'Anti-Romeo squads' get busy in Uttar Pradesh

Mr Adityanath (far left), the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, with Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah (in white) in New Delhi last week. Mr Adityanath's recent policy has been criticised as moral policing.
Mr Adityanath (far left), the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, with Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah (in white) in New Delhi last week. Mr Adityanath's recent policy has been criticised as moral policing.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Cops in Indian state target hundreds of men loitering outside women's colleges and schools to prevent sexual harassment

Uttar Pradesh's new Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has ordered the deployment of hundreds of police squads targeting young men loitering outside women's colleges, schools and public spaces in a measure meant to protect women from sexual harassment.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the state had the highest number of crimes against women in 2015 with 35,527 cases, including 3,025 rape cases.

Yet the action, among the first taken by Mr Adityanath, a hardline Hindu politician, has been criticised for moral policing.

Since last Tuesday, the squads - called "anti-Romeo squads", as men who harass women on the roads are known as "roadside Romeos" in India - have detained hundreds of young men around the northern state. One newspaper put the estimate at 1,000.

Some were arrested for alleged sexual harassment, but most were let off after a warning or after they signed an apology for loitering.

In Mr Adityanath's own constituency of Gorakhpur, the police said they had detained over 50, many of them students, who could not explain why they were hanging around near women's colleges or routes taken by female students.

"We detained them for a few hours and called their guardians (parents). Some of them had told their parents they were going for coaching (tuition) and were roaming around elsewhere," Ms Charu Nigam, a senior police official in Gorakhpur, told The Sunday Times.

In Gorakhpur, so far, two squads with a total of 16 policemen have been set up.

Mr Adityanath is fulfilling an electoral promise made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to set up squads for women's safety.

The BJP scored a landslide win in Uttar Pradesh earlier this month on the back of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity, and his promise to bring development to the state of over 204 million people.

Mr Modi chose Mr Adityanath, a five-term MP and Hindu priest, known for his polarising statements against Muslims and other minorities.

He has helmed campaigns like the one against "Love Jihad", his term for Muslim men converting Hindu women through marriage.

Some couples and members of the public have complained over alleged harassment by the squads.

In one instance, Indian television showed how police swooped down on a man who was waiting outside a shop where his wife was buying personal items, and querying him on why he was not with his wife.

One father said that he received a call after his son was caught loitering. "It is not the police's job to decide where boys can stand and where they cannot. My son is 19, and is an adult. It makes no sense to call his father," he was quoted as saying by The Times of India.

On Friday, the chief minister instructed the police to stop harassing couples, and asked state officials to come up with clear guidelines.

But, women activists said that the solution to fighting crimes against women was to strengthen policing. Dr Ranjana Kumari, a women's rights activist, said: "This is a gimmick. If they start attacking couples, it is unacceptable. We are not in the 16th century where men and women can't go together or sit in a park or hold hands.

"There is no shortcut to creating a robust police system which is lacking in Uttar Pradesh. The solution is to have quick police action when rape or harassment cases occur, and that is not the case."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline ''Anti-Romeo squads' get busy in Uttar Pradesh'. Print Edition | Subscribe