Anti-Romeo Squads Are An Attack On Women’s Safety

A cursory reading of the state-wise data released last year by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) will reveal that not only does Uttar Pradesh lead national crime statistics in most categories of crime, but that its disposal rates are inversely proportional to given crime rates. This is revealing for the incidence of crime, the framing of charges, and rates of conviction, thus telling us something about the rates of crime as they occur in society, the nature of policing, and the effectiveness of the judiciary in the state. In fact, the state is now appropriately led by Yogi Adityanath, who has no less than 18 charges against him, including criminal intimidation, defiling of places of worship, possession of arms and rioting, and even attempt to murder.

This dire data is relevant in the context of the deployment of large sections of the police force in the state for combating something that is not a crime, not a law and order issue, but, really just young people spending time with each other. This is being done in the name of curbing sexual harassment. It might be noted that Uttar Pradesh ranks high in several of the sub-categorisations of crimes against women, and highest, it might be mentioned, in the instance of custodial rape. And these are registered cases that appear in national and state records.

As promised by Yogi Adityanath during his election campaign, anti-Romeo squads have been instituted in the state, and they are patrolling educational institutions, markets, malls, parks, and other public spaces. The claim is that this is a measure to curb ‘eve-teasing’ and harassment of women. The CM has said that his instructions to the police are that they are to apprehend and question men loitering around public spaces, not harass friends chatting with each other. As reported by several media sources, through video documentation, reality unfolding on the ground is that it is precisely young people, friends, couples who are being harassed for peacefully inhabiting public spaces. And these instances of the harassment of couples are being reported from all corners of the state. This is irrespective of whether the concerned squad has men and women police officers or whether they are all-women squads. This is not a case of the ‘difficulties of implementation’, especially if read in the context of, first, the major planks used by the BJP during its election campaign in the state and, second, the nature of crimes against women.

There is no constitutional validity for this mechanism of surveillance – it is not backed by any legislation, and violates the freedom of assembly and freedom of movement guaranteed to Indian citizens by the Constitution of India under Article 19. There are myriad implications to the deployment of the police force on a massive scale for the violation of constitutional rights. First, if we read this against the plank of ‘love Jihad’ as used repeatedly during the BJP’s campaign in the state, it becomes clear that the Anti-Romeo squads are a tool to police young people, especially young women, and unfolds also as a method to target young Muslim men: this is because the rhetoric of ‘love Jihad’ has been used solely to target Hindu-Muslim couples in consensual relationships. Yogi Adityanath’s private militia, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, has gone on record and claimed that it is participating in these measures by staking out public places. We also need to see this in the light of the institutional responses from principals of various colleges in the state, who have argued that ‘having boyfriends’ is against Indian culture. This means that the principals are in fact correctly, though inadvertently, reading the aims of these squads as being those of policing women’s sexuality, their freedom of movement and access to public spaces. Some of the methods used by these squads are administering on the spot lecturettes on morality to young people found in parks and public spaces, forcing them to reveal their identity, as well as contacting their parents. It is important to note these methods, because it is now well known that a large proportion of violence against women, from physical and other forms of violence to moral policing, occurs within the family and at the workplace. These Anti-Romeo squads have been appointed to police women by sending women back into their homes. Instead of striving for safe and accessible public spaces for women, these squads are in fact going to render women unfree, and unsafe in public.

Fighting violence against women requires sensitization of the police force, the public, and the stringent implementation of legal measures to prevent and address harassment at the workplace. Instead, the police is allowed to unleash its power on young people who have committed no crime. Gujarat, a state where these squads were instituted earlier, has shown no change in rates of crimes against women, and the state is no safer for women despite these squads. This is telling for two reasons – not only are these squads a representation of the deeper misogyny with a communal axis now supported by the state, but also that they are a measure for deeper communal and gender polarization of society.

When on the one hand the progressive women’s movement in India has fought for radical legal reform in order to address the question of violence against women, the state under the BJP at the centre and in Uttar Pradesh is using its power for the violation of constitutional rights, and for a greater communal polarization of society. Its long term effects will be seen in the greater control of families and workplaces over women and their freedom, the increased vicitimisation of other minorities, be it young muslims – both men and women, those without access to secure private spaces, and sexual minorities. In a country where we are witnessing the virtual epidemic of violence against women’s choice of partners, where honour killing is the new normal, using moral policing, which is a form of violence to ostensibly fight another is regressive. It must also be noted that not only are these squads unconstitutional, but that they are a part of a slew of measures that violate other freedoms guaranteed to Indian citizens. This gives us a glimpse of a highly surveilled society, and a long term curbing of fundamental rights – in essence, an important marker of totalitarian/fascist governments.