In Dhangri, India, approximately 5,000 villagers, including civil servant Sanjeet Kumar, have joined all-Hindu militia units to fight off rebel attacks. These Village Defence Guards receive weapons and training from Indian forces, as India seeks to quell a prolonged insurgency in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
Last year, authorities announced the establishment of these militias following a series of murders targeting police officers and Hindu residents in Kashmir. Although the initiative has been generally well received by Hindu residents, Muslim villagers worry that arming only one community will further exacerbate tensions in the region.
Kashmir has been a disputed territory between India and Pakistan since the two countries gained independence 75 years ago. India has battled various rebel groups demanding independence or merger with Pakistan, with tens of thousands of lives lost in the ongoing conflict.
Some residents of Dhangri, still mourning the loss of seven neighbours in a deadly attack earlier this year, feel that the distribution of weapons has only heightened their sense of terror. However, others are determined to fight back.
The Indian government initially created a civil militia force in the mid-1990s in response to the mounting armed rebellion against Indian rule in Kashmir. During that time, rights groups accused members of village defence committees of committing atrocities against civilians. Out of the 210 cases of murder, rape, and extortion that were prosecuted, less than 2% of defendants were convicted, reported Bangkok Post.
Kanchan Gupta of India’s information ministry stated that these cases represented individual acts rather than organised crime by the militias. Acknowledging the possibility of rogue militias, Gupta explained that controlling everyone is not feasible.
As part of their training, members of the new Village Defence Guards are warned by paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) trainers about the consequences of misusing their weapons. Despite these warnings, three people have been killed since the inception of the new militias, including two suicides and one accidental death.
In the villages surrounding Dhangri, an increasing number of villagers have been eager to acquire arms. Flour miller and ex-serviceman Ajay Kumar, who resides in the area, said he would not hesitate to use his weapon when needed.
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