The so-called "anti-Romeo" squads meant to curb instances of sexual harassment of girls in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh have morphed into vigilante gangs attacking innocent civilians. Murali Krishnan reports.
Manish Pandey, 23, is still terrified by the torrid experience he faced when a group of policemen and vigilantes hauled him up when he was sitting with his girlfriend in a park in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh's capital.
"Without any warning, the police just swooped down. They were with a group of plainclothes people and started interrogating me. One person even slapped me. After 30 minutes, they let us go. But not before subjecting us to taunts and warnings," Pandey told DW.
Pandey has been telling his friends about the squads and urging them to be careful. The harassment continues.
Not too far away, in Ambedkar Park in Greater Noida, a suburb of Delhi, Prithivi Jain, a software engineer, was meeting up with his girlfriend, Ragini, on a languid Sunday last week. But within an hour, a posse of policemen accompanied by some vigilantes began pummeling him in full view of the park.
"A policeman hit me… told me that I should have a better life and I was subject to humiliation. Luckily, they did not do anything to my girlfriend whom I am marrying soon," Jain told DW.
The squads normally consist of police personnel stationed outside schools and colleges, and they pick up young boys if they suspect them as "Romeos" - men who are sexually harassing women (known as "eve-teasing" in India).
This has been a disturbing trend in Uttar Pradesh ever since Yogi Adityanath took over as the state's chief minister last month.
The formation of these squads "to protect the honor of women" was one of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) electoral promises.
Since the BJP scored a stunning victory recently in this politically crucial state, special police teams and vigilantes have caused a stir across the country with the release of video footages showcasing innocent men and couples being subjected to harsh treatment instead of actually cracking down on those who stalk and molest women.
To date, a total of 1,400 officers have been deployed to anti-harassment squads across the state. Each squad includes three uniformed officers and a female officer in plain clothes. They patrol in cars and on foot, targeting areas where they get most complaints about harassment.
"This is nothing but sheer harassment and creating a rift between Hindu and Muslim couples. Why is it a taboo for a boy and a girl to sit together in public places?" argues Seema Misra, a lawyer from AALI, a feminist legal advocacy group.
Just last week, members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Force), a private militia founded in 2002 by 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.
"Love jihad" is a term coined by Hindutva outfits to highlight alleged role of Muslim boys and men to convert women and girls belonging to various communities to Islam under the "garb of love."
'Manifestation of patriarchy'
The groups have been emboldened since the BJP's election victory and the elevation of Yogi Adityanath to the helm of the state government.
This has caused a lot of trepidation among some sections of society, who feel the new administration would be relentless in pursuit of its conservative Hindutva ideology, a sort of religious nationalism that aims to create a Hindu homeland free from "foreign" influences.
In this context, the anti-Romeo squads are nothing but a ruse to impose restrictions on women's mobility.
"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," says Namita Bhandare, a writer on social and gender issues.
The issue has reached such a point that rights activists are protesting the actions launched by the state government.
Women's safety is a critical issue in Uttar Pradesh, a state that has been in the limelight for a number of recent gruesome crimes against young girls and women.
But stopping gender-related crime has other means, say activists, who warn that these squads could only exacerbate the problem.
"We are clear that maintaining law and order is the primary function of the state and nothing can be done contrary to law while addressing the issue of women's safety. The so-called anti-Romeo squads are being encouraged by a state which reneges on its own obligations to maintain law and order," read a statement from women's rights activists including Aruna Roy of the National Federation of Indian Women, Syeda Hameed of the Muslim Women's Forum and Indira Jaising, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist.