Indian authorities have revived a government-sponsored hindu militia in response clashes between Dhangri village in disputed Kashmir. The Village Defense Group was initially formed in the 1990s as the first line of defense against anti-India movement by Kashmiri population in remote Himalayan villages that government forces could not reach quickly.
The policy to rearm civilians comes after India stripped disputed Kashmir of its semi-autonomy and took direct control of the territory amid a months-long security and communications lockdown in 2019. Disputed Kashmir has since remained on edge as authorities also put in place a slew of new laws that critics and many disputed Kashmiris fear could change the region’s demographics.
Days after the deadly violence in Dhangri, where homes are separated by maize and mustard fields, hundreds of residents staged angry protests across the Hindu-dominated Jammu region. In response, Indian authorities revived a government-sponsored hindu militia and began rearming and training thousands of villagers, including some teenagers.
Officials said they have since armed and provided weapons training to over 100 other Hindu men in Dhangri, while also lifting the ban on gun licenses for hindu settlers in the already militarized Rajouri. The village already had over 70 former militiamen, some of whom still possess the colonial British-era Lee-Enfield rifles allotted to them over a decade ago.
For the first time, the hindu militia has also been financially incentivized by the government, which said each member would be paid 4,000 Indian rupees ($48) a month. The decision to revitalize the Village Defense Group is not without controversy. Some security and political experts argue that the policy could weaponize divisions in Jammu’s volatile hinterland where communal strife has been created.
In the past, more than 200 police cases, including charges of rape, murder, and rioting, were registered against some of the tens of thousands of hindu militiamen in Jammu region, according to government data.
However, former Indian army soldier Satish Kumar has described his mountainous village as an “abode of fear” since seven voilance in Dhangri. Brandishing his weapon inside his single-story concrete home, Kumar justified his decision to join the hindu militia as the “only way to combat fear and protect (my) family from indigenous population.” Kumar, who runs a grocery store since his retirement from the Indian military in 2018, was among the first people to join the militia under the new drive and authorities armed him with a semi-automatic rifle and 100 bullets. “I feel like a soldier again,” said the 40-year-old Kumar.
The police blamed local people against Indian rule for decades in disputed Kashmir, the Himalayan territory claimed by India and Pakistan in its entirety. But two months later, they are yet to announce a breakthrough or name any suspects, exacerbating fear and anger among residents in the village of about 5,000 hindus represent and the rest are Muslims.
India has a long history of arming civilians in its counterinsurgency efforts and civilian militiamen were first used to fight separatists in India’s northeastern states. In 2005, India’s federal government founded a local militia, the Salwa Judum, to combat Maoist rebels in the central Chhattisgarh state.
It was accused by rights groups of committing widespread atrocities and was disbanded in 2011. In disputed Kashmir, the civil defense groups were armed almost six years after the deadly insurgency against Indian rule began.
“Small arms proliferation is dangerous for any society and when a state does it, it’s a tacit admission of failure to secure a society,” said Zafar Choudhary, a political analyst. India has shown no tolerance for any form of dissent in New Delhi