Uttar Pradesh cow slaughterhouses
Yogi Adityanath, newly appointed Chief Minister of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh arrives to attend a meeting with government officials at Lok Bhavan in Lucknow, India Pawan Kumar/Reuters

The "anti-Romeo squads" in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh that have been formed to protect women in public space have come under fire for indiscriminately harassing young men.

These squads – comprising male and female police officers– patrol schools and colleges where they detain young men who are suspected of stalking and harassing women. In India, the term Romeo, a Shakespearean character, is used to describe men who harass women.

The initiative was launched last week, days after Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu godman, was appointed as the chief minister of the state.

The squads have detained several young men since then, but let them off with a warning.

The patrols, however, have been accused of indiscriminately harassing young men and women. Policemen have also been filmed demanding bribes from the "Romeos".

On 26 March, two cousins who had come from a village to the town of Rampur to buy medicines were harassed by two policemen who detained them for more than five hours and demanded a bribe for their release from relatives. The policemen were secretly filmed taking Rs 5,000 (£61) as bribe to release them, NDTV reports.

The officers were suspended from service, and the chief minister has asked the police not to trouble couples or do moral policing.

But activists aren't convinced. Vandana Shah, a lawyer who specialises in women's rights, called the squads a manifestation of Big Brother attitude. "What are your parameters?" she asked, according to The National, a Gulf-based news website. "How do you judge whether this guy looks like a Romeo versus this guy doesn't look like a Romeo? It's ridiculous. I think it's intrusive. I don't think it's going to serve any purpose beyond a point and it can easily be misused."

During his election campaign, Adityanath had promised to set up such squads to provide better safety to women.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows crimes against women in Uttar Pradesh to be lower than the national average. However, under-reporting of such crimes in a highly patriarchal society is blamed for hugely distorting the data.

At an election rally in February, Amit Shah, the national president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had also said: "In Uttar Pradesh, every college would be provided with the anti-Romeo squad. Our girls would be safeguarded. These anti-Romeo squads would allow the girls to study without fear in college campuses."