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INDIA: Anti-Romeo Squads will arrest rule of law

INDIA: Anti-Romeo Squads will arrest rule of law, not sexual violence

by Avinash Pandey

First, the facts. Yes, crimes against women are a major problem in Uttar Pradesh. As per the data of the National Crime Records Bureau, the state has the dubious distinction of being the most unsafe Indian state for women in 2015 despite losing ‘top rank’ in number of rapes reported, to Madhya Pradesh, followed by Maharashtra. Further, the state lost ‘top rank’ in reported cases of ‘Assault on Women with Intent to Outrage her Modesty’ to Maharashtra (11,713 cases) and Madhya Pradesh (8,049 cases), standing distant third (7,885 cases).

Crimes against women are a reality of Uttar Pradesh. Just like in many other parts of India, but more commonly so, sexually harassing women in public spaces is a constant. It is a reality that many men, convinced of their impunity, make lewd comments on women and leave no chance of groping and molesting them go waste. It is also a sad truth that the situation gets worse in crowded spaces in general and in proximity to ones that should be safer for women, women only colleges, in particular. Such men tend to stand at the gates and the passages leading there for a chance to harass the women.

It is in this context that the decision of the new Bhartiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh to deliver on an electoral promise, a rarity in our times, and form an 'Anti-Romeo Squad' in every police station to combat sexual harassment of women in public places seems to be a pleasant surprise. Dig deeper and the dreams of a safer Uttar Pradesh for women are again dashed.

The problem is that the Anti-Romeo Squads, ironically named after someone known for love and not sexual violence, may only slightly improve the situation at best, but in doing so will usher considerable hardships for young adults who get together with mutual consent. At worst, it is doomed to end in the adding of another avenue of moral policing armed with state power, making public spaces even more unsafe for women by curtailing their freedom.

Crimes against women are neither limited to either sexual harassment in public spaces nor can they be stopped by some cosmetic measures. Stopping them would require overhauling the overall law and order situation that gives criminals courage to flout the law and harass women and commit other crimes. It would require putting up a policing system in place that responds to every single distress call of women getting harassed in public or private and taking stringent action against the harasser.

It would require making police stations women friendly and making them confident enough to complain of stalking – a distant dream in a state where even ordinary men shiver at the thought of entering these spaces. It would require a gender sensitised police that listens to complaints seriously, ending the current practice of asking the complainant, for example, why did you go out so late that evening?

Does the state have any of this in place? No. Uttar Pradesh did lose to Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in number of reported rape cases, but it did rank ‘first’ in cases of custodial rape, with a staggering 91 out of a total of 95, i.e. 95.79 percent, of all custodial rape cases in country in 2015 being registered in the state. Add to this, four of them were cases of gang rape, involving not one rogue cop but many in the police station. Can one trust a police with such a record to protect women and not harass them even more in the name of Anti-Romeo operations? Has there been any screening, any psychological assessment, to keep such perverts and criminals in uniform out of the squads?

And, this is not the only problem with the idea of Anti-Romeo Squads. It also opens the floodgates of State support to vigilantism by self-designated custodians of society. India has seen no dearth of such vigilantes. Yogi Adityanath, the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, has led Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) one such vigilante group of his own for decades. The HYV has always indulged in similar exercises from harassment, and often even resorting to physical assault of couples on Valentine’s Day, for flouting “Indian Culture”. There is nothing to believe that such groups will not join the Anti-Romeo Brigades and indulge in similar violence, albeit with State support. In fact, media reports suggest that this has already started happening.

Allowing this compromises a basic tenet of the rule of law – granting the state complete and absolute monopoly over the legitimate use of coercive force, or violence, with due process of law. Use of violence by any other group is essentially lawless and any government that supports such violence flouts the rule of law.

This is exactly what the Supreme Court of India has said in its verdict in the Nandini Sundar & Ors vs State of Chattisgarh (Writ Petition (Civil) NO. 250 of 2007) case, while declaring Salwa Judum, a State appointed vigilante group, unconstitutional, and ordering that it be disbanded. Further, the Court did not limit its order to Salwa Judum. It ordered that the State cannot allow any such group to operate that "… in any manner or form seeks to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person."

So what is the way out, if any? There is a simple one. Only way through which crimes against women can be curbed is the strengthening the policing system and making it people friendly. It begins with making beat policing functional and responsive. Neither any sexual harasser nor the hotspots for harassment can escape the eyes of the beat constable frequenting his or her area. Such cops should be sensitised to take the matter seriously and intervene. They should be trained not to harass women and not to ask them what they were doing at the place no matter what time of the day it was.

This should then lead to encouraging women to report any sexual harassment, including in private spaces like homes and not keep them limited to public spaces, to police, and the taking of immediate and stringent action. This should, also include respecting the rights of consenting adults to be together without harassment even if against the wishes of their family. This solution will have nothing to do with moral policing and reporting ‘wayward’ ways of sons and daughters to their parents.

In its current form, the Anti Romeo Brigade is not going to achieve any of that. Alas, they seem to be poised to make life even more miserable for the women they are supposed to protect.

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