One of the election manifesto promises expressly delivered by the Yogi Adityanath government is the setting up of special “Anti-Romeo” squads aimed at checking eve-teasing and harassment of women in public places and especially around schools and colleges. The police were instructed to take action against “Romeos” — which loosely means miscreant elements that casually harass women and girls. “The ideal is to reclaim public spaces and make them safe for women,” said UP DGP Javeed Ahmed, who was told by CM Yogi Adityanath on Monday to come up with a plan to improve law and order. Surely, it is high time law and order reacts to the lack of safety for women in public places and this should be a welcome move.
However, there are several reasons for apprehension about this swift move. Merely two days have passed and several reports of unjustified actions, at times distinctly like moral policing of couples and mixed groups, taken by the squads have surfaced — including forcing young men found with young women to do hold ears and do sit-ups in public. Thousands of young men hanging around in cities like Lucknow, Meerut, Jhansi and Gorakhpur to name a few, have been questioned, shamed and their ‘activities’ reported to their parents without necessarily any indication of misbehavior with women on their part. Some were of course arrested as well.
The UP police thus far has clearly stated that its sole aim is to act against those who indulge in eve-teasing and that there will be no moral policing. DGP Javeed Ahmed has promised strict action against police officers who indulged in moral policing if complaints are made against them. But it still raises the question as to why the deployed police officers were charged up to take action without proper briefing and sensitisation towards what constitutes as eve-teasing and harassment? What was the rush to launch an indiscriminate “crackdown” on all young men, without issuing unambiguous guidelines to the squad officers?
Is being found roaming around or standing outside women’s educational institutes or other public places ground enough to be detained as a “romeo” by the police? What if they don’t buy your story — even if its true? Young men waiting for and traveling with female friends have been stopped, questioned extensively and warned. A DNA report suggested that among the youth arraigned by the police near colleges and malls in Gorakhpur were even a few brothers who had come to pick up theirs sisters. A boy waiting outside DN college in Meerut told the Times of India that it amounted to harassment. “They wanted to call my parents … They did not even know if I was there to meet a girl or a boy. For them, any young boy in public on a bike is a ‘majnu’,” he told TOI. Surely, indiscriminate police harassment of young men is not the way to curb harassment of women.
Finally, setting up of these “Anti-Romeo squads” was closely associated with the aim of ‘curbing’ of “love-jihad” — a term for Muslim men marrying Hindu women — in the election campaign rhetoric, thus weaving in a thread of threat from Muslims, into the reel of women’s safety. Ahead of the assembly elections, the Hindutva plank of BJP overtly stoked the idea of a threat posed by Love-Jihad to gullible (Hindu) girls. Only last month, BJP leader Sunil Bharala said that anti-Romeo squads will take actions in cases of love jihad and make sure that girls are not being trapped. Many people have thus variously expressed the fear that this could turn the law and order against Muslim boys.
While preventive measures sound sensible, they clearly fall back on stereotypes of a “loitering miscreant”. Curbing healthy interaction of boys and girls in public goes against cultivation of gender sensitivity. Real achievement of the government or the police will not be terrorising young men and couples from public places — least of all if religion disastrously gets mixed into it. Instead of indiscriminately descending on young men in public places, they should focus on skillfully nabbing actual offenders who perceive women as soft targets and feel empowered to stalk, misbehave and harass. The latter calls less for a few days of frenzied crackdowns and more for sensitised officers to lie low in public spaces and turn up watchfulness against misconduct.