The Allahabad High Court on 30 March 2017 declared that Anti-Romeo Squads are legal and they are here to stay. The verdict was given by the Court while quashing a Public Interest Litigation that challenged the legality of Anti-Romeo Squads of the Uttar Pradesh Police Department.
What are Anti-Romeo Squads?
• By delivering on its poll promise, the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP Government issued an order on 23 March 2017 regarding the formation of Anti-Romeo Squads.
• Anti-Romeo Squads are special teams to make public places safe and secure for girls and women.
• These squads consist of police personnel, majorly women constables, and are deployed in chowks, market places, malls and parks in plain clothes.
Major Debate: Lawful Policing or Moral Policing?
Though the idea behind the formation of Anti-Romeo Squads is to improve the security of women by keeping an eye on stalkers, the practise has been branded as “Moral Policing” and attracted criticism from certain sections of the society.
Major issues related to the functioning of Anti-Romeo Squads are -
• Lack of Operational Guidelines: It has been argued that the concerned G.O. and the operational guidelines have not defined the term “Romeo”. Hence, the squads are prone to misuse their authority due to the opaqueness and, as a result, ‘may’ book innocents.
• Issue of Spot Punishments: Though the communication from the DGP of the State explicitly barred lower-level personnel from resorting to spot punishments like tonsure, blackening faces, sit ups and “murga pose”, occurrence of such incidents (as visible on social media platforms) led to the questioning of the legitimacy of Anti-Romeo Squads.
• Violation of Fundamental Rights: This is the major criticism against the Anti-Romeo Squads. Critics argue that the activities of these squads are against the right of freedom of movement and expression of lawful youth couples, which are guaranteed by the Constitution.
• Why the word ‘Romeo’?: Few critics contend that the usage of the word ‘Romeo’ is itself objectionable. The usage of this word confuses the efficacy of the squad as ‘Romeo’ denotes a romantic character in the William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet, while stalkers are psychopaths.
Following statistics give a glimpse of the pathetic situation of women in the country.
• In India, one woman gets raped every 22 minutes and one child gets raped in every 76 minutes. And, only one in every four accused in the crime gets convicted.
• In Delhi alone, one rape case is reported per every four hours, which ‘compels’ us to call the city as the rape capital of the country.
• As per the data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, as many as 2.24 million crimes against women were reported over the past decade.
• In Uttar Pradesh alone, crime against women went up by 61% in the last 5 years. The State also witnessed 1,012 rape cases in the last 5 years. And, in 2014 alone, 1085 acid attacks were registered.
Anti-Romeo Squads: The need of the Hour
There is no disagreement on the fact that every eve teaser is a potential rapist. Hence, to have a deterrent effect, stalking should be curtailed and the culprits should be awarded stringent punishment.
In the last few years, the harassment of girls and women in public places has gone up resulting in an increase in dropouts from schools and colleges.
For instance, sexual harassment of a 10-year old girl in the Meerganj Tehsil of the Bareilly District forced 60 girls to drop out of school. Similarly, sexual harassment of women at workplaces led to decrease in their labor participation rate.
Anti-Romeo Squads: Apprehensions
Though shadow surveillance or open surveillance of stalkers by the police personnel is considered as a legitimate act, the following issues related to the working of these squads have led to some apprehensions like -
• Growing presence of Fringe Groups: It has also been alleged that fringe groups are accompanying these squads and are resorting to “pro-active measures” by taking the law into their hands.
• Shrinking space for the Youth: The financial empowerment at a younger age, coupled with the spread of liberal values, enabling the modern youth to choose the partner of one’s choice through non-traditional methods and in unconventional ways. These developments are sometimes reflected in instances of public display of affection (PDA), which may sometimes be construed as “stalking” by these squads.
• Becoming of a Police State: Some critics argue that the functions entrusted to Anti-Romeo Squads are purely moral in nature. And, by the formation of these squads, the distinction between morality and law was not maintained. However, in a vibrant democracy like India, this proposition of ‘becoming of a police state’ is an outcome of a farfetched hypothesis and is not substantiated.
Legal Provisions related to Protection of Women
• Article 19 (1) (a): All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression
• Article 19 (1) (b): All citizens shall have the right to assemble peacefully and without arms
• Article 51A (e) of DPSP: It vouches for renouncing practices derogatory to the dignity of women
Indian Penal Code
• Section 294: It prescribes up to three months of punishment for indulging in obscene acts in public places.
• Section 354 A-D: These sections provide for punishment for indulging in assault or use of criminal force to woman with intent to disrobe, sexual harassment and stalking. More importantly, all the offenses under these sections are cognizable.
• Section 509: This section provides punishment for indulging in ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman.’
Besides, the Section 149 of the Criminal Procedure Code and the Sections 12, 23 and 34 of the Police Act, 1861 are also aimed at protecting women from harassment.
Similar practises in other States
• Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 1998 was enacted by the Tamil Nadu Government to provide for stringent punishments to stalkers.
• In 2013, the Goa Legislative Assembly enacted the Rights of Citizens to Time-Bound Delivery of Public Services Act to prevent any kind of harassment and eve-teasing.
• In October 2014, the Government of Telangana started SHE teams to curb eve-teasing and harassment of women in public places.
• Just like the Anti-Romeo Squads, all the members of SHE teams will be in civilian dress and carry the unidentifiable cameras with them to record what they will be produced for future evidence.
What is the way forward?
Initiatives like Anti-Romoeo Squad are not new in Uttar Pradesh. Way back in 2005, “Operation Majnu” was launched by the State Government to check eve-teasing. However, the experiment failed and was abandoned in view of the alleged ‘excesses’ of some of the lower-level police personnel.
In view of this, following precautionary measures should be taken for the effective functioning of Anti-Romeo Squads.
• The law and rules should clearly define the term ‘Romeo’
• Police personnel should be given adequate training in issues related to eve-teasing and stalking
• Technology should be used to improve the transparency in the functioning of teams
• A high-level committee should be formed in the Chief Minister’s Office to oversee the functioning of squads. This measure is expected to build the confidence of citizens in the functioning of squads.
Decades ago, the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi said - “The day a woman can walk freely on the roads at night, that day we can say that India has achieved independence.” Unfortunately, even after nearly seven decades of independence, we as a society failed to provide a safe and secure environment for women in public, private and digital space.
Hence, in order to remedy this desperate situation, it is high time the government should initiate more such pro-active measures to make our streets safe and secure for girls and women.
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