March 26th was the first Sunday after the Uttar Pradesh government set its anti-Romeo squad on the prowl, and the mood in Ghaziabad’s biggest public park was gloomy. “Between 300 and 400 couples visit the park every day, but since 21 March, only 5 or 10 have showed up,” said Atul Kumar, the ticket seller at the entrance of Swarna Jayanti park. What happened on 21 March? A contingent of Ghaziabad’s anti-Romeo squad raided the park and picked up nine young men who looked like “Romeos” to them.
Kumar doesn’t think the young men were up to any mischief. “They were with friends. They had come to study, roam, party; they weren’t disturbing anyone. Shouldn’t the police go after men who have harassed someone? One of them was studying with a group of young women who kept saying to the police that he was with them, but he was dragged anyway.”
Only a few single men could be spotted in this 250-acre park on this evening — and even fewer couples. No couple has been picked up from this park yet, but no one wants to take a chance. On Friday, a couple was arrested from the Ambedkar Park in Noida in a clear breach of the UP chief minister’s direction to the police to leave couples alone. Three police officers were suspended the next day for breaking the rule, but the action hasn’t inspired much faith in in the hearts of Ghaziabad’s terrified youth.
“Can you see any couples around here?” says a young man sitting by himself on a bench, his eyes fixed at his phone screen, his ears plugged in. Anshul Srivastav has been coming to the park for over a year, either alone or “with a date”.
“Usually the park is so full of couples that you can’t find a single bench to sit. Today every second bench is vacant,” says Srivastav. No amount of state-sanctioned moral policing will break his spirit, though, he says. “It’s completely ridiculous. At least define the behaviours that are wrong so that couples or singles know that they are annoying some sections of society. This is totally invading someone’s personal space. This is nonsense.”
“First, figure out who is your target. If a couple is just sitting together, you shouldn’t mess with them. If a man is actively harassing women — stalking them or passing comments — then he should be dealt with. Whether it’s a special Romeo squad who does it or any other form of police is not our concern.” -- Rupa Bansal, a walker at Swarna Jayanti park
It’s still a usual Sunday evening in the park for the rest of the people in this part of Ghaziabad. Married couples are pumping away calories in the open gym; families are booking boat rides around the lake; and large groups of old men are chilling out under gazebos. But all one has to do to break the calm is utter three words: anti Romeo squad. Yogi Adityanath’s move may or may not make women safe in UP, but what it’s already done is make everyone start a debate with their internal moral police.
“How can you define a Romeo? Who can say that the police won’t target harmless young men to make some quick money? What’s the guarantee that couples won’t be picked on in the name of keeping women safe,” a group of old men sitting under a gazebo ask each other. Everyone agrees with everyone. One member of the seniors’ gang does try to offer a different view. “But what about young couples who are doing wrong things in the park, who are seen in objectionable situations?” The opinion is shot down by the majority. “But why are you looking?...Isn’t it our fault for nosing into their business?”
Rupa Bansal, a young woman out for a brisk walk around the park, has serious doubts about the police’s motive. “First, figure out who is your target. If a couple is just sitting together, you shouldn’t mess with them. If a man is actively harassing women—stalking them or passing comments-- then he should be dealt with. Whether it’s a special Romeo squad who does it or any other form of police is not our concern.”
Rohan Raghunath, sitting at a chaste distance from his new wife, says, “if a couple is doing bad things then it’s wrong. Young generation should understand that they shouldn’t get too intimate in a public place. But to pick up random men in the name of women’s safety not right. Moral policing is not right.”
Young people in the park are less liberal than the old on the subject of things young people should and shouldn’t do here. Like Raghunath, Srivastav, who earlier railed against the invasion of his privacy, thinks it’s still a couple’s duty to draw the line. “The couples should be cautious on the weekends. They shouldn’t become too physical also. Families come with children on the weekends. They get influenced by what they see.”
One thing comes out clearly of spending a Sunday evening in the Ghaziabad park: no two people have the same view on UP police’s new task. This is what two people sitting less than 20 metres from each other said about the effect of anti-Romeo raids on the life of the park:
“The police have put terror in the hearts of the young. No couple came to the park for the last two days.”
“It’s a good start. Number of couples in this park is down by 90 percent. Pehle gandagi thi, Ab safai hai (It used to be dirty earlier, but is clean now). Now only good boys and girls are coming.”
However, there is someone here who thinks the park only stands to lose from this development. The ticket-seller is clear: “You made Rs 2,800 from one gate in a day”—the entry through either of the park’s two gates is priced at Rs 5 --“Now you are making 1400.”