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IIOJK in focus

Intolerant to dissent, India revives civil militia in IIOJK, writes US news agency

Srinagar, February 28 (KMS): In New Delhi’s effort to shape what it calls ‘Naya Kashmir,’ or a ‘new Kashmir,’ people of Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir “have been largely silenced, with their civil liberties curbed, as India has shown no tolerance for any form of dissent,” so writes the US-based news agency, the Associated Press.

Headquartered in New York City, the AP writes: “Indian authorities revived a government-sponsored militia and began rearming and training thousands of villagers, including some teenagers”.

The news agency interviewed a former Indian army soldier Satish Kumar who was recruited by the Indian army as Village Defense Guard told AP that“I feel like a soldier again”.

The 40-year-old Kumar, who runs a grocery store since his retirement from the Indian military in 2018 is among the first people to join the VDG militia under the new drive and authorities armed him with a semiautomatic rifle and 100 bullets.

The militia, officially called the “Village Defense Group,” was initially formed in the 1990s in remote Himalayan villages. However, as militia members gained notoriety for brutality and rights violations, drawing severe criticism from human rights groups, the militia was largely disbanded.

Brandishing his weapon inside his single-story concrete home on an overcast February day, Kumar justified his decision to join the militia as the “only way to combat fear ….”

The policy to rearm civilians comes after India stripped Kashmir of its special status and took direct control of the territory amid a months-long curfew and communications lockdown in 2019, the AP said and added that Kashmir had since “remained on edge as authorities also put in place a slew of new laws that critics and many Kashmiris fear could change the region’s demographics”.

The US news agency mentioned the killing of seven Hindus in early January in two back-to-back attacks in Dhangri village of Rajouri and said, “So when the Dhangri violence occurred, the Indian government was swift to rearm the civilian militia even though it had announced its reconstitution in August last year”.

“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 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 militia has also been financially incentivized by the [Modi] government, which said each member would be paid 4,000 Indian rupees ($48) a month.”

“Still, the decision to revitalize the Village Defense Group is not without controversy,” AP commented.

“Some security and political experts argue that the policy could weaponize divisions in Jammu’s volatile hinterland where communal strife has historically existed,” the US agency apprehended.

“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 militiamen in Jammu region,”the AP said citing the the Indian government data.

“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, the news agency quoted a political analyst as having said.

Then, the news agency said that India had a long history of arming civilians in its ‘counterinsurgency’ efforts. “In Kashmir, the civil defense groups were armed almost six years after the deadly insurgency against Indian rule began,” it added.

S.P. Vaid was a young officer in 1995 when he supervised the creation of the militia’s first unit in Jammu region.

Kuldeep Khoda, another former top police officer in the region credited for implementing the policy, said the results “surprised us.”

“It was an experiment but it worked,” Khoda said at his home in Jammu city.

But Choudhary, the political analyst, said “civilians are not armed in a functional democracy.”

Mohammed Mushtaq is a former paramilitary soldier who lives near the house where gunmen first fired on January 1.

“We have lived together for generations and have a similar social system. But fingers have been pointed at us,” he said. Mushtaq and two other Muslim neighbors, also former soldiers, asked the authorities for weapons under the policy but were refused.

As Mushtaq spoke sitting outside his home, the sounds of religious hymns and devotional songs floated from the loudspeakers of a Hindu temple on top of a hill. The chants were interspersed with the chirping of birds and occasional whistles from pressure cookers in some village kitchens.

Moments later, a muezzin called Muslims to early afternoon prayers.

Kumar, the former soldier and militia member, said the decision not to induct his Muslim neighbors in the militia was “arbitrary” as “we still do not know who carried out the massacre” in Dhangri.

Meanwhile, hundreds of old militia members in Rajouri’s remote hamlets are oiling their weapons again, the AP added.

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