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Meerut Journal; Is Public Romance a Right? The Kama Sutra Doesn't Say

By SOMINI SENGUPTA; HARI KUMAR CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FOR THIS ARTICLE. (NYT) 1161 words
Published: January 4, 2006

MEERUT, India - On a crisp winter's afternoon in this small, unremarkable north Indian town, several couples -- some married, some not -- sat together on the benches of a well-groomed little park named after the country's most famous champion of nonviolence: Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Soon came a band of stick-wielding police officers with television news cameras in tow. They yanked the couples by their necks, as though they were so many pesky cats, and slapped them around with their bare hands. The young women shielded their faces with their shawls. The men cowered from the cameras.

Apparently intended to clamp down on what the police consider indecent public displays of affection among unmarried couples, the nationally televised tableau in Gandhi Park backfired terribly. It set off a firestorm of criticism against police brutality, prompted at least one young unmarried pair to run away from home for a couple of days, and revealed a yawning divide on notions of social mores and individual rights in a tradition-bound swath of India where the younger generation is nudging for change.

''This is a basic infringement of our right to freedom,'' cried Vikas Garg, 21, a master's student in mass communications at the local Chaudhry Charan Singh University, a couple of days after the raid. ''We are free to sit where we want.''

Meerut police officials conceded that some officers overreacted. But they also defended their actions. Couples sat in ''objectionable poses,'' said a defiant Mamta Gautam, a police officer accused in the beatings, including some with their heads in their partners' laps. Yes, Ms. Gautam went on, she had slapped those who tried to run away when the police asked for names and addresses. ''If they were not doing anything illegal, why they wanted to run away?'' the policewoman demanded in an interview. ''I do not consider that what we did was wrong.''

By the end of the week, as public outrage piled on, Ms. Gautam and three other police officers, including the city police superintendent, were suspended pending an internal investigation.

In a society where dating is frowned upon, public parks remain among the only places where couples can avail themselves of intimacy, from talking to necking and petting with abandon under the arms of a shady tree. Even if it is in broad daylight in a public park, romance before marriage remains taboo in small-town India, which is why the spectacle in Gandhi Park turned out to be such a big deal: to be outed in this way, on national television, is to bring terrible shame and recrimination on yourself and your family.

So alarming, in fact, was it for Amit Sharma and his girlfriend of two years that the pair ran away from home hours after the incident, only to return more than a day later after their parents went to fetch them from a nearby town where they were hiding and agreed, in principle, to let them marry.

A couple of days later, Mr. Sharma, 22 years old and unemployed, described the jarring episode. The police swooped down on the couples in the park ''as though we were terrorists,'' grabbed them by their collars, hurled abuses and separated the men and women. He could hear his girlfriend, Anshu, crying and could hear the police yelling at her: ''Your parents send you to college to study! What are you doing here?''

''I pleaded with the police, 'Please let us go,' '' he recalled. Eventually, they were all let go. No one was charged with a crime.

That afternoon in Gandhi Park, even a young woman sitting alone was not spared. The woman, who gave her name only as Priyanka, said she was waiting on a park bench when the shouting of the police and their targets interrupted her thoughts. Getting up from her bench, Priyanka said she walked in the direction of the commotion when a police officer, Ms. Gautam, as it turned out, pounced on her and accused her of being a prostitute.

What is more, Priyanka said, the policewoman slapped her and called her a ''chamari,'' a slur based on her caste. (Ms. Gautam denied making the remark.)

Priyanka filed a complaint with the police and called it ''a black spot'' on her reputation. ''They did not ask any questions,'' she recounted. ''They just started beating. Now people in my village are reading that newspaper in front of my father.''

The episode sparked a national outcry. The National Human Rights Commission ordered a police inquiry and its chief, Justice A. S. Anand, went on television and declared, ''No civilized state can permit this type of humiliation to be heaped on its young children.''

From the political right and left came condemnation of the police action. Brinda Karat, the most prominent woman representing a coalition of leftist parties in government, denounced the police for pouncing on courting couples while violent rapes remain unsolved. Sushma Swaraj, a legislator from the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, took the podium in Parliament and called it a product of ''a sick mind.''

Even so, the reprimands did not stop Hindu radical activists here from storming Gandhi Park three days after the episode and, taking the law into their own hands, beating up the small handful of couples who had dared to return. The following day, Gandhi Park was empty, save the birds chattering in the trees.

Among young people in Meerut, the police raid prompted a seasoned outrage. In interviews on the local college campus a few days after the police raid, students said they frequently bore the brunt of police harassment if they were seen with members of the opposite sex. They are pulled aside, threatened with a stick, ordered to give their names and addresses and released usually only after paying a bribe.

''Crime is increasing in Meerut day by day and the police are harassing innocent girls and boys,'' said Mr. Sharma's outraged father, Jagdish Kumar Sharma. ''How many Romeos they can catch? Romeos are on every lane and every street.''

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