Ramban: The fate of Village Defence Committees (VDCs) has become a major poll issue in Chenab Valley of Jammu and Kashmir with its members alleging apathy by state authorities.
Without any formal training or salaries, VDCs were setup by police by arming volunteers to counter heavily armed terrorists in 1992-93 in erstwhile Doda district, now Chenab valley, following number of attacks on minority Hindus.
After slow disbanding of dozens of VDCs and removal of thousands of its volunteers in Udhampur, Doda, Kathua, Rajouri in last three years, around 28,865 volunteers of VDCs still continue to discharge duties in various parts of the state for security operations in Chenab Valley.
Out of 5,000 sanctioned VDCs, 4,122 VDCs have been constituted in different districts of Jammu and Ladakh division, according to a state Home Ministry official.
"No remuneration is being paid to the volunteers working with VDCs on account of their voluntary nature of engagement", the official said.
The VDC members, who form a sizable chunk of electorate in this district, say they will vote only for the candidate who is ready to address their issues.
Established to empower the local villagers to fight insurgents in the militancy-affected areas, the VDC members claim that they have remained neglected for several years now.
"There was a time when terrorists used to roam freely in our villages, they used to kill people and harass families. So the government gave us weapons to fight those terrorists," said a VDC member requesting anonymity.
He said that he and his fellow VDC members have helped the local police and the Army to eliminate large number of militants operating in the area that include several top commanders of various militant outfits.
"We fear for our lives as we are the sworn enemies of terrorists. Many of our friends have already fallen to their bullets. Despite helping curb militancy in the region, we became victim to apathy of successive governments," he said.
Another VDC member on condition of anonymity said they had expected the state and the central governments to facilitate and reward them for eliminating militancy in this mountainous district, but instead they became the worst victim of "government apathy".
"We are as good as unemployed people...The only difference is that we carry guns. I have become old now fighting terrorists here," he said.
He claimed that VDC members were promised that they would be absorbed in the state police but so far nothing had been done in this regard.
"They gave us outdated guns without any uniform or salary but we took it as our duty towards our nation. After getting their work done, we are now being discarded," he said.
Despite being one of the worst hit areas by militancy, the Ramban district has upheld its traditional bonhomie between various communities.
"Around 25 percent population of the district is Muslim, but we have always maintained bonhomie between the two communities and we will continue to do so in the future."
"We will reject the candidate who tries to divide us on the lines of religion, caste or creed," Girdhari Lal, a retired headmaster, said.
With an electorate of 85,902 comprising 46,255 male and 39,647 female, the Ramban Assembly constituency will go to polls in the first phase of the elections scheduled for November 25.
Every major political party campaigning here has raised the issues of the VDC members and have promised to redress them if voted to power.