Women’s activists on Tuesday demanded that the so-called anti-Romeo squads be pulled off the streets immediately, saying that they operate “outside the purview of law” with the state government’s support. “These squads impose their own aggressive and arbitrary code through moral policing,” they said, adding that the “serious issues” of violence and sexual harassment women face in Uttar Pradesh cannot be addressed by “this form of policing”.

Instead, the women’s rights workers have suggested consulting with groups that have been working to end sexual harassment and violence against women for a long time to develop mechanisms to fight such cases. “When the right to personal liberty and privacy is compromised by these squads, the state must be held fully accountable for such violations,” the activists said in a statement.

They have also demanded that FIRs and complaints lodged against senior Supreme Court lawyer and Swaraj Abhiyan Co-Founder Prashant Bhushan be revoked. “Curbs on freedom of speech is not just intolerance, but in violation of fundamental rights,” the activists said. Earlier on Tuesday, Bhushan had retracted his statement where he dared Chief Minister Adityanath to name the “anti-Romeo squads” “anti-Krishna squads” and apologised for hurting religious sentiments.

The statement was signed by noted women’s activists such as National Federation of Indian Women President Aruna Roy, human rights activist Vrinda Grover, All India Progressive Women’s Association General Secretary Kavita Krishnan, lawyer and human rights activitsts Indira Jaising and People’s Union for Civil Liberties leader Kavita Srivastava, among many others.

They also severely criticised the Allahabad High Court order from March 31, which sanctioned the establishment up of these anti-Romeo squads by the Uttar Pradesh Police to keep harassment under check. The women’s rights workers have called for a review of the judgement “in light of its misuse of initiating vigilante groups in the name of citizens disciplining their children”. “The court could have asked the state government to present a grievance redressal mechanism both for instances of sexual harassment of women and excesses committed by the ‘preventive mechanism called anti-Romeo squads.’”

The squads have been at the centre of controversy with reports about youngsters being harassed at their hands. Last month, a girl and her cousin brother were harassed by policemen when they had gone to buy medicines. The frequent reports and criticism of the squads led Adityanath to order them not to harass consensual adults socialising in public. Uttar Pradesh Police chief Javed Ahmed also issued a letter to his force, detailing how they should function. The forms of punishment not allowed include shaving their head and blackening men’s faces.