Oh Romeo, wherefore art thou?

When the prevention-is-better-than-cure argument doesn’t work

March 31, 2017 03:39 pm | Updated 08:19 pm IST

I wish I could say this was an April 1 hoax, but it isn’t. It really happened. On Twitter. Someone posted a news report on how it had taken less than a day for the UP government’s Anti-Romeo Squad to become less about chasing away “Romeos” and more about “boys and girls roaming together.” And here’s what one elderly gentleman had to say. “You can’t have it all,” he said angrily. “You can’t cry for protection when girls are molested and be against such squads, too.” Other voices chirped up enthusiastically. “Yes,” they cried, “let the girls be assaulted; then they will know.”

In 20 words, the man had demonstrated just how poorly most of us understand the idea of law enforcement.

I find the argument repeated over and over again, ad nauseam, by parents and teachers and neighbours and learned university deans. It is a social law they arrive at via the pop medicine dictum that ‘prevention is better than cure’.

When we were children, an elderly aunt was fond of lowering her voice to a hiss and pronouncing direly that cotton wicks kept near flames would catch fire. She would blink her eyes rapidly to emphasise the point, and, for the longest time, I used to think that burning wicks were some sort of terrifying cure for eye tics. To simplistically expand such truisms and apply them to all life in the social sphere is the worst sort of reductio ad absurdum argument one can come up with. But it’s what we hear over and over again.

So, let’s do this one more time. Repeat after me: the legitimate duty of law enforcement agencies is to ensure that men who indulge in physical harassment or verbal abuse of women are caught and punished.

Rounding up random young men and women in parks or cinemas or pubs in order to “protect” women is not policing, it’s a breach of individual freedoms.

Let’s break it down further. Suppose the gentleman above, let’s call him Mr Raman, visits a temple every evening. Now suppose a thief breaks into his home and robs him blind. Mr Raman will expect, and rightly so, that the cops arrest the thief and return his possessions. But if the police were to suggest helpfully that Mr Raman stop all temple visits to prevent being robbed, chances are he won’t happily agree.

Robbery, murder, kidnapping — it’s taken for granted that these crimes will not be tolerated. But when it comes to rape or molestation, it is taken equally for granted that these crimes will be committed with impunity, and it is for women to be imprisoned within homes to stay safe.

If we take the ludicrous prevention-is-better-than-cure argument to its logical conclusion, then traffic cops should ask all motorists to keep their vehicles at home to prevent road accidents. Forget separate walkways; let’s stop all education to prevent boy-meets-girl episodes. And let’s give Mr Nihalani a well-deserved break from all the hard work he’s been doing and ban cinema altogether, rather than take the chance that a stray kiss or sight of nudity on screen could corrupt our sensitive minds.

While on the subject, what is this ‘Romeo’? It is as bad as, if not worse than, the ghastly ‘eve-teasing’ phrase. It trivialises and romanticises everything ranging from harassment to stalking to rape. If the UP police are serious about supporting women, it might help if they stopped addressing criminals affectionately as ‘Romeos’.

The question is, are they serious? Let’s go back to what the charming Mr Raman and his cohorts said next. ‘If you don’t want Romeo squads, let there be no police at all. If women are attacked, let them defend themselves.’

Ah. So we finally come to the nub of it. The state’s law enforcement powers, guaranteed by law to all citizens, will be available to women only if they toe the line drawn by the goons of patriarchy. Wear this, don’t walk here, eat this, don’t drink that…

When a goon from a citizen vigilante group was asked on television what law gave them the right to intimidate and attack men and women found together, he replied, “To do good work, we don’t need anybody’s permission.” You will find this kind of chilling self-righteousness at the root of every vicious autocracy everywhere.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark

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