Helping or intruding: On patrol with India's anti-harassment squad

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Each squad includes four male uniformed officers and one women officer in plain clothesImage source, Ankit Srinivas
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The squads patrol areas where there are most reports of harassment

In Uttar Pradesh, a special police squad has been set up to fight eve teasing - a local term for sexual harassment. But the move has led to allegations of moral policing. The BBC's Vikas Pandey spent a day with the squad in Allahabad city.

In a public park, a young couple try to hide as they spot the squad.

"Please come out. We are here for your safety," Niraj Kumar Jadaun, assistant superintendent of police and head of the squad, tells them.

The boy emerges and asks for forgiveness, only to be reassured by Mr Jadaun that he has done nothing wrong.

After a brief conversation, the couple manage a faint smile before disappearing into the park.

"Some people are scared of cops. And that's the perception we have to fight against," he says. "But eve teasing is another reality that we need to fight against."

Image source, Ankit Srinivas
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Niraj Kumar Jadaun wants to win the trust of young people

Police in Uttar Pradesh established the squad due to rising reports of sexual harassment. There are no reliable statistics and police say that in most cases women don't report harassment. But most women have a story, or several, to tell about inappropriate or abusive groping, language or behaviour.

A total of 1,400 officers have been deployed to anti-harassment squads across the state. Each squad includes three uniformed officers and a female officer in plain clothes. They patrol in cars and on foot, targeting areas where they get most complaints about harassment.

So far there have been mixed results. Some squads have made headlines for "moral policing" and there have been reports of couples being harassed and even beaten up.

But Rahul Srivastava, chief spokesperson of the police, said that only "a handful" of officers were making mistakes.

"We are repeatedly training our staff about the dos and don'ts," he said. "We have suspended nine officials so far for violations. Our instruction is clear that consenting adults should not be disturbed."

Mr Jadaun says upbringing can be to blame. "In some cultures it's still a taboo for a boy and a girl to sit together in public places. So some cops who think on similar lines end up indulging in moral policing," he says. "But their number is very small."

Image source, Ankit Srinivas
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The police have strict instructions to not disturb consenting couples

Back in the park, Mr Jadaun is stopped by a young man who wants to talk.

"My name is Abhilash Denis and I want to thank you for this initiative. But I also have some issues," he says.

Mr Denis says that he likes to go to public parks with his girlfriend.

"But it's always a risk. Eve teasers are always around. They make nasty remarks and make rude gestures. The squad's presence has made sure that such people are less visible in public places," he says.

"But that doesn't mean that cops have a right to disturb us any time."

Mr Jadaun assures him that police will only disturb him to ask about their safety.

Image source, Ankit Srinivas
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Abhilash Denis supports the initiative but wants it to work better
Image source, Ankit Srinivas
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Police officers say they also visit rural areas to make women feel safe

Elsewhere in the park a woman, who didn't want to be identified, seems angry with the police.

"It's the police's responsibility to make us feel safe. But I don't want random police to question me just because I am sitting in a public place with my male friend," she says.

"Yes, I agree that eve teasing is a problem. And I am happy the police are doing something about it. But they need to get better at what they do."

In another part of the city, police approach two couples sitting on a bench.

Kritika Singh says she appreciates the work the police are doing, and didn't mind having a conversation with them.

"You have to know how big a problem eve teasing is in this state. Every girl can tell you horrific incidents they have faced in public places," she says.

"Abuse, filthy gestures from men are very common. Sometimes they also end up touching us inappropriately in public places."

Image source, Ankit Srinivas
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Kritika Singh says eve teasing is rampant in Uttar Pradesh
Image source, Ankit Srinivas
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Police constable Santosh Paul talks to two young women as the squad moves through the city

Her friend Sadhna Maurya agrees.

"I have seen reports about moral policing and that must stop. But the squad should not be shut. I have seen it making a difference. We feel a bit safer now, though not 100%."

She says she has grown up accepting harassment as a reality. "For the first time something is being done, I am willing to accept it despite its imperfections."

I witnessed similar conversations between the squad and people across the city. We stopped at schools, malls and shopping districts.

The squad questions many men, but nobody is detained. "Our purpose is not to arrest people. We want eve teasers to know that the police are out there to catch them. We want them to change," Mr Jadaun says.

Image source, Ankit Srinivas
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Each squad shares its experiences each day with senior police officers

As the day finishes, the jury still seems to be out on whether the initiative is a success.

In some places people, mostly women, appreciated the squad's work. But some still have doubts about its methods.

I put this question to the state's top police official, Javeed Ahmed.

"Eve teasing is a reality," he said. "We needed to send a signal that women would be protected and people who harassed them would be dealt with in a strict manner."

He acknowledges that there is a long way to go. "But I am glad we have made a start," he says. "We can't become a progressive state if women don't feel safe here."

Back at base, the squad hold a briefing to go over the day's events.

Superintendent of Police Vipin Tada says it is a chance to identify mistakes. "They are learning fast. Just remember it's a new initiative for them as well," he says.

Allahabad's top police officer Shalabh Kumar Mathur says he does not regret putting resources into this initiative.

"Eve teasing is a menace. If the choice is between doing nothing and doing something with scope for improvement, I would pick the latter," he says.

Images by Ankit Srinivas