The curse of VDCs and SPOs

What appears to be a stumbling block in the return of peace and harmony in Kishtwar is the question of village defence committees, with everyone hyping the ante for or against the creation of this force. While there are several factors responsible for communal polarisation in Jammu region, particularly Kishtwar, with recent incidents and petty vote bank politics having triggered the shameful violent events, the basic cause remains the excessive militarization of the area through non-state, state and state sponsored actors, all of whom have contributed a great deal in sharpening the communal divisions. Senseless sloganeering over the issue is thus only going to cause more harm to the social fabric of Kishtwar, which has a natural fallout elsewhere in the state. What is instead required is a holistic dialogue on the issue with a dispassionate and unprejudiced analysis of the policy of creating the VDCs, the manner in which its personnel were handpicked, and the way this force has functioned. 

The VDCs first came up on an experimental basis in erstwhile Doda district, with a huge concentration in Kishtwar, following a slew of massacres, many of them communally selective, in 1994 and 1995 by militants. Unmindful of the tricky balance of demographic ratio of roughly about 60:40 Muslims to Hindus, the central government embarked on the course of selectively arming a section of the minority population in the name of defence and fighting counter insurgency. The communalization of the insurgency was thus matched with an even more lethal communal counter insurgency, legitimised by the state. Even before the creation of the VDCs, in several incidents in the beginning of 1990s, one community was singled out for raids and crackdowns and treated as virtual suspects, and harassed often for their religious identities by the security forces operating in the region. The graph of militancy showed a much higher incidence of communally selective killings in the area, causing insecurity in the minds of the other community. However, the creation of VDCs only sharpened the divisions because the VDC members were armed and eventually became a force of primarily one community against another in Doda region and one ethnic groups against another in Rajouri Poonch, where the religious minority is miniscule in the rural areas. 

The religious colouring of the VDCs inspired a similar pattern in the induction of the adhoc wing of the police force – the inadequately trained SPOs, who not only comprise of surrendered ultras but also the select handpicked members of the minority community. This policy designed to consciously or inadvertently hone the communal, regional, ethnic divisions, is problematic not only in the method of inductions. The very arming of a section of civilian population goes against the ethics and principles of democracy. Besides, they are unconstitutional in light of the supreme court verdict on similar formations in Chattisgarh. In 2013, the Supreme Court declared illegal and unconstitutional the deployment of tribal youths as Special Police Officers – either as ‘Koya Commandos’, Salwa Judum or any other force – in the fight against the Maoist insurgency and ordered their immediate disarming. The Salwa Judum is the equivalent of the VDCs in Jammu and Kashmir. The apex court ruled, "the State of Chhattisgarh shall forthwith make every effort to recall all firearms issued to any of the SPOs, whether current or former, along with any and all accoutrements and accessories issued to use such firearms. The word firearm as used shall include any and all forms of guns, rifles, launchers etc., of whatever calibre." 

While Salwa Judum and SPOs in Chattisgarh are yet to be disbanded and unarmed, in the context of Jammu and Kashmir, there has been complete denial of the applicability of this verdict, even though the VDCs are far more dangerous with their essentially religious identity based character. Besides, they have been used as a ploy in the hands of some political parties, primarily the BJP, for furthering their vote bank political interests. Sight cannot be lost of the massive multiplication of VDCs and SPOs during the BJP led NDA regime in the centre. The nexus has been more clearly revealed in the past with BJP coming out in open defence of an encounter specialist inspector, previously a VDC member, arrested on charges of running a militant module. The encounter specialists across the country have already become notorious for their nexus with criminals. The investigating officer in Afzal Guru case, Rajbir, on whose deposition and investigation alone rested the case of a man who was hurriedly sent to the gallows, not only spent time in Tihar himself on corruption charges but was finally killed by the land mafia of which he was reported to be a part. The BJP needs to see where it is going and what it is supporting in its blind devotion to the cause of security of the minorities. 

The argument being forwarded in the defence of VDCs and SPOs is the "commendable role" played by them in counter insurgency, which is highly over-rated given the shoddy trials and processes in which human rights abuse allegations are handled. In many cases, VDCs and SPOs have been responsible for criminalization of social fabric and settling personal scores by killing innocents and passing them off as militants. The 2011 Supreme Court judgement held that "effectiveness of the force ought not to be, and cannot be, the sole yardstick to judge constitutional permissibility. Whether SPOs have been effective against Maoist/Naxalite activities in Chhattisgarh would seem to be a dubious, if not a debunked, proposition given the state of affairs in Chattisgarh. Even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, that indeed the SPOs were effective against Maoists/Naxalites, the doubtful gains are accruing only by the incurrence of a massive loss of fealty to the Constitution, and damage to the social order." 

Besides, the criminalisation of these formations, the VDC members and SPOs have also been vulnerable to attacks by militant groups and have become victims of some of the worst and most brutal forms of violence. But the very basic problem is that such a policy has the potential danger of not just communalizing the situation but also inspiring anarchy in the society. The plea of feeling of insecurity among minorities, even as militancy has drastically reduced, may not be totally misplaced, given the landscape of these hilly areas of Jammu province. Even excessive militarization through regular has not been able to provide a cover of security to the villagers in far flung remote areas with scattered population. However, the answer does not simply lie in arming one section of society, worse still on selectively communal basis, even though both communities to some or the other extent have been victims of violence of militants. The answer lies in facilitating inter community dialogues at the village and panchayat levels to end trust deficit, and promoting a culture of inclusiveness for all and also in strengthening the fabric of secularism which has been a rich tradition of this region. Such a strengthened secular polity would be the greatest check against militancy. Communalising the issue of VDCs, by blindly endorsing a dangerous policy, instead would eventually lead to the promotion of lawlessness and anarchy, if not rise in militancy.