January 10, 2023

Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether setting up the Village Defence Guards in Jammu and Kashmir is an effective counterinsurgency strategy. We also look at the updates regarding the disaster-prone Joshimath in Uttarakhand, among other news.


Village Defence Guards: An effective counterinsurgency strategy?

In the aftermath of violence in Jammu and Kashmir’s Rajouri district, authorities are distributing weapons to members of Village Defence Guards (VDG), formerly Village Defence Committees (VDC), in the district’s Bal Jallaran village. For people in Rajouri, the new year commenced with two consecutive insurgent attacks killing six civilians and injuring 15 others.

During the first attack, an ex-VDC member Bal Krishnan, opened two rounds of fire at the insurgents, thereby preventing further casualties. Locals in the area demanded that VDGs be revived in the district and that they should be supplied with arms, a demand the authorities delivered on.


Let us begin by demystifying violence in Kashmir. Despite multiple claims of a diminished conflict by ministers from the incumbent union government, J&K is witnessing both new and old patterns of violence. In December 2022, Anurag Thakur produced some dubious numbers to argue that violence in the area had decreased during the two terms of the BJP rule in the Centre. The additional director-general of police (ADGP), Vijay Kumar too, claimed that the insurgency was primarily fomented by foreign militants and fewer local insurgents.

This is despite evidence from conflict researchers about the emerging trend of targeted killings of minorities in the area that has revived after decades since December 2020. The government prophesized that abrogation of Article 370 would effectively end militancy and engender normalcy. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has regularly defined violence in Kashmir as a threat from “across the border”.

Available data, however, paints a different picture. Since 2019, newer and seemingly non-religious armed outfits have consolidated their underground bases and emerged at the forefront of targeted killings. Insurgent recruitment, too, suggests a homegrown insurgency galvanizing in J&K. Local, educated youth with no previous criminal record or links to militants have claimed responsibility for the recent wave of attacks.

Amidst this furore of resistance, in 2022, the MHA sanctioned the creation of VDGs to strengthen the government’s intelligence and counterinsurgency grid against “terrorist acts inspired and supported from across the border”. The previous VDCs, too, were constituted in the mid-nineties in response to the spread of homegrown militancy since 1989. VDCs and VDGs are voluntary pro-government groups of civilians armed by the state to fend off militant attacks.

Typically, VDGs are set up in remote areas where poor roads and infrastructure prevent an expedient response from security forces (SF). VDG members are trained by the SF to maintain security in their neighbourhoods through routine patrolling and the use of arms. Besides this, they also function as valuable informants for the state.

There are more than 4,248 VDGs across the UT. Presently, the VDGs are receiving majoritarian public sanction from the Hindu community in the Jammu district. In 2019, Senior PDP leader and former MLC Firdous Tak alleged that the project of revamping VDCs was focused on communally-sensitive areas and saw participation from BJP and RSS workers to fuel communal antagonism. In the same year, a Kishtwar SSP also revealed that Hindus from Jammu constituted a major chunk of the cumulative demands for VDCs.

VIEW: Trust the process

From a conflict resolution perspective, VDGs possess the benefits of arms training minus the risks associated with autonomous militias. The structure of these groups as voluntary vigilante coalitions with a degree of weapons and defence training ensures that they provide enough of a threat to potential insurgent attacks without compromising the safety of their neighbourhoods. Rather than contributing to factionalizing the conflict, these groups bolster the state’s security net at a grassroots level.

VDGs will be constituted in government-identified “more vulnerable areas” to effect a controlled dispersion of weapons and arms training to civilians. This means that the state saves operational costs of the counterinsurgency while instilling a sense of empowerment among civilians caught in the crossfire. In recent years, the VDC has received widespread approval from the Hindu community in J&K. After the Dangri violence, women from the area admitted that being part of VDGs would help them feel more secure.

Trained vigilante groups can also improve counterinsurgency intelligence, making violence more selective. The state can potentially overcome asymmetries in its information by training VDG members in the basics of information gathering, as it proposes to do. Put simply, this means that VDGs help minimizes the problem of differentiating insurgents from civilians that plagues homegrown insurgencies. Theoretically, a vast intelligence net composed of local informants should lead to the selective use of violence as opposed to indiscriminate.

COUNTERVIEW: Can’t ignore history

The trajectory of VDGs in Kashmir’s conflict is not promising. Since their inception, the people of J&K have routinely protested against the groups because of their criminal engagements. The fact that successive governments have denied these groups remuneration suggests a lack of faith in the capacity of vigilante groups. To equip civilians with guns implies a state sanction over the locals’ possibly misguided sense of justice. Think America.

VDGs have a history of creating new faultlines and ossifying existing communal differences. The last time the state empowered VDGs, most volunteering members were Hindus and Gujjars. In 2013, Hindus comprised 96.56% of the VDC in the Kishtwar district. Their operations contributed largely to polarizing the conflict around religious and ethnic faultlines. Members of the former VDCs primarily targeted Muslims based on prejudicial forethought.

Legalizing vigilantism is a counterproductive solution for deterring violence. Empowering civilians to supplement security forces during their absence authorizes a high degree of unchecked violence. VDCs have a notorious history of perpetrating torture, extra-judicial killings, and illegal detention. Data from 2016 reveals that there are 221 FIRs against former members. The nature of their reported crime ranges from murders and rape to rioting and other cases.

It is also worth considering whether the world’s most militarized zone will benefit from vigilante groups. And if so, will the state’s counterinsurgency strategy initiate any form of demilitarization?

Reference Links:

What is your opinion on this?
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a) Village Defence Guards are an effective counterinsurgency strategy.

b) Village Defence Guards are not an effective counterinsurgency strategy.


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