Fri, Jan 06, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Crackdown on couples in India incurs public wrath

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MEERUT, INDIA

Amit Sharma, 22, with his mother, right, pictured in Meerut, India, on Dec. 23. Amit and his girlfriend were beaten by the police, who accused the couple of an indecent display of affection.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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 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.

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, 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 [did they] ... 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, Gautam and three other police officers were suspended, including the city police superintendent, 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, 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.

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.

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