I'm relieved for poor Romeo. Much maligned for no reason, his name will finally go from one of the most atrocious public schemes Yogi Adityanath's government in Uttar Pradesh has launched, since it came to power a few weeks ago. Instead of anti-Romeo squads the state will now have Nari Surakhsa Bal protecting the "honour" of its women.
In the first few weeks it was unleashed on the citizens, these custodians of women's safety acted like vigilante groups with a perverse fondness for moral policing. Young men were rounded up in cities across the state for no bigger crime than "loitering" on the streets, waiting in public places, and travelling with a woman (who could be their sibling, cousin, girlfriend or wife) in a vehicle. Members of the squad claimed they could tell the intentions of any man by just looking into their eyes. It was one of those rare moments when Bollywood scriptwriters must have swelled with pride, having directly contributed to the making of public policy.
Penalties included corporal punishment, sit-ups, blackmail, threats to call up families and reporting back on their activities. It was the perfect recipe for disaster in a country already rife with sexual crime and repression, where men and women are reprimanded for being friends with one another and the term "honour killing" is as used routinely among polite society.
It wasn't long before the government admitted there were problems in the do-as-you-please system of moral policing that the anti-Romeo squad was indulging in. It promised gender sensitisation of its forces, rapped them on the knuckles for exceeding their brief, instructed them not to bother men and women out in public by mutual consent. But it didn't ask the most crucial question on many people's minds: why should such a separate unit exist for women's safety when the entire police force, entrusted with maintaining the law and order, should be doing this duty already?
The recent attempt to change the profile of the squad involves giving it a new name, one that promises to have a force that "protects" women. At the risk of quibbling, it bears pointing out that the new emphasis on the need to "protect" women is not the best place to start thinking of women's safety. Also, as the Bard, no less, famously said, in that very play which inspired the name of the anti-Romeo squad, you can call a rose by any other name etc.
Crime rates in Uttar Pradesh are already appallingly high, especially against women, but the conclusion to be drawn from the statistics has nothing to do with the obnoxious term "the weaker sex". If anything, it is merely an indicator of the colossal failure of policing in the state, which has lead to such anarchy and lack of accountability.
Until the prevalent mindset of perceiving women as weak, vulnerable, and being the receptacles of their family's "honour" changes, no amount of hectoring from any force will effect any positive change in Uttar Pradesh. Above all, the right of women to be a free agent, having the autonomy to decide on a choice of their male companions, must be sacrosanct, not subjected to the whims of one of the arms of the state.
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