Self-styled vigilantes are very cool, but only in the pages of an Allan Moore comic. Their 3-D, flesh and blood versions are anything but — they are ugly, and not just ugly, but sinister — at least in UP where they have been unleashed onto the general public in the manner of a pestilence. Armed as they are with the power of a more-powerful-then-ever government, with the blessings (perhaps even literally) of a newly-elected, uber-mighty chief minister, they are roaming the gallis and lanes and the broken roads of our nation’s heartland. We’re terming them self-styled because as policemen, they already wield a certain degree of power and now with an added mandate that is unclear at best, they’re left to their own devices. Making up the rules as they go along, they are walking about, feeling smug, important, flaunting that shiny new metaphorical badge. It reads ‘Anti-Romeo Squad’.
It holds a pride of place in the BJP manifesto, and party supremo Amit Shah had announced it himself, in a bid to give BJP an edge in the election race in a state where violence against women has been a raging issue sensationalised to no end in both local and national media. The Anti-Romeo Squad, we were all told, was conceptualised as a special team of officers whose sole duty it would be to patrol the spaces outside colleges, so that girls could “study without fear”. He spoke of the evils of “the roving eye” and predictably, peddled phrases centering around the “chastity and honour” of aforementioned girls. Now, if we were to set aside the rhetoric, ignore it as political arsenal — for the sake of argument ie — we could perhaps muster some appreciation for the intended effect. We did after all, hear out Ekta Singh, students’ union leader at Saket College, Faizabad, as she told us about all the harassment girls have faced and continue to face in the space of one day. We’re still reeling in shock at the matter-of-fact manner in which she conveyed to us the difficulties girls confront while drinking water at the cooler, how they manoeuvre their bodies to avoid having their backs accidentally being rubbed against, or pinched.
But the issue is way, way more terrifying in how it unfolds in real time — this we know, having reported on it relentlessly. A woman hiding out at her parents’ place after her husband tried to burn her because “she refuses to behave like a wife”; a less fortunate woman who died from her burns, whose children spoke of their father’s rage at her; a victim of domestic abuse who’s been boycotted by authorities and denied legal help because her man happens to be a cop; a girl of 14 brutally raped and flung into a deep-as-hell stone quarry, whose positive identification was a crucial problem; another girl, a baby at barely six, someone found at their doorstep one morning, mangled and covered in blood. From across Bundelkhand, to Jhansi, Mahoba, Chitrakoot, Faizabad and Banda, these stories come to us and plug into an endless cycle of social disease, one mired in patriarchy, nurtured in violence. This is the reality of the issue — a hideous multi-headed offspring born of the ill-fated union between absolute power and severe lack of. Like the fabled hydra, it grows more heads even if you do cut one.
So what, we ask, can an Anti-Romeo Squad, hope to achieve in a scenario like this? The name itself seems a joke, inviting a few winks, nudges, a few good laughs along the lines of those hajaar WhatsApp chutkule that’ve been circulating (our favourite one here) — reflective of the lightweight idea itself — reductive in the worst way possible. Shakespeare might have died a million times since he actually did, but never did it feel as ridiculous as it does now with hordes of men in khaki looking for Romeos and potential Romeos. A ridiculous replay of ‘wherefore art thou’ a bit too literally, like a bad spoof.
Where does it lead us, where does it leave us? To some roughing up a few lusty, desperate fellows, perhaps. Cop after cop assigned onto this brigade with the grand notions of being a “squad member” loosely described his job as an exercise in interrogation and intimidation. Listing out tasks such as interrogation and “general checking” of a boy hanging out alone or groups of boys hanging out together “especially near and around colleges and other places”. Also, to create fear among potential harassers. The Chief Invigilation Officer at Banda manning the Anti-Romeo Squad, Rakesh Kumar Mishra, told us the vigilance is tightened around areas “where young girls and women frequent and/or are likely to be found”. Even as that urged a million more questions in our heads, he added that they’re also most active during the “time[s] of the day” when women are most out and about, apparently. How do they spot a potential troublemaker, harasser, we ask? The identity of the “Romeo” is ascertained we’re told because it’s obvious — he allegedly wears it on his sleeve, wishing to be singled out, conveniently, so us good citizens can sift the chaff from the grain. “Asamajik ladke”, he called them. And besides, the police have undergone a training programme especially to be members of this squad — the details of which Mishra is vague about. Plus, there’s the experience to boot. And officers have inherent “vivek”, he adds finally.
A good sense that seems to be persuading the vigilantes to zone in on all sorts of Romeos: A Romeo in Lucknow who turned out to be a shy husband waiting outside a lingerie shop for his wife to finish her bra shopping, a scene right out of the Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy, the fabulous and much-acclaimed The Lobster. Romeos morphed into unsuspecting couples; too many couples, all across UP, in parks, on bikes, sharing an ice cream. Juliet too is not off the radar, it would seem.
Promises, they say, are meant to be broken. In the case of the BJP sankalp patra, however, there is an almost over-bearing adherence to keeping them — while we can appreciate this, we also can’t help but go back to the spirit of the law, letter of the law analogy, even as the term ‘lip service’ floats about in our heads. Because what good is a mission, if it is one, if the directives are unclear on a concept that is half-baked.
When news reports of a few girls hanging out in a Lucknow park being troubled by a visiting cop, nay, squad member — the gender prejudice on loitering is a story for another time — surfaced, the Chief Minister intervened. Weighing in in favour of love and the pop vote, he seemed to take a stand on what was increasingly headed for a free-for-all scenario, and made a statement about how consensual couples should not be bothered as part of the new directive.
The on-ground truth, however, continues to startle us. Young men in Banda spoke of their fear over their careers because imagine being labelled a Romeo in the midst of your struggle to make something of your life? They are all now presumably scrounging around to get their Aadhaar cards made, because, did we mention, that’s what the cops check as identity proof? Besides being that ultimate marker of purposeful existence, as all Indians now know, maybe the point is being let off alright, because the card says ‘Sudhir’ and not, you know, ‘Romeo’. At least your ass won’t be hauled off to the daroga, your parents won’t be called to the thana. Park mein murga toh nahi banna padega. Et cetera. Et cetera.
A far cry from a concrete step towards checking the very real violence and the threat of violence that women face every single day of their lives, this Anti-Romeo Squad business.
Like sticking a band aid with one of those Chhota Bheem motifs on on a gaping, oozing, agonising, festering wound.
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