In a mega exercise to revive vigilante groups armed by the government to defend against terrorist attacks, revamp of erstwhile Village Defence Committees is going on aggressively in Jammu and Kashmir's Rajouri. There are already 5,000 armed members in the district and more villagers are registering to get weapons from the police.
The committees have been renamed Village Defence Groups or VDG and are being revamped at such a large scale for the first time in over two decades. Each member is equipped with a .303 rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition. The government is also planning to equip them with SLR rifles.
The committees were set up almost 30 years ago when the law-and-order machinery had collapsed in Jammu and Kashmir. The administration was even criticised for abdicating its responsibility to protect common people and instead arming such groups. Eventually, the role of these committees was diminished as security forces regained control on the ground.
But after the recent terrorist attack on some Hindus - minority community in the UT - at Dangri village in Rajouri, they are back in the mix.
At panchayat centers in Rajouri, police are checking the weapons and taking note of requirements for training. Young men are taking over weapons that were originally given to their parents and other older relatives long ago.
"I have come here to get the rifle cleaned. To check it's up to the mark so that I'm prepared to take on terrorists if there is attack on us," said Tinkoo Raina, one of the young men.
The 20-year-old said he's not yet enrolled in a group in police records but has been carrying the .303 rifle was allotted to his uncle.
Joginder Singh is another aspiring member. At an arms checking camp, he was carrying two rifles allotted his two uncles. "I want to be a VDC member so that a weapon is allotted in my name and I can fight terrorists," he said.
Even some of the older members of these groups, many having crossed 60, are not willing to give up. They say they will continue to be members.
"I'm 66, but I will continue as a VDC member. My home is near forests and we are all alone living there. If someone (terrorist) comes, we can fight," said one of them.
The first of the VDCs were set up in early 1990s in Doda district following attacks on minority community members. Subsequently, villagers were armed in Rajouri and other districts of Jammu region.
There are around 28,000 such VDC members, mostly from the Hindu community and some from among Sikhs and Muslims.
"We are giving them new arms and ammunition, rejuvenating them, organising firing practice sessions for them. Operations to track down terrorists are underway too," said Mohammad Aslam, the district police chief.
The government had last year announced to pay an honorarium of Rs 4,000 a month to VDC members, but that's not been done so far.
In many areas, however, misuse of weapons allotted to VDC members remains a concern.
There are more than 200 FIRs registered against VDC members in various districts.These include cases of murder, rape, rioting and drugs.
At Dangri, where terrorists killed six Hindus in attacks on Sunday and Monday, there are 72 armed VDCs.
The local panchayat says no one is facing any criminal cases and they will check antecedents of new VDCs before weapons are allotted to them.
"We will not give weapon to those who are drinking, or those who have high blood pressure," said Dheeraj Sharma, the sarpanch who is a BJP leader, "We will give weapons to people after due diligence."