India Is Arming Villagers in One of Earth’s Most Militarized Places

As night fell in the tiny Himalayan village of Dhangri, a dozen armed men emerged from their homes one after another, their rifles slung over their shoulders, as if they were bound for war. With stealthy movements, they scanned the moonlit surroundings for signs of danger, their figures silhouetted against the horizon.

During the day, the men are drivers, shopkeepers and farmers. At night, they are members of a once-dormant local militia that the Indian government is reviving in the Jammu and Kashmir region in response to deadly militant attacks targeting Hindu families.

“We can’t sit back and watch our people being killed,” said Vijay Kumar, a member of the volunteer group who works as an electrician.

That the Indian government has felt compelled to arm thousands of civilians in one of the world’s most militarized places shows the limits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s more muscular approach to controlling the long-restive region.

For decades, a separatist militancy has haunted Jammu and Kashmir, as the Himalayan region disputed by India and Pakistan is called. Thousands of people, both Kashmiri civilians and Indian security forces, have died in the violence.

Standing guard near the village of Dhangri, Jammu and Kashmir, where a series of bloody attacks against Hindus last month prompted the government to arm civilians.

One attack in Dhangri left nine bullet holes in the door of a house.

In 2019, Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist government suddenly revoked the semiautonomous status of the Muslim-majority region, bringing the valley under the direct control of New Delhi, which moved in more troops, cracked down on dissent and put even local leaders loyal to India under house arrest.

Mr. Modi’s lieutenants say the changes have streamlined governance and cut the corruption that fed the cycle of militancy. They point to the large number of tourists flooding into the area as a sign that normalcy has returned.

But nearly four years later, democracy remains suspended in the region. Repeated attacks on civilians have raised questions about the government’s military approach to what analysts say is fundamentally a political problem in Kashmir, and cast doubt on its claims that the region is enjoying peace and prosperity.

The region’s Hindus, many of whom fled the valley during an earlier outbreak of violence in the 1990s, again feel under threat, even on the Jammu side in the south, which had escaped the worst of the carnage decades ago. Large numbers have left the valley or gathered for protests imploring the government to move them to safer places.

Many in Jammu have been enlisted to provide their own protection, albeit with limited training and a government-issued firearm similar to those used a century ago by the British.

Members of the local militia who patrol at night. During the day, they are, clockwise from top left, a driver, an electrician and farmers.

“It seems strange that in the world’s most militarized zone, you need to arm civilians to secure the citizens, which presumably is the army’s job,” said Siddiq Wahid, a political historian and academic. “It is a contradiction in many ways.”

The government first resorted to creating local militias in Jammu in the 1990s, at the militancy’s peak. Nearly 4,000 such groups, called village defense committees, had tens of thousands of volunteers.

Eventually, the tensions eased as the government countered the militants with a mix of force and dialogue and nurtured Kashmiri political leaders who saw the region as an integral part of India. The militias, which were accused of abuses against other civilians, were largely phased out after the situation in Kashmir improved.

In the village of Dhangri, the impetus to arm civilians once again was a series of bloody attacks against Hindus last month, which followed other deadly militant assaults in the wider district over the past several months.

Preparing for a night patrol in Dhangri. “We can’t sit back and watch our people being killed,” one of the militia members said.
Relatives gathering at the house of Saroj Bala. Two of her sons were killed in an attack by militants last month.

Saroj Bala, 58, was washing dishes early in the evening when she heard the sound of gunfire, followed by the screams of her elder son, Deepak Sharma. She and her younger son, Prince Sharma, rushed outside and saw two masked gunmen, one of them in army fatigues.

The militants shot Prince at close range — he would later die in a hospital — and then continued to fire into Deepak’s lifeless body.

Less than two minutes later, the attackers targeted another house, where they locked 32-year-old Neeta Devi and her children in their kitchen before fatally shooting her husband, Shishu Pal, and father-in-law, Pritam Lal.

By the time the villagers made sense of what was happening, the gunmen had also killed Satish Kumar, a retired army officer, as he tried to secure his front gate.

The following morning, as mourners gathered at Ms. Bala’s home, a bomb went off just outside the house, killing two children, 4-year-old Vihaan and 14-year-old Smikhsha, who were cousins of the deceased brothers.

Ms. Bala, her family’s only survivor, said that she had been struggling to sleep since the attack.

Relatives consoling Ms. Bala. “When I lie down, their faces come in front of my eyes,” she said.
After killing Ms. Bala’s sons, the militants attacked another nearby house, above. They locked Neeta Devi and her children in a kitchen, then fatally shot her husband and father-in-law.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

“When I lie down, their faces come in front of my eyes,” she said.

Indian officials blamed the killings on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of several banned militant outfits active in the region.

Now, in just the Rajouri district, which includes Dhangri, about 5,200 volunteers are being rearmed, according to local security officials.

“The district’s vast terrain presents challenges for complete control. Most of the army’s presence is concentrated along the 75-mile Line of Control in the district,” said Mohammad Aslam, a top police official in Rajouri, referring to the boundary that divides the Indian side of Kashmir from the side controlled by Pakistan.

“The district’s vast terrain presents challenges for complete control,” said Mohammad Aslam, center, a top police official in the area.
Many militia members use a government-issued firearm similar to those used a century ago by the British.

Local political parties in Kashmir have long been wary of the idea of handing military weapons to civilians. According to police records, there have been 221 documented cases of abuses like murder, rape and extortion since the militias’ formation in the mid-1990s.

Security officials said that they were taking measures to keep any abuses in check. The militias fall under the command of the district’s police leadership, and each group is led by a retired army officer. Villagers, who are paid about $50 a month for the job, are being armed only after stringent background checks, officials say.

A second concern has been that selective arming of villagers in areas with mixed Hindu and Muslim populations could fuel communal tensions.

Local Muslim leaders said that only Hindu groups had been armed. Security officials justified that decision by saying that the recent attacks had targeted only Hindus.

“There were less than 3 percent Muslims in earlier village defense committees,” said Mohammad Farooq, a Muslim resident of Rajouri. “Now it’s zero percent.”

Weeks after the January killings in Dhangri, residents say that they are frustrated that the militants remain at large. Still fearful, the armed civilians continue their patrols.

As the men made their way down a forest slope one recent night, marching in a single line, they acknowledged that they were underequipped and insufficiently trained for the threat. But they said they had no choice.

“Even if we don’t have advanced weapons,” said Amaranth, one of the volunteers, who works as a farmer and raises cattle during the day, “we will do our best to defend our community.”

Weeks after the killings in Dhangri, residents are frustrated that the militants remain at large. Still fearful, the armed civilians continue their patrols.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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