The manifesto presented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the wake of the Uttar Pradesh elections is a masterstroke of euphemism.
While the document invokes several social issues, some of which may be seen as feeding into a covert form of communal propaganda — a ban on cow slaughter, for instance — it claims to flag such matters not with an intent of religious polarisation, but rather to uphold the right of ordinary citizens to live safely, without any threat to their person or property. In the case of cow slaughter, for instance, the BJP's expressed wish is to put an end to smuggling and killing of dairy animals.
One such agenda mentioned in the manifesto, and discussed by BJP President Amit Shah during a television interview, pertains to the institution of an anti-Romeo squad to ensure safety of women in the state.
"We have promised that BJP will form an anti-Romeo squad to save these girls," Shah told Network 18 Group Editor-in-Chief Rahul Joshi recently. "This is not communal. It is the right of every girl to study in her own city or village. That is why it would not be correct to paint everything as communal," he quickly clarified the party's proposed move.
Women's safety is Uttar Pradesh is shockingly low — and the numbers point at a worsening trend. In 2016, the National Commission of Women (NCW) identified the state as having the most number of cases of crimes against women. The NCW received about 60% of all its complaints from UP, with Ghaziabad being the city with the highest rate of complaints, averaging 50 a month. Evidently, Shah's concern for women in the state is not misplaced, though his means of going about tackling it may be so.
By its name, an anti-Romeo squad sounds like a vigilante group let out in the public domain to teach those who offend women a lesson. The Indian State's earlier experiments with vigilantism, in Bastar for example, have left many scars across the country, though their intent and purpose were different from that of the so-called anti-Romeo squad's. But fundamentally, when the State gives power to a group of people to police public behaviour, outside the jurisdiction of the law of the land, it ends up creating a Frankenstein's monster — which often ends up biting the hand that feeds it.
The answer to every sex offender is already robustly enshrined in the Indian codes of law and judiciary. The state governments need only to ensure that every misstep is reported, investigated and penalised by the police and the courts according to legal procedure. To call the paraphernalia of social justice an "anti-Romeo squad" is to not only diminish their lawful standing but also to trivialise a serious offence like sexual misconduct.
Coming from a party that institutionalised the communally insensitive term "love jihad" during its national election campaign in 2014, such promises of women's safety doesn't bode well. There's real harassment of women on the streets, workplaces and home, then there's the State's, as well as society's, meddling with the personal choices of adult men and women.
Too often, protection of women could become a smokescreen for preventing them from marrying men of their choice who belong to a different caste, religion or social strata. What UP needs is not an "anti-Romeo squad", but a more efficient and accountable law enforcement system to ensure its women can live freely, without the fear of reprisals from society or political parties.
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