Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Fire anti-Romeo squads

She’s a teacher in Lucknow. He runs a business in Delhi. They met on Facebook and now, four years later, want to get married. Her parents are happy, she says. His are terrified. She’s Hindu. He’s Muslim. 

“They are scared that if we marry there will be reprisals since his family lives in Lucknow. They are saying they could be attacked; the house could be burned down. After Meerut, anything can happen," she tells me over the phone. So far they have refused to even see her photograph and have told their son to break it off. 

In Meerut this past week, members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV), the organization founded by Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath, broke into the house of a Muslim man, thrashed him for being in a “compromising" position with a Hindu woman, and handed both to the police. The woman was let off with “warning", reported the Hindustan Times, while the man was booked for obscenity. No HYV member has yet been arrested. 

There’s a general sense of lawlessness that we’ve come to associate with UP. The state where 16.8% of our female population lives, accounts for 10.9% of all crimes against women, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. 

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah’s campaign pledge to set up “anti-Romeo squads"—the reference is to the colloquial use of “roadside Romeos" but a more accurate description might be stalker or sexual harasser—might even have found takers.

A day after he was sworn in, Adityanath began dispatching police personnel to colleges, parks and public spaces. 

It was not an auspicious start. 

In Mainpuri, the video of a young man forced to do sit-ups by a woman police officer went viral and prompted accusations of over-reach and moral policing.

“There was some misunderstanding, leading to over-enthusiasm about the role on the first day," concedes Javeed Ahmed, the state’s director-general of police. “But we have now sensitized and trained our personnel. There is no question of any moral policing."

Vikash Narain Rai, former director of the National Police Academy, disagrees. “I have served in the police for 35 years and I can tell you that policemen are least trained to be gender-sensitive," he says. “Disturbing trends are already emerging and for police and individuals this is now a way to extort money from couples." 

But the idea is catching. Haryana has launched Operation Durga; Jharkhand has said it too will have anti-Romeo squads and Gujarat, where the idea first took root in 1999, is mulling a permanent squad.

Elsewhere, private armies have been emboldened to take upon themselves the mission of “protecting" women. In Dehradun, for instance, Bajrang Dal volunteers are patrolling schools and colleges on the lookout for girls and boys who dare to talk to each other. 

In some quarters, alarm bells are ringing. “These operations are neither sensitized nor do they seek to empower women. They must be opposed because they have all kinds of negative consequences," warns Rai. 

“Couples are being harassed. No one can even sit in the park together," says Renu Mishra, executive director, Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives, a Lucknow-based non-profit organization. 

Anti-Romeo squads are ill-disguised efforts to use state and non-state actors to keep women in check. Under the guise of “protection", they function pretty much like khap panchayats that impose restrictions on women’s mobility. In the name of policing, what is, in fact, playing out is the policing of women, including their right to choose their partners.

What is the point of an anti-Romeo squad when police is loath to file first information reports (FIRs) in cases even of sexual harassment, and under-reporting of crimes against women remains a serious problem? 

What is the point of such a squad when studies have shown that the most violent crimes against women, including domestic violence and rape, are committed not by louts hanging outside colleges but from within the home and people known to them? 

What is the point of such a squad when it creates a sense of fear and insecurity among those it is supposed to safeguard? 

It is nobody’s case that lawlessness must be allowed unchecked. But we have laws, law enforcement and, presumably, rule of law. Instead of setting up an additional designated squad, what we need are four simple steps: gender-sensitizing the police, increasing the number of policewomen, creating an enabling environment for women to file FIRs, and faster and more convictions. 

Anti-Romeo squads are a physical manifestation of patriarchy that views women as helpless creatures to be protected rather than independent citizens to be empowered. You don’t need a squad.

You need a change of attitude. 

Meanwhile, the teacher in Lucknow is hoping her future in-laws will come around. “If I’m going to marry into this family, I have to understand their fear and figure out a way to reassure them," she says. Love is nothing if not hopeful.

Namita Bhandare writes on social and gender issues.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare.

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