Is it an opportunity for UP’s police to redeem itself? Or will it let moral policing go on a rampage?

Posted By Anand Vardhan |

It’s not unusual to differ with your siblings, even when it’s in the world of publications as it turned out. Just look at Hindustan, the sister publication of the English daily, The Hindustan Times. Out of sync with its English counterpart’s apprehensions about anti-Romeo squads in Uttar Pradesh, Hindustan reported that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) poll promise of having a force dedicated to check harassment and stalking of women resonated very well with voters in western Uttar Pradesh. Hindustan even identified it as one of the reasons for party’s electoral success in the region. Assessing the positive response to the idea of anti-Romeo squads in terms of the scale of the problem which often leads to communal flare ups, the paper said: “Eve teasing of girl students is a daily occurrence.  Girls are too frightened to protest or to file police complaints. When offenders belonging to a particular community are arrested, it often leads to situation of communal tension”.

Such endorsement of a full-time team to keep an eye on harassment shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Last month The Quint did an exclusive report on UP’s Bijnor district, probing how sexual harassment of girl students had contributed to the school drop-out rate of girls. The report was in wake of a violent clash that took place in September 2016, in Bijnor when an incident took a communal turn and claimed four lives. Reporting from UP just before the assembly elections, journalist Barkha Dutt had talked to a group of girl students in Lucknow University about the promised squad. The answers had ranged from welcoming it as a positive initiative to seeing shades of anti-love jihad monitoring in it. Recognising it as a measure that would help girls from all communities, one student said, “I don’t see it as a religious issue or related to love jihad. At least an initiative has been taken, these people’s duty is to take care of these crimes”. Meanwhile, ‘love jihad’ as a threat and the need for concerted action against it remain contested ideas – opinion and evidence are split, supporting rival claims of both sceptics and alarmists.

In contrast, concerns about moral policing have figured in most reports and commentary on anti-Romeo squads in English media. The Times of India reported how the squad could easily morph into moral police hauling up innocent young men and courting couples. It raised the bogey of the return of the botched up ‘Operation Majnu’ drive of 2005. The Indian Express made its unease known in a report with the headline, “BJP’s anti- Romeo poll promise turns harsh reality.” The paper in an edit attacked the idea and its strapline posed the question, “Police squads checking on couples violate citizens’ rights and dignity. Is this the New India PM spoke of after UP triumph?” Before slamming the idea of the squad in its edit on March 23, The Hindustan Times had carried KumKum Dasgupta’s piece last month in which she dubbed the electoral promise of such a squad as “dim-witted”. The paper also had a  report on how a similar squad in Gujarat, though in an ad hoc and less organised form, had only modest success in curbing harassment.

Reacting to  BJP president Amit Shah’s announcement of the formation of anti-Romeo squads as a part of BJP’s election manifesto, Kritika Banerjee listed out three reasons on India Today for it being a bad idea. Her reasoning was predictable – the threat of it being used for moral policing, “love jihad redux” and semantic quibbling over the choice of the Shakespearean character Romeo to target.

Aware of the fact that escalated vigilance against harassment or its potential perpetrators could be perceived as moral policing, Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, Javeed Ahmad tweeted to allay such fears.

Safety of girls/ladies is the sole intent of the anti Romeo squads. No moral policing.

Unlike most commentators in English media space, Somya Khera was willing to appreciate the need for such measures and sought a fair chance for it to succeed. In her piece for The Financial Express, she cited the following reasons: statistical figures show an average of six rapes and 15 molestation cases daily, mental trauma of harassed girls, unsafe travel that women have to deal with, and offenders cutting across educational, economic, locational and religious sections.

Perhaps it’s this line of argument which has found more favour in Hindi dailies. The tone of their headlines approve of the squad and the reports suggest its impact on troublemakers. Dainik Jagran  reported its deterrent and punitive effect on harassment around women’s colleges and schools in Lucknow (“Lucknow mein anti-Romeo dal ka manchalo par sikanja, fabtiyan kasna para mahanga”, Anti- Romeo squad tightens noose on eve teasers, passing lewd remarks proves costly, March 22). Amar Ujala also reported the impact of the measures on curbing the menace (“Yogi Raj mein shohodon ki ghatiya khari”, Eve-teasers face the music in Yogi rule, March 22). In another report filed from Ghaziabad, the paper says, “13 manchalo par gira anti-Romeo squad ka kahar, Yogi Sarkar ne poora kiya wada” (Anti-Romeo squad nabs 13 eve-teasers, Yogi government fulfills its promise, March 22). The paper has also conducted an online poll to show how its readers view anti-Romeo squad. As many as 81 per cent of the people who voted are hopeful that this move would curb harassment of women.

In a report filed from Banda, Patrika has reported intense patrolling for catching those who harass women and the impact it has had on frightening the troublemakers. Dainik Bhaskar has profiled Charu Nigam, the lady police officer who is part of the team supervising anti-Romeo squads (“Anti- Romeo squad ki leader hain ye IPS adhikari”, This IPS officer leads anti-Romeo squads, March 23). However, the paper in its editorial comment (“Hindutva ke agendein se Yogi ke mathh mein kaid hota Uttar Pradesh, Hindutva agenda making Uttar Pradesh captive of Yogi’s religious trust, March 23)  broke ranks with the Hindi press in raising questions about the modus operandi and consequences of such policing as well as the reasoning behind crackdown on slaughterhouses. It shares, as an exception, some of the concerns shown by English papers about moral policing. Still, like Hindustan’s edit, Dainik Jagran views (“Janmat ka Samman”, Respecting the mandate, March 23) such measures as acts of honouring the decisive electoral mandate and respecting people’s approval of these proposals in BJP’s manifesto.

The concerns raised about the possible misuse of the tough measures suggests a thing or two about the low credibility of law enforcement in India, or rather the lack of it. If nothing else, the police force could see this as an opportunity to redeem itself and ensure women feel safe in UP.