Controversial “anti-Romeo” squads to police and control young couples in public are spreading across India after they were introduced by the firebrand Hindu leader of the country’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.
The squads of plain-clothed and uniformed police officers have been accused of “Taliban-like" moral policing by patrolling public spaces to prevent men from loitering near women. The authorities claim they are only trying to protect women from sexual harassment.
The patrols were launched just over a week ago on the orders of Yogi Adityanath, 44, a right-wing Hindu monk repeatedly accused of fanning religious tensions and who was jailed for 15 days in 2007 on charges of inciting riots, but who now rules a state of over 200 million people.
How is this any different from Taliban culture?
The idea has since spread to Jharkhand, north-east India, where reports emerged that the squads had “rounded up some young men and slapped them” for being found too close to women-only colleges.
In cities across Uttar Pradesh local parks, where many young couples traditionally find privacy, are said to have emptied.
“Between 300 and 400 couples visit the park every day, but since 21 March, only 5 or 10 have showed up,” Atul Kumar, a ticket seller at a park in Ghaziabad, told the Hindustan Times, claiming to have seen nine young men rounded up for no reason.
On Monday, 50 couples were apprehended for “immoral activities” after police raided two hotels in Ghaziabad.
“India is going through a very conservative and orthodox, almost Stone Age, where we can’t accept young boys and girls, above the age of 18, may freely choose who they want to be with,” said Shehzad Poonawalla, a lawyer and official with the opposition Congress party.
“How is this any different from Taliban culture?”
Poonawalla is one of many Indians who fear the squads form part of a wider right-wing Hindu political agenda by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who appointed Adityanath despite his controversial past.
The move coincides with a widespread crackdown on Uttar Pradesh slaughterhouses to protect cows, considered sacred animals by India’s Hindu majority.
Most butchers are Muslims and many suspect that they are being unfairly targeted as they face the loss of their livelihoods.
On Friday Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, went a step further by making the slaughter of cows punishable with life imprisonment.
Adityanath has been accused in the past of stirring up anti-Muslim sentiments, including the promotion of a so-called “love jihad” agenda, where Muslim men are suspected of trying to convert Hindu women through feigned love.
“Young Muslim men or minorities feel a little scared that they would be targeted because of this,” said Poonawalla warning that there was now a rise of “vigilantism”.
Videos of officers chasing down men have begun circulating on India’s social media sites, amid complaints from young Indians of being harassed.
“I was standing outside DN college to meet a friend, and the police gave me a warning,” one young man told the Times of India.
Police officers have been quoted claiming they can identify “Romeos” by “the look in their eyes”.
By Friday, it was deemed necessary to roll out new rules to curb abuses, including a ban on forcing men to do sit-ups, or to squat and hold their ears as punishment.
The initiative has divided Indian society.
India’s reputation for women’s safety was tarnished in 2012 after the fatal gang rape of a young student while returning home from the cinema made global headlines.
Women’s college principals and female students have welcomed police efforts to protect them from predatory men.
But the squads were dismissed as a “political gimmick” and misguided by veteran women’s rights campaigner Ranjana Kumari, director of Delhi’s Centre for Social Research.
“The burden will eventually fall on women because they are the ones whose mobility will be curtailed,” she said.
India was witnessing the start of “Hindu radicalism,” said Mohan Guruswamy, a political analyst. “This is a clash of values.”