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Village Defence Guards (VDGs), mostly armed with .303 rifles and bolt action rifles, are highly determined to safeguard their villages from the threat posed by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and wants the government to equip them with automatic weapons along with enhanced remuneration to take on terrorists effectively.

The VDGs, earlier known as Village Defence Committees (VDCs), were formed in the Jammu region in 1995 to offer self-defence capabilities to villagers in the face of continuous terrorist threats. Under the scheme, each VDC used to have a Special Police Officer (SPO) as its in-charge and there were 10-15 other volunteer members, mostly ex-service personnel.

In 2022, the policy of VDCs was revamped by the home ministry and Village Defence Groups were introduced, members of whom are called Village Defence Guards (VDGs). It was not only the name, the structure of the committees has also been changed. Unlike VDCs where only SPOs were paid, all VDGs are now paid.

According to the annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs for 2022-23, a total of 4,153 Village Defence Groups and 32,355 SPOs were engaged in Jammu and Kashmir in different responsibilities for the protection of civilians and anti-terrorists operations under the direct supervision of district superintendents of police or senor superintendents of police.

The VDGs came under focus when one of its members Mohd Sharief was killed in a gunfight with terrorists in Panara village here in Jammu and Kashmir’s Udhampur district early Sunday. The encounter had happened in the area, once a hot-bed of terrorism, after a long gap of over 17 years.

“Government provided us with weapons to defend our villages from the enemy forces. We want the government to equip us with automatic weapons so that we can take on the terrorists effectively,” VDG Gul Mohammad told PTI.

Attending the last rites of his colleague in Lower Panara village on Monday, he said they have always stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the security forces to ensure that the area remains free of terrorism.

“One of our brothers laid down his life and his sacrifice will not go waste. We will avenge his killing and are alert,” he said.

Abdul Hameed, another VDG member, said the government has notified a new scheme for them about two years ago but “some of us are still not getting their dues. The government should look into it and ensure that all the VDG members are paid their remuneration on time besides increasing the allowances.”

Pawan Kumar also demanded equipping the VDGs with automatic weapons to take on the terrorists effectively.

“We are ready and will not allow them to settle down,” he said. While the VDGs are paid Rs 4,500 per month in more vulnerable areas, others are paid a uniform rate of Rs 4,000 per month.

The remuneration of SPOs of Jammu and Kashmir Police has been enhanced up to Rs 18,000 per month. SPOs having experience of less than three years are paid Rs 6,000, those with more than three years and less than 5 years are paid Rs 9,000, those having experience of more than five years and less than 10 years are paid Rs 12,000.

Meanwhile, SPOs with experience of more than 10 years and less than 15 years are paid Rs 15,000, and those having experience of more than 15 years are paid Rs 18,000 per month.

Saifuddin, a former sarpanch of Panara village, supported the demand for automatic weapons and enhanced wages for VDGs and said when terrorism spread its tentacles to the village in 1990 when several unemployed youth of the area were lured into militancy by vested interests.

“We supported police and other security agencies in clearing the area of terrorism. The last encounter took place here in 2007,” he said.

Lauding the bravery of Sharief, he said the VDGs are carrying .303 rifles which takes five minutes to load, while the terrorists are armed with small automatic weapons and can empty a full magazine within a few minutes.

He said there are four police posts which need to be strengthened with manpower. “Our youth are brave and are ready to join the forces. Some of the VDGs have attained the age of 60 years and they want their sons to replace them.”