Home / Politics / Policy /  BJP’s Anti-Romeo Squads distorting Shakespeare for poll gains in UP?

When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised to form Anti-Romeo Squads in Uttar Pradesh (UP) to save girl students, the Shakespearian hero who drank poison to join his beloved in her crypt was probably the last in its mind. But then, catchphrases go a long way when you’re trying to win an election, even when they’re way off the mark.

According to the BJP, these squads will prevent sexual harassment of girl students. The party manifesto for the assembly election also says that if it comes to power, it will also raise three women battalions, build toilets for women in slums and villages, and establish 100 fast-track courts.

To be fair, having an anti-sexual harassment body—provided it is not a vigilante group—makes sense in the state which tops in crimes against women. With 35,527 cases in 2015, 10.9% of the total number of such crimes in India take place in UP. It is also good that a political party has shifted from the usage of the word anti-eve-teasing squads, to something else. However, bringing Romeo into the picture confuses love with sexual harassment, and misrepresents the character of Romeo in a vulgar way.

According to the book, India’s Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation, and Performance (Edited by Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz), even in the apparently nominal matter of telling and naming and articulating, different cultures retain in crucial ways their self-defined limits of the enunciable. Just as the name Romeo has become a peculiarly Indian symbol of sexual misdemeanor.

Anita Singh, co-coordinator, Centre for Women’s Studies & Development, Faculty of Social Sciences, Banaras Hindu University, says besides the nomenclature, the idea behind the squad—provided it is against sexual harassment—is a good step forward in the context of UP. “If women are seen outside after a certain time of the day, people think they are out because they are easily available and hence can be abused. The idea of a squad is not a bad idea. But it is the implementation that matters. That aside, obviously, there is a problem with the nomenclature. It is a distortion of Shakespearean text."

The term ‘Roadside Romeo’ frequently appears in newspapers and even in everyday conversations referring to young men who loiter around and harass women passersby—not quite what Shakespeare’s Romeo did.

The usage of the word Romeo is also interesting because, as historian Charu Gupta, from the department of history, faculty of social sciences, University of Delhi, pointed out, “Romeo as a word has been distinctly used in the Love Jihad controversy. Love Jihad is also called Romeo Jihad. More than just the Love Jihad angle, we have to remember these kind of vigilante groups can attack any kind of expression of love. It is not there to protect women but control them."

Love Jihad is a term used by right-wing groups for what they claim is an organized conspiracy of Muslim men feigning love with women from outside their community to convert them to Islam.

To be sure, UP isn’t the first on this count. In the 1980s Mumbai, there were teku squads to collar pick-pockets and those who harassed women. These squads were gradually disbanded as complaints of harassment and molestation fell in the 1990s.

Most recently, it was Gujarat that formed an Anti-Romeo Dal in 2001, which would make dossiers on Romeos, and a so-called tapori register. In 2012, Gandhinagar police formed an Anti-Romeo Squad to nab trouble-mongers near parks, cinema halls and other public places. The squad was also asked to keep an eye out for couples getting cosy at public places, “so as to avoid embarrassment for families visiting such spots".

In 2013, in Naxal-affected Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, police formed their first “anti-eve teasing squads, with a woman officer and five constables, to rein in the Road Romeos". A year later, in a related move in Gujarat’s Narmada district, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad wrote to the Superintendent Police, seeking support in “ensuring that Hindu girls celebrating Navratri do not fall prey to love jihad". It asked the police to prohibit Muslims “from entering the garba grounds or watching the celebrations in the periphery". The VHP letter demanded installation of additional CCTV cameras and “increased patrolling by the Anti-Romeo squad of the Narmada police to especially check hotels" and take action against those trying to “spread love jihad".

BJP president Amit Shah, however, disclaimed any communal motives behind the Anti-Romeo Squad. In a television interview, he said, “This is not communal. It is the right of every girl to study in her own city or village. That is why it would not be correct to paint everything as communal."

As Gupta said, as long as the group is not meant to curb or control women’s freedom of expression and choices, the nomenclature error can probably be ignored?

Students of Shakespeare may disagree.

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