Muslims. That VDC civilian buffers sprouted out of popular people’s action and alarm at the reign of terror unleashed by Pakistan is revealed by their proliferation, starting from Doda on to Kathua, Udhampur, Poonch, Rajouri and Jammu. Today, there are more than 1500 VDCs all over the state.
Individual and group rights to life and freedom from religious harassment were the underpinnings of VDCs at the onset and their operations were ergo largely defensive. VDC groups would span out into vigilance squads at nightfall and repulse terrorist attacks with the help of light firearms and information inputs provided by coordinating special police officers. Due to their proactive and valorous resistance against the Jihad machine and the psychological peril of a fearless countryside checkmating ISI blueprints of terrorising minorities into submission, VDCs began to be nailed down as primary targets. There were years in the late nineties when VDCs were systematically attacked with overwhelming force and brutality by superior armed and trained mujahideen. Manhunts for ‘spotted’ and talented VDC leaders became a knife-sharpening practice for Jihadis and the defensive and under-armed nature of VDCs left them open for target practice. Severe casualties on VDCs are to this day inflicted by Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen with impunity, thanks to their Pakistan supplied ammunition and latest communication and artillery equipment.
Jihadi objectives of pulverizing VDCs are much broader than purely gun snatching and minority cleansing. It is a warning to Kashmiris that whoever dares to organise in self-defence or question the inhuman and terrorist practices of Pakistani proxies will be silenced first. It is an assault upon the Kashmiri spirit and a deepening of psychological warfare. Being a bunch of zealots and fanatics masquerading as ‘freedom fighters’, mujahideen are disconcerted by grassroots people’s action that could disabuse their own delusions of waging a ‘liberation struggle’. ISI is especially worried about VDCs and ikhwan (former militants who have now turned informers and accomplices of the Indian army) since they question the very moral foundations of the Kashmir insurgency and obviate meticulous Islamist indoctrination and propaganda in Pakistani and Afghan terrorist camps that Indian Muslims need to be freed from ‘Hindu tyranny.’
Owing to both the military counter-insurgency as well as the larger psychological/mental functions that VDCs perform, New Delhi should heed the advice proffered by counter-terrorism experts like KPS Gill and take every possible measure for strengthening and upgrading VDCs. Increasing honorariums and supplying hi-tech arms, new vision and communication appurtenances were promised way back in January 2000, but are yet to materialise in the hands of villagers. In August 2001, the government refused to grant VDCs automatic assault weapons, partly in reaction to one isolated incident when a vigilante accidentally shot dead an innocent civilian. The result of this politically motivated non-decision was a fresh wave of slaughter by jihadis, prompting one VDC member Surinder Singh of Jammu to despair, "we were like sitting ducks then and now we will be dead ducks."
Massacres, kidnappings and threats to VDC member lives have increased exponentially in the last two years and even though there is said to be a slight thaw in terrorist actions against military targets after the December 13 attack on Indian Parliament, purposive raids on VDCs and civilians have been on the ascent. With VDCs having to fend for their own endangered survival in an unequal battle with professional mujahideen, ambitious government boasts of morphing VDCs from defensive formations into frontline allies of the army for checking infiltration fall flat. The solution lies in dispelling ISI disinformation that VDCs are "communalising" Kashmir (a bizarre case of thugs accusing the judge!) and bolstering them materially and morally. There cannot be a more favourable occasion than the present for this long-awaited panacea, with the world focussed on reining in extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. As international opprobrium for Jihad builds, India must fortify its own defences to doubly ensure that Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir meets its death knell.
Peace in Kashmir is attainable in the long-term perspective only if the rights and honours of all Kashmiris are ensured and the psychology and pathology of Jihad are exterminated. VDCs can perform a salutary role in pursuit of this multi-pronged vision, provided they are empowered and nurtured with arms, determination and morale. The choice before India is clear: either grow inured to "dead ducks" and cave in to the diabolical Jihad industry or rise to the challenge and ensteel nationalist champions like VDCs.
[Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied History at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a Second BA in Modern History at University College, Oxford. He researched the BJP’s foreign policy at the London School of Economics and is currently analyzing the impact of conflict on Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY.]