Rise in menace of anti-Romeo squads

Such crew had worked for years in the BJP-ruled Gujarat, where it failed miserably following massive resistance and disenchantment of people, writes MY Siddiqui

Anti-Romeo squads, formed soon after the current NDA Government in Uttar Pradesh took over in March 2017, ostensibly to protect the honour of women, has come to be viewed as a big nuisance verging on state terror to police the moral standards of the country’s youth. It comes on the heels of such squads having worked for years in the BJP ruled Gujarat, where it failed miserably following massive resistance and disenchantment of people.

The state government, rather than sort out myriad problems facing the state, is stretching the police force to protect dignity of women to deflect from the basic issues confronting the people.

Anti-Romeo squads, intended to protect women from stalkers and eve-teasers, comprise police, both men and women, in plain clothes and deployed at public places like schools, colleges, shopping malls, markets, parks, cinema halls and bus stands. The squads have been provided with ward-robe mounted cameras to ensure no one slips from police net.

In 2017 alone, anti-Romeo squads in U.P. questioned 21,37,520 people for keeping out with girls, indicating how far moral policing has gone in today’s India. Worse, it turns out that of those questioned, 9,33,099 were warned and , 1, 706 FIRs lodged against 3,003 persons. These happened in less than nine months following NDA Government’s inauguration in the state.

According to official figures from the state government, anti-Romeo squads checked 34,49,646 persons from March 2017 to July end, 2018. Besides, 2481 FIRs were issued and action taken against 4329 persons. Altogether, 15,69,145 persons were let off with warnings to be careful in future. Squads also checked 12,616,18 public places.

On an average, seven FIRs were lodged and 2,410 persons warned daily by the squads. Guidelines for the squads provide that youth provoking others to join activities aimed at troubling women are provided with counseling. Each anti-Romeo squad comprises one sub-inspector and two constables. It includes women as well. All police stations maintain separate records of crimes against women with weekly review to check such crimes and progress achieved.

Anti-Romeo squads are viewed with skepticism by women activists as assaults on their personal liberty and individual honour. In their opinion, there are enough women centric laws, which if implemented properly, can bring down crimes against women. They maintain that effective implementation of women empowerment laws and sensitive policing could be sufficient to assure women of their safety and deter men from harassing them. Besides, anti-Romeo squads’ action has shrunk public spaces for women and couple.

Performances of anti-Romeo squads, so far, have revealed that Uttar Pradesh has not become any safer for women under the current state government. On the contrary, crimes against women have gone up manifold with worsening law and order. A bad idea from the start, the squad has become notorious for striking terror. People complain of a feeling of state terror among youths as they are harassed, tortured, made to shave their heads and do sit-up for eve-teasing. Trigger happy squads also extort the youths.

Anti-Romeo squads, perceived to legitimize moral policing, amounts to giving state the right to stop man from talking to woman or go for a movie. Women activists have called for disbanding the ant-Romeo squads immediately as it is encouraged by a state which reneges on its Constitutional duty to maintain law and order. It attacks personal liberty and privacy of citizens and the government of the day must be held accountable for assaulting the dignity of the people targeted by the squads and compensate the harassed persons adequately acknowledging that their fundamental rights, guaranteed by the Constitution of India, have been violated.

Allahabad High Court judgment legitimising civilian action if it were to protect women, has further encouraged vigilantism and moral policing. If only the High Court could have directed the state government to present a grievance redressal mechanism both for instances of sexual harassment of women and excesses committed by the preventive mechanism, known as anti-Romeo squads, the commitment of the state towards ending violence against women and not encroaching upon people’s privacy and personal liberty would have been established. It also dilutes the primary role of police to maintain law and order, peace and social harmony and intervene when there is a breach.

The Constitution is the only bedrock of true Indianness engraved therein. We must cherish the freedoms postulated by the Constitution. It is time the country men and women resisted the pernicious menace of the anti-Romeo squads!