On Wednesday afteroon, as 23-year-old economics student Jyoti Chauhan shared a table with a woman friend and two male friends in the canteen of Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut, their conversation was dominated by a shocking video shot in the city that had gone viral the previous day.

In the clip, a woman police constable is seen hitting a Hindu female student inside a moving police vehicle for having visited the home of a male Muslim friend. Another official can be heard saying, “You prefer Muslims when there are so many Hindus around?”

The video has left Meerut’s university students like Chauhan and her friends anxious and infuriated. It was easy for them to imagine that they could be the target of similar assaults in the future. In addition, they were horrified by the brazen manner in which people who were supposed to uphold the law were breaking it.

Chauhan noted that while the Uttar Pradesh town has long expressed disapproval of young men and women mingling, the dynamics by which young people are controlled have changed in recent times. First, the police are now playing an active role in moral policing. Second, local political leaders have made things worse by targetting young couples – especially if the man involved is Muslim.

The assault

Both these elements were at play on September 23, when a 20-year-old final-year student of the nursing college in Sardar Vallabhbhai University in Meerut visited the rented home of one of her classmates, a 22-year-old Muslim man, in Jagriti Vihar. The colony is located right opposite the university and is home to thousands of young people who come to Meerut to study in the university and the several private medical colleges in the vicinity. On Sunday, as the nursing student was in her friend’s flat, some residents who barged in along with some members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and assaulted the two, claiming to have found them in an intimate position.

Balraj Doongar, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Meerut, admitted to Scroll.in that he and members of his organisation had visited Jagriti Vihar, claiming that residents had summoned them. But he denied that they had assaulted the students. “Is it a crime to go to a place where such immoral act happens and report it?” he said. “Our men handed them over to the police and did not beat them up.”

After Doongar and others hauled out the two students, someone phoned the police control room. The video was shot while the woman was being taken to the local police station in a police vehicle with three constables and a member of the Home Guards. Both the students were detained in the police station for a long time.

After the video surfaced, the Uttar Pradesh police suspended the three constables seen in the video, while the state government has started an inquiry against the Home Guard.

Sub-Inspector Satish Kumar, the officer in charge of Meerut’s Medical Police Station, which has two major universities and the Jagriti Vihar area under its jurisdiction, said he was taken aback at the behaviour of his staff. “We have control over student-dominated areas and I am surprised that such a thing has happened despite we trying our best to make our staff sensitive about dealing with students,” he said. “We organise periodic briefings on ways to deal with students and the concerned woman constable has worked in this police station for more than a year now.”

Kumar confirmed that it was the Home Guard, driving the vehicle, who had recorded the video on his mobile phone. But it isn’t certain how the video leaked into public.

Previous incident

As it turns out, the woman constable Priyanka, who does not use a last name, has been posted to Medical Police Station since April 20, 2017, days after another similar incident had taken place in Meerut. Members of Hindu Yuva Vahini, the group that owes allegience to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, stormed into the rented home of a Muslim man in the neighouring Shastri Nagar locality after neighbours informed them that a young man had been spotted in the company of a Hindu woman.

That incident as well as Sunday’s assault had, in some sections of the press, been described as instances of “love jihad”, the theory spun by Hindutva groups that Muslim men are conspiring to entrap Hindu women into relationships merely to be able to force them to convert to Islam after marriage.

By April last year, Adityanath was receiving severe criticism for aggressively endorsing the “Anti-Romeo squad” – a unit of the Uttar Pradesh Police formed in 2017 ostensibly to curb instances of sexual harassment. Instead, the police ended up picking on young men and women meeting in public. In July, officials of the Anti-Romeo squad were equipped with cameras.

Representational image: Members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad march in a procession. Credit: HT Photo

College reaction

The Muslim student who was the target of Sunday’s incident is a resident of Kithore in rural Meerut, while the woman is from Hapur. By Wednesday, their families had yet not approached the police or the administration in the nursing college about the matter, the police said. Some news reports said that members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad asked the woman’s father to file a case against the man but he refused to do so, describing the incident as a misunderstanding.

Nageshwar Sharma, the administrative officer of the nursing college under Sardar Vallabhbhai University, said that the institution was “deeply affected by the kind of stress” both the students were facing in the final year of their course. Sharma himself seemed to be under some stress, as he received a stream of calls from reporters asking whether the woman’s family has decided to pull her out of the course. “Both of them are adults and students of a co-education institute where students from both genders work together both in the classroom and in the laboratories,” Sharma said. How can anyone stop them from communicating with one another for whatever reason?”

Staff at the college could not confirm whether either of the two students had come to class after the September 23. “The incident was unfortunate,” Sharma said. “Let the government act against the wrongdoers but I wish they join classes at the earliest.”

Two lives

At the canteen in Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Chauhan and her friends continued their discussions. “Do you think sitting together with male friends like this would not attract nasty glances in any part of the city?” said the friend, who did not want to be identified. “Meerut might have changed into a bigger urban centre but the mentality has failed to keep pace with that change. The change, I believe, begins with our homes.”

Soninder Kumar, a final -ear post graduate student of agriculture, described the dual lives young adults lead inside campus and when they go outside, both spaces in flux.

On campus, Hindutva groups like the Bajrang Dal have grown in influence over the past few years, he said. At campus cultural programmes, they ensure that men and women do not mix, said the 24-year-old Kumar. As students leave the campus, women riding pillion on motorbikes with male friends hurriedly wrap scarves around their faces, even in the autumn, to conceal their identities.

Kumar listed areas of the city where Hindutva groups have a developed a strong grip. Among them, Jagriti Vihar and Ganganagar are where many students live – often to the disapproval of some residents. “In most such instances, the problem has been lifestyle and mingling with the other gender,” said Kumar.” In most instances, local members of the Hindutva organisations intervened to make things bad. And the cases in which the men belonged to the Muslim community got worse.”

Ratna Srivastava, a lecturer in the English Department of Rani Laxmibai College in Lucknow, noted that moral policing in Meerut had got more ugly since she studied in Meerut around 20 years ago, exacerbated by the Hindutva campaign against “love jihad”. The problem, she noted, has been compounded by the participation of members of Hindutva groups, many of whom are jobless. The weakening of governance since the Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power in Uttar Pradesh is also to blame.

The video showing the police beating an adult woman for befriending a Muslim man was a bitter reflection of where Indian society stands today, she said. Asked Srivastava: “How moral are they who do moral policing and who will police the policemen who connive with them?”