Television images of police officers in Northern India slapping young women in a public park have triggered national outrage. The incident occurred in Uttar Pradesh state, one of the most conservative and under developed in the country.
Shock mounted across the country Wednesday as several television stations showed video footage of female police officers slapping and punching young women. The incident took place in a public park in Meerut City, about 60 kilometers east of New Delhi.
The women had been rounded up in the park with their male dates. It was part of a police operation named "Operation Romeo," which was supposedly aimed at discouraging the sexual harassment of women.
The police conducted the operation in full view of television cameras for nearly two hours. About eight women were rounded up, some of them by male police officers, but the slapping and punching was done by female officers.
Across India, many people saw the action as something quite different, and expressions of condemnation poured in from legislators and women activists.
In the lower house of parliament, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Sushma Swaraj, criticized the police action amid shouts of support.
Mrs. Swaraj wonders how such an incident could take place in 21st Century India, where girls and boys study together, and men and women work together in offices and sit together in Parliament.
Brinda Karat, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a prominent supporter of women's rights, expressed her outrage at what she described as misplaced priorities.
"How dare they do it? They cannot take any action against the criminals who are raping women, the extent of violence against women in nonconsensual assault is so huge, on that they don't want to take any action, and on young couples who are spending some time together in a public place…. They want to beat up those women. We will never accept it," she said.
In Meerut City, students held angry street protests, and burnt effigies of police officers.
The students denounced attempts by the police to turn Uttar Pradesh into what they called a "Taleban" style region.
In the face of such anger, police officials quickly distanced themselves from the operation, blaming lower-level officers and calling it a shameful incident. Two women police officers were suspended and an inquiry was promised.
In India, young couples often meet in public parks, because their parents frown upon them meeting at home.
India is still a largely conservative society, and outside the big cities, public expressions of love, such as kissing or even holding hands, are considered taboo.
Not everyone sees the police action as wrong. Some people in Uttar Pradesh, one of the most conservative of the Indian states, said young men and women should be discouraged from meeting in public places.