- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

JHAOLAS, India Surjeet Singh sleeps with an ancient Indian Army rifle by his side each night to protect himself from a potential attack by armed Islamic militants.

Mr. Singh, 45, lives two miles from the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan in the disputed territory of Kashmir, where relentless militant assaults during the past 12 years have persuaded the Indian government to arm villagers in the region with 303-gauge rifles.

Mr. Singh's two-story cement house is pockmarked from fragments of a Pakistani shell that exploded 50 feet away in his wheat field in December, but he fears militant attacks more than Pakistan's shelling.

"The shelling is a problem, but the militants are more dangerous," Mr. Singh said through an interpreter. In December, the Indian army shot and killed nine armed militants outside Jhaolas, a remote farming community of about 10,000 nestled between the snowcapped Himalayan mountains. But they could not stop the executions of six Hindu family members, including a 6-month-old boy, in a neighboring village on New Year's Eve.

The Indian government said more than 2,000 armed Islamic militants were killed last year in Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir state, and that a large cache of weaponry, including 47,500 grenades, was recovered from militants operating in the region.

A.K. Suri, Jammu's police chief, says the government has been issuing rifles and 100 rounds of ammunition to households in villages along the LoC since 1989 in response to the insurgency in the region.

"It's not possible to defend every village, because many are in remote mountainous areas, so weapons are provided to allow the villagers to defend themselves," Chief Suri said. "The militants have killed people without consideration of caste or creed, so much so that many Muslims, who would not take the weapons at first, have begun to accept them."

The rifles and ammunition have provided a sense of protection for some villagers in Jhaolas.

Mr. Singh, who operates a flour and rice mill in Jhaolas, says his wife and three young children, fearing militant attacks under the cover of darkness, leave their village every day before sunset and commute five miles to the town of Poonch, where they spend the night in a government building.

"The militants have no mercy, so not even the women and children are safe," Mr. Singh said. "The guns give us some protection for our families."

The rifles were once standard issue in the Indian army. Bullets must be loaded into the firing chamber before shooting each round, a time-consuming process considering that most assaults by militants in Jammu and Kashmir have been carried out with automatic weapons.

"The [rifles] are better than nothing, but the government should give us AK-47s," said Raj Kumar Sharma, 36, a middle school teacher from Jhaolas.

But the manual rifles are more than some of the villagers in Jhaolas can handle.

Indian officials have authorized everyone in Jhaolas to use the rifles to defend themselves against militant attacks, but they have not taught the villagers how to fire the guns.

Jabir Kour, 51, a high school social studies teacher, is no stranger to armed conflicts. She lived through the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan, and last year shrapnel was lodged in her waist after a Pakistani shell crashed in a field of mustard greens directly behind her house.

Despite her battle experience and her scar, she said she does not know how to fire the rifle.

"My husband leaves it loaded and cocked, but we have no idea how to use it," Mrs. Kour said as she awkwardly displayed the gun before guests in her living room. "What else can we do? Our lives are at risk."

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