Anti-Romeo Squads Attack Women's Freedom

ONE of the first steps taken by Yogi Adityanath on becoming the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was to set up what the government called ‘anti-Romeo’ squads. These were teams of men especially deployed near colleges, their stated mandate being ‘protection’ of women from harassers. Members of the anti-Romeo squads are drawn, not from the ranks of the police but from the ‘general public’; at most places these include people close to the RSS outfits and at some places, even the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the violent militia founded by Adityanath. These squads lost no time in targeting men and women seen together in public, or even suspected of being together in private. Not only do these squads illegally identify, question and intimidate couples, they most frequently resort to brutal violence towards them.

There are far too many examples of couples being targeted for simply being in love. And, it is not confined to Yogi’s government in Uttar Pradesh. Not too long back, couples spending time on Kerala beaches were beaten up by members of another Hindu right-wing group which argued that being in love is against Indian culture. Recently, a dalit man in Telangana was beaten to death for being in love with an upper-caste girl. In Jharkhand, a Muslim man was beaten to death for being in love with a Hindu girl.

The dangerous fact is that such illegal violence and lynching is not only protected by the state but encouraged by it. Following in the footsteps of Uttar Pradesh, the Haryana Government has come up with ‘Operation Durga’, again for the protection of women. Many such squads are being formed in several other states. The Allahabad court, dismissed a petition against institution of anti-Romeo squads, and declared that it was just ‘preventive policing’.

Women’s movements have held that to combat sexual harassment and gender violence, the police force needs to be made accountable to women’s rights. To prevent such violence, society needs to be sensitized to recognize that women’s consent is what marks the difference between a consensual relationship and harassment/rape. Currently, this line is blurred in our society – leading to a large number of ‘rape’ and ‘harassment’ cases filed by women’s parents after their daughter consensually elopes with a man. Squads drawn from ‘society’ at large cannot be trusted to respect the difference between consensual love and sexual harassment, which is why civilian policing squads of this kind are likely to turn into moral policing.

This approach is on the one hand, typical of the response governments have had towards women’s issues – that of restricting women’s freedoms in the name of ‘protecting’ them. On the other, it also extremely dangerous for the legitimacy it gives to lynch mobs which are anti-women, anti-dalit and anti-Muslim. Governments both at the states and the Centre typically react to the need for gender equality and their constitutional obligation to providing a safe environment for women, by calling for installation of CCTVs, and running pink auto-rickshaws ‘exclusively for women.’ Rarely have feminist groups been consulted over measures to improve women’s safety. Despite having a law against sexual harassment, very little monitoring, institutional support or training is provided to ensure implementation of laws mandating complaints committees against sexual harassment in all workplaces. When cases of sexual harassment are brought to the police, there is great reluctance on the latter’s part to register cases and follow up on them. Those who have dealt with the police know only too well their misogynistic attitudes. Often it is the complainant’s behaviour which comes under scrutiny rather than that of the accused.

In the case of Uttar Pradesh, when asked how the police and anti-romeo squads intend to identify sexual harassers on the streets, their response was an incredible, ‘by the look in the men’s eyes’. What if a policeman and a member of this squad are the sexual harassers? Who is to check ‘the look in their eyes’? And, is sexual harassment only directed at young women in colleges, and are the perpetrators always young men on the streets? What about inside homes, at workplaces, in classrooms, on the sports fields, and inside police stations?

The Governments, in the name of ‘protecting’ women end up policing them, and taking away whatever freedom they did have in the first place. Women’s consensual relationships are targeted and their right to choose their relationships is taken away from them through brutal violence. This is especially the case if the men are identified as belonging to the so-called lower castes and are non-Hindus. Together with cow-protection groups, the anti-Romeo squads are just another front for targeting these vulnerable sections. The first uses the cow as a rallying symbol and the second uses women, particularly Hindu women as an excuse for communal violence. We must remember that it is the members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini and various Sanghi outfits who raised the bogey of ‘Love Jihad’ where they claimed that Muslims were trapping innocent Hindu women through promises of love and marriage, and through this were involved in the hidden agenda of converting them and increasing the Muslim population in the country. This became their justification for targeting couples in inter-religious marriages. Each and every so-called case of ‘love jihad’ however, proved to be that of consensual love.

One must not forget that those who claim to take these steps in the interests of women are the same people who have the most regressive views on women. Yogi Adityanath had opposed the Women’s Reservation Bill, in 2010. He has written that women don’t need independence, rather they need protection of a male member of their family (their father, brother or son). According to Adityanath, if women’s ‘energy’ is not channelized [read controlled] through male family members, it can go out of control. For him, it is best that women are best kept under male protection so that they can give birth to more men. Effectively, this is just what the anti-Romeo squad does. Aggressive Hindu men ‘protect’ to what they believe to be ‘their women’ [read Hindu women, therefore off limits to lower-castes and Muslims]. And, if the women choose to be with such men, they should be taught a lesson.

Many women tend to welcome measures like the ‘anti-Romeo squads,’ feeling that urgent steps were required to tackle the menace of daily and rampant sexual harassment they face. A recent survey has claimed that these squads are gaining approval among women in UP. While, it is true that sexual harassment is a routine experience for women, can one be rid of it through anti-Romeo squads? Or to rephrase the question, can we gain any relief in an atmosphere of control, fear and violence? Should we look up to Yogi Adityanath and his ilk for liberating women? If Adityanath’s views on women were not enough to convince us, here’s another incident which exposes their contempt for women: a few days ago a woman BDO officer from Mahoba region complained that BJP men barged into her bedroom abusing and threatening her. Mahendra Singh who is the Rural Development minister in Adityanath’s government responded by first denying the possibility that any BJP member could violate women and then went on to say that ‘these things happen in excitement.’

What about Adityanath’s claims that he will liberate Muslim women from triple talaq? Can we forget that he sat on a dais listening approvingly to one of his colleagues call for digging up dead and buried Muslim women and raping them? Can we forget that he has worked to free those arrested for raping Muslim women during the 2013 communal violence in Muzaffarnagar? Moreover, while triple talaq ought to be abolished, it is not the only or even the worst ill plaguing women. Among women of Hindu, Muslim and other communities, the number of abandoned wives far outstrips that of victims of triple talaq. According to the last census, there are 23 lakh separated and abandoned women in India: more than double the number of divorced women. Of these, nearly 20 lakh million are Hindu women; 2.8 lakh are Muslims, 0.9 lakh are Christians and 0.8 lakh are of other religions. Jashodaben herself is one such woman, abandoned by her husband Modi (they were married when children). The Modi or Yogi Governments’ singular focus on triple talaq is guided more by the considerations of communal politics than that of concern for women’s rights.

Moreover, so-called ‘honour’ crimes and moral policing are also a form of violence against women. Neelam Katara, mother of Nitish Katara who was killed in Uttar Pradesh by the brothers of his girlfriend in 2002, has been fighting for a law against honour crimes. Pointing out that incidents of honour crimes and attacks on inter-caste or inter-faith couples are rampant, she says, ‘Teen talaq juda karta hai bura hai par jo sang jeena chahte hain unko juda karne walon ko bhi to rook!’ (Triple talaq arbitrarily separates couples, it is bad; but please also stop those who separate couples who want to live together!).

We need to stress that Governments must combat sexual harassment by ensuring that complaints committees against sexual harassment are set up in every college, every workplace. Governments must invest in sensitization that teaches the need to respect women’s consent and choice. Moral policing can never be a substitute for such measures – rather moral policing itself makes women unsafe. Governments must also be made to ensure protection and support for inter-caste inter-faith and same-sex couples who face threats to their lives and liberty.

Liberation Archive