05, Mar 2018 | Sushmita
Romeo, a Shakespearean character was the protagonist of the tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Montague’s son, he secretly loved Juliet. Forced into exile after killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in a dramatic twist and turn of events, Romeo commits suicide on hearing about Juliet’s false death. Romeo had realized the full extent of killing Tybalt only after his death and uttered, “O I am fortune’s fool!” Till today, this play is remembered for the love between Romeo and Juliet and lovers across the world, swear by their name. Turns out, many ‘Romeos’ in the state of Uttar Pradesh have been turned into ‘fortune’s fools’ by Yogi Adityanath led BJP government.
Formed under the pretext of curbing crimes against women, the ‘Anti-Romeo squad’ has made an explicit and symbolic, as well as a structural case against love. Though renamed ‘Nari-Surakasha Dal’, their intention was revealed explicitly when it was named the Anti-Romeo squad in the first place!
Reportedly, an anti-Romeo squad consists of a police sub-inspector with at least two constables, including a woman. The squad then patrols universities, colleges, cinema halls, parks and other public places identified as “vulnerable” for women.
After initial news reports about how the supposed squad had unleashed a reign of terror among consenting couples, with on-the-spot punishment criteria and harassment of young men and women, there was a perceptible drop in news stories that brought ‘negative publicity’ to the squad. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the squads have amde any efforts to rein in their own questionable behaviour.
Further, the ‘anti-Romeo squads’, during this period, issued warnings to at least 9.33 lakh people and “inspected” over 21 lakh individuals in almost eight lakh visits.
Merely 3 months (May, 2017 report) after its ‘formation’, the ‘anti-Romeo squad’ had already questioned 7.42 lakh people and issued a warning to as many as 3.38 lakhs.
In May, 2017 the UP police had claimed that between March 22 and May 28, they conducted flying checks in more than 2 lakh places including bus stations, schools, colleges and markets; 538 cases were registered and legal action was initiated against these people.
Poll Manifesto, a Rule-book for Law Enforcement?
The BJP promised to form ‘anti-Romeo Dals (or squads) near colleges to “ensure safety of college going girls” and “check eve-teasing” in the same breath as it mentioned Ram temple, triple talaq and Kairana “exodus” making it clear that issues of gender violence will now be used as a cover up for terror, starkly communal in nature, to be unleashed in a manner similar to Love-Jihad.
Within days of occupying seats of power, Yogi Adityanath issued instructions to UP police to implement this, unleashing a total and unchecked assault on consenting couples who dared to meet in public.
However, soon after starting this, the said squad got a free hand and total support of a government, that was anyway on the lookout to harass its common citizens and indulged in a lot of excesses such as innovative methods of punishment. Couples were randomly picked up and men were tarred, forced to do sit-ups, murga punishments -squatting and holding their ears—or tonsured.
As criticism started emerging, reports emerged trying to do an image makeover of the squad.
Identifying a ‘Romeo’
Ever since BJP pitched the idea of ‘anti-Romeo squads’ in its manifesto, the term Romeo has not been clearly defined. Different police personnel expressed their confusion over the term, while some claim that they can identify a ‘Romeo’ merely by looking at them! In a textbook case of a Bollywood hangover, policemen in Meerut told the newspaper Times of India that they can identify a ‘Romeo’ “by the look in their eyes, their face and the way they stand.” One doesn’t expect such statements from law enforcement professionals. In yet another case, a cop who targeted a man in Meerut waiting outside a girl’s hostel, reportedly believed, “A boy and girl can never be friends.” It appears that even as police are failing in controlling the rise of crimes in UP, their chosen strategy to improve the situation hinged heavily on Bollywood drama.
Need to reclaim Women’s Agency
To fulfill the objectives of the squad, which were basically to terrorize consenting couples so that they dare not fall in love and break caste, and more importantly, religious barriers in a state ruled by a Hindutva leader who is (in)famous for his multiple, hate-filled, derogatory and patronizing statements against both women and religious minorities, especially Muslims, the agency of adult women was severely compromised. Not only these women, but also managers of various public parks in Uttar Pradesh reported how it had become hard for many couples to meet each other in public.
Despite this, many women still risk meeting their friends and partners outside, in public places. The important question is why do women indulge in such ‘transgressions’? The answer lies in the question itself. Indian women are increasingly realizing the feudal, patriarchal structures of families guided by Hindu customs of purity and protection. They are increasingly on the lookout for a way out from rigid family structures, tightened even further by the caste system. Romantic relationships are essentially political relationships which defy the norms and structures of society. With the advent of globalization, the sites of contestations of these relationships have increasingly shifted to small towns and cities in states such as Kerala, West Bengal, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. It is only right that these relationships give waking nightmares to the guardians of Hindutva ideology, who forever want to keep the women clutched within the four walls of the ‘home’ and encourage them to become responsible ‘home-makers’. It is in these areas that the anti ‘Love Jihad’ and ‘anti-Romeo squads’ thrive.
What is interesting to note here is the fact that as the BJP leaders were campaigning for UP Assembly elections, they said that some of the anti-romeo squads will be set up to prevent instances of so-called ‘Love Jihad’. Yogi Adityanath also made combating ‘Love Jihad’ a main issue in his election campaign.
Newspapers reported that these were mostly militant Hindutva groups, supported by the BJP who started joining the Anti-Romeo squads. Once ‘anti-Romeo’ squads took off, Hindutva Yuva Vahini (HYV) men (a radical Hindutva outfit founded by Yogi Adityanath in 2002 and accused of instigating communal tensions in eastern UP) started their own patrolling outside universities and colleges.
Attempts at an Image Makeover
On careful observation, one can notice that after the initial subsequent reports of the ‘Anti-Romeo Squads’ unleashing a reign of terror on consenting couples, such reports dwindled in number as months have passed. Though there is no hint of reduction in the number of crimes against women (as expected!). Nor is there any evidence of reduction in the cases of questioning taken up by this squad.
In fact reports emerged highlighting how the Squads have become suave these days with training in which Rs. 20,000 a day was spent on the squad members presumably for “anger management, transaction analysis and emotional intelligence” by management gurus from IIM!
Instead of training them in anger management, their existence in itself is questionable. Why is a full-fledged police force incapable of enforcing laws related to gender based violence? Where were the lapses in the implementation of these laws?
The move to create anti-Romeo squads did not have any mechanism to bring any sort of accountability. The squads were randomly catching people, slapping, hitting, harassing, punishing them without even a trial!
Some points worth pondering
How were the members of ARS able to determine, merely by looking at men that they were the miscreants as well as their culpability in some supposed incidents, yet to take place? In a toxic alliance of patriarchy, state and Hindutva, women’s agency was compromised further, with no real relief to the women in the state. Incidents of suicides of women after reported incidents of sexual harassment were also commonly heard of, indicating the hostile and unsupportive relationships that they shared with their ‘natural’ families. Moreover what gave the guardians of militant Hindutva ideology the authority to determine the fate of these women? Can crimes against women be controlled by such vigilante groups, who without taking any course of law have decided to become the deliverers of justice apart from the enforcers of law? How were the squads determining that the college premises were the sites of molestation? Is the police that comprised the squad, really unable to distinguish between a molester and a person in consenting couplehood? Can a political party’s poll promise become the state’s license to gate-keeping and moral policing? These are some very important questions we must ask before other states follow the lead of the regressive policies of the UP government. States like Haryana, known for their feudal-patriarchal socio-political nature are already following suit.