NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian "anti-Romeo" police squads set up to protect women from sexual harassment in public places should be disbanded because their heavy-handed tactics and moral policing are leaving people insecure and fearful, women's rights activists said.
The squads, made up of plainclothes and uniformed police officers, were introduced in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in March following the appointment of a new state leader who had pledged to crackdown on sexual abuse.
But in the last two weeks there have been increasing media reports of the squads - which also include police-sanctioned vigilante groups - targeting and publicly shaming young men and couples in parks, colleges and markets.
Suspected "Romeos" have been questioned, had their identification checked and their parents informed of their activities. Others have been forced to do sit-ups as punishment. In one incident, a man accused of harassing a woman had his head shaved by an "anti-Romeo" police squad, local media reported.
In a statement issued late on Tuesday, more than 20 prominent women's rights activists called on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, to end the squads.
"The serious issue of violence against women and routine sexual harassment of women in Uttar Pradesh cannot be addressed by setting up anti-Romeo squads. These 'squads' impose their own aggressive and arbitrary code through moral policing," it said.
"It has already come to light that in many cases, these 'anti-Romeo squads' have become an even greater source of harassment and fear for women and men."
The reports have prompted Adityanath to order police to issue guidelines to the squads, calling on them not to question, frisk or humiliate couples or give out physical punishments.
But the activists - who include human rights lawyers Indira Jaising and Vrinda Grover and women's rights campaigners Aruna Roy, Kavita Krishnan and Kamla Bhasin - want the squads to be disbanded and those who have been publicly shamed to be compensated.
There were more than 91,000 reports of sexual harassment of women in India in 2015 - an 80 percent rise from 2010, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
With a population of 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state accounted for almost nine percent of all reports of sexual harassment in 2015.
The Uttar Pradesh government has dismissed criticism of the squads and blamed opposition politicians of attempting to tarnish the efforts of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
"The anti-Romeo squads are doing a very good job and are being hailed by the people of the entire state," Uttar Pradesh's minister for power, Srikant Sharma, told a news conference late on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)