'Love Commandos' work in secret to make the world safe for runaway lovers
This article was originally published in our February 2015 issue.
Marikisha Mohan’s mistake was to ask his son to come home. He was not aware that people even in neighboring villages were hissing like snakes spitting venom, gearing up for an attack. He knew that his own immediate neighbors were gossiping about his son and the shame he had allegedly brought on the entire community. Harikisha Mohan figured they would get over it. Sooner or later.
The drive from the capital, Delhi, to the little farming village of Matour in Haryana Province takes only five hours, but the cultural distance makes it feel like time travel—a journey to the old India. Conservative, orthodox, where destiny is decided at birth, where clans and castes structure society, where women hide their faces behind brightly colored veils.
In India more than 95% of marriages are still arranged. Romantic love is seen as an immoral, youthful fantasy that can only end in social ostracism and death.
Harikisha Mohan’s farmhouse lies at the end of a dusty dirt road. Sixty years of age, he sits on a cot in a cattle shed that he almost never leaves. His ashen face is a mirror of his soul. He is dressed from head to foot in white, the color of grief. His arms and legs are so thin that the skin seems stretched over bare bone. His pupils are masked by a milky glaze. Harikisha Mohan is blind. Every word is an effort for him. After every sentence he needs a break and takes a deep breath. In the last three years he has not gone a day without crying.
He woke up one morning and his son was gone. Vedpal had run away under the cover of night. No one knew why, or to where, because no one suspected the romance between Vedpal, the son of a farmer, and Sonia, the pretty daughter of a landowner one village away. The secret was revealed only when a bureaucrat—an employee of the pro-vincial government of Punjab where the couple was hiding—appeared before both sets of parents to display a marriage certificate signed on April 22, 2011. The scandal began.
A pair of lovers fleeing from their parents is received in Delhi by the Love Commandos and brought to the shelter.
Vedpal and Sonia had violated an ancient, unwritten law. In India more than 95% of marriages are still arranged. As parents tell their children from birth onward, their elders are better qualified to select suitable life partners. Fall in love spontaneously, grow closer, one day marry your sweetheart? Not an option. Romantic love is seen as an immoral, youthful fantasy that can only end in social ostracism and death.
Still, Harikisha Mohan begged his son to come home. He said he would accept the marriage. He would not turn him out, no matter what the village elders said.
Sonia hesitated. She was afraid of her family. Afraid they might hit her or worse, separate her from Vedpal. But blind, helpless Harikisha Mohan did not relent, and a month after their elopement, the couple returned to check up on their families.
And what happened next?
Here Harikisha Mohan falls silent, as though no words existed to tell the story. He buries his face in his hands and cries. The only words that come are “my son, my beloved son.” Then he continues the story, under visible strain, clearly in pain.
Two days after the couple’s return, Sonia’s uncle and cousins lured Vedpal into Sonia’s parents’ house. They beat him with iron bars until he stopped moving. A village policeman stood by, watching to make sure no one interfered. In the next room, Sonia sat listening as her husband died. A short time later, her family married her to a man 35 years her senior.
Six photographs in a manila envelope. That is all that remains of Harikisha Mohan’s son.
* * *
For better or for worse: a Love Commando safe house where couples who have escaped their families hide, hoping for a future where they are free to love whom they choose.
The story the blind man tells is horrible. And even more horrible: He is not alone. Tragedies like that of Vedpal and Sonia are daily occurrences in India, where young people grow up caught between their own modern lifestyles and inflexible traditions. The caste system has officially been abolished. Indians can marry whomever they please. Officially. In rural areas, other laws prevail. Not the laws in the books, but the laws made by village elders. Men who could be characterized as fossils from an earlier age, eager to turn everyone around them to stone: the panchayats.
Panchayats decide what is allowed and not allowed. Love before marriage is not allowed. That prohibition kills an estimated 70 to 80 people each month. The murders are styled “honor killings.” They take place in the farming villages of Harayana, the hills of Punja, the deserts of Rajasthan, the plains of Uttar Pradesh, and even in urban centers like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata.
Around the time Vedpal Mohan’s in-laws were breaking all his bones as a lesson to his wife, a former local journalist in Delhi, 300 kilometers to the south, decided to make an issue of the steady rise in “honor killings.” Sanjoy Sachdev believed any number was too high, and that young people should be allowed to decide freely how they will spend their lives.
* * *
With five friends, Sanjoy Sachdev founded an underground organization. They are middle-aged men caught in a mid-life crisis—that late burst of creativity when people begin to insist on meaning and direction in their lives. They turned their latent dissatisfaction into action by becoming the Love Commandos. Their mission? To help young lovers in need by organizing elopements, enabling weddings, providing shelter. They address each other as “comrade.”
Today, three years later, they are in demand. The press loves “Love” and how the “Commandos” break with convention by supporting the rule of law. Bollywood stars give open support, along with tennis legend Björn Borg. Satya Mev Jayate, one of India’s most popular TV shows, dedicated an episode to them. Since then their hotline has been ringing nonstop.
Sachdev calls the Love Commandos’ mission a “revolution”—aimed at changing how the Indian society thinks.
A maze of alleyways somewhere in the heart of Delhi: Young men on Japanese scooters honk at passing pedestrians. People and animals squat to defecate at the curb. Sadhus high on cannabis beg for alms. Sacred cows search for fodder in heaps of garbage. At the end of a narrow side street, next to an electronics shop, a steep concrete stairway in an inconspicuous building winds upward to a 3rd-floor apartment. Many people are aware of this place’s existence. Far fewer of its location. It is a Love Commando safe house.
The three rooms lie behind a plywood door where a votive picture of Krishna stands guard. A fan stirs the hot air and incense wafts through the stuffy space. In one room 12 young men and women sit on mattresses, wiling away the hours by staring at the ceiling. One room over, Sanjoy Sachdev and his comrades perch in front of an old PC. Sachdev, with his white hair, white kurta and white dhoti, types a status update on the Love Commandos Facebook page. In the meantime he carries on two separate phone conversations. “Love Commandos, what can I do for you?”
“We are warriors for love,” Sanjoy Sachdev says as he pushes a button on his cell phone to send a call to voice mail. His comrades in the room crack up laughing. Sanjoy remains their spokesperson because he has a way with words. “I was upset because parents were killing their children for falling in love,” he says. “We had to do something.” His gestures while he speaks are elaborate arabesques, as though he were directing an orchestra.
All of them are volunteers. They accept no outside financial support. It makes them proud. It also complicates their lives. How will they pay rent? How will they feed their love refugees? Who can spare some cash to pay for tickets to the city or a wedding? “We quit our jobs, sublet our apartments, sold our cars, all to be able to afford this,” Sachdev says. His former colleagues at the newspaper say he is insane. His family agrees, and his wife resorted to threats. Since then he has seldom slept at home.
People constantly come and go. Around 40 couples currently live in the Love Commandos’ seven safe houses in Delhi. There are around 200 shelters all told, located throughout India. Thousands of volunteers—including former clients—support the project by housing couples on the run. Lawyers obtain injunctions against rampaging parents. Off-duty policemen stand guard. Judges circumvent the slowmoving Indian bureaucracy by issuing same-day marriage certificates.
Sanchoy Sachdev enjoys stirring people’s emotions. He calls the Love Commandos’ mission a “revolution”—a movement that cannot be stopped and that will change the thinking of Indian society. “Love is stronger than anything,” he says. “All you need is love.” He does not shrink from being compared with great figures in history. Gandhi brought down an empire, he points out. No one would have thought it was possible. “Now we will change Indian society, in the name of love.”
* * *
The revolution hasn’t arrived yet, but changes are palpable, he says. With globalization and technological progress, more and more young people are being swept into the cities. It is a duel between the old India and the new, where young people get to know each other on Facebook, paying no attention to tradition at all. Sanjoy shakes a cigarette out of his pack, Gold Leaf brand, inhales deeply. “It’s a success every time young people resist their parents’ ideas and the media report on it,” he says as he exhales. “A murder is never honorable. India has become a country where love is something to be killed.”
He types a few words into a search engine and clicks a home page. “There!” he says, pointing at the monitor. Last September, a young woman’s relatives killed her in front of her husband. Then they cut off his hands, legs, and head. In January of this year, a council of elders in a village in northeastern India ordered a gang rape as punishment for a 20-year-old woman who had eloped. In April, a family set their daughter on fire. She had fallen in love with a man from a lower caste. “But through us, these people also know that there are people willing to take steps to preserve love.” Disgruntled moralists react with death threats via Facebook, Twitter, or the telephone.
These middle-aged men help young lovers in need by organizing elopements, enabling weddings, and providing shelter.
The safe house lies between two worlds, sheltering the amorous, despairing, rejected, secretly married. A waiting room for a journey into an uncertain future. The couples have been beaten, threatened, locked up. They ran away with their families on their trails. They cannot return to their old lives. Their new lives are, for the time being, shrunk to a bare minimum: a mattress, a sink, three simple meals a day. But they also receive affection, attention, a home. They meet people who protect them and who are ready to do battle with obsolete societal rituals on their behalf. “We are a family of love,” Sanjoy Sachdev says, spreading his arms wide as though on stage. “These young people are my children.” And indeed they call him baba: father.
His kids subsist in standby mode, wondering what’s next.
What comes next is a journey into the unknown. Sometimes a life in isolation. No one knows their story—none of their friends, and certainly none of their colleagues. There is no one they can trust.
“Nothing can separate us,” a young man says. He repeats the sentence like a mantra. Javed Saifi, 23 years old, skinny, sits cross-legged on a mattress. Next to him is his wife Anjali, 20 and beautiful. She smiles at him affectionately. She calls him jaanu, darling. Like most of the others here, they are middle class, with college degrees, urban, open-minded. He is a Muslim. She is Hindu. They met in secret for four years, wrote love letters, whispered sweet nothings all night on the phone. They dreamed of a wedding, a life together, a family. But Javed and Anjali also suspected that it might be just that: a dream. Their parents would never agree to an interfaith marriage.
Last year in late November, Anjali’s mother told her that she had been betrothed—without her knowledge, much less her consent—to a young Hindu from a good family. A guy she’d never heard of and whom she would have met on April 20th of this year: her wedding day, already scheduled.
She had to decide. Should she say no? Marry Javed secretly and run away? Agree to the marriage and spend her life with a man she did not love? Anjali interrupts her story to wipe away tears. She leans on Javed’s shoulder and he tenderly puts his arm around her. “My parents would have killed us if they’d found out I’m with Javed. They never would have accepted a Muslim.” There was evidence to back up her fears. Years ago, when the family learned that Anjali’s aunt had a boyfriend, her uncle doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. “Even though he was from the same caste!” Anjali says. Another uncle shot a cousin who refused to consent to an arranged marriage and had met secretly with another man.
Anjali and Javed planned their elopement for three months. They wrestled with difficult emotions, weighed the risks and dangers, lay awake at night, cried, tried to give each other courage. Meanwhile, Anjali’s wedding date loomed ever closer. Finally they called the Love Commandos hotline. “Two days later we arrived at the safe house. We got married the same day,” she says.
They often talk about the time after the safe house. What will come next, after this limbo between hope, fear, and insecurity? Javed says the family will never stop hunting them. They will have to move from hiding place to hiding place, from city to city, with their persecutors always at their backs.
But first things first: They need a car and an apartment. They need to get out of the safe house and begin leading self-determined lives. Do the things they miss so much. Go see a movie, go out for dinner, stroll through shopping malls. There will always be the danger their families might find them. He waves his hand as though the idea were a troublesome fly. “Of course I’m scared. But we’re together, and that’s what counts,” he says. And now it is Anjali who must give him a hug.
* * *
Young couples who have fled from their parents, sitting at breakfast in a protected house of the Love Commandos.
The life stories in this microcosm of forbidden love are all the same. Subahaddin and Neha met on Facebook. Now they’re hiding from Neha’s parents. One couple refuses to name names at all: She is already married, in a forced marriage to a man she had never seen. He has put a price on her head, promising to pay a bounty for information. They are waiting until a lawyer with the Love Commandos can get the marriage annulled. That will take time, weeks at least. More likely months.
None of them chose freely to be here, surrounded by strangers, and the residents feel alone—alone with their fear, their desperation, constant worries about the future, and stifling boredom. It is a life reduced to bare essentials. Cooking, cleaning, doing crossword puzzles, thinking. With a new cast of characters every day and no privacy. No place for tenderness or intimacy. The air thrums with suppressed emotions, hormones, and sexual frustration. Minor frictions are routine. Who will cook, who will do dishes, who will clean.
For security reasons, the couples cannot leave the apartment. Computers, phones, Facebook and all the other tools of modern life are forbidden. Communication could compromise security. For their own protection, Sanjoy Sachdev says, like an overprotective father, trying to save his children from themselves. And from their parents, who repeatedly try to lure their children back home with promises of friendly welcome. Promises they break. “We want to save their lives. That’s the most important thing.”
The second most important thing is to ensure that the couples marry as soon as they arrive. Love Commandos deal with the red tape. “That gives them a legal right to be together and a measure of official protection. The parents have to accept it whether they like it or not.” Many would rather not, and at-risk married couples can apply to the Supreme Court for police protection. But the benefits do not extend beyond the creation of a file folder and occasional visits from an officer. Sanjoy says that the only effective defense is a clean break. Clients must never speak to their families again. The Love Commandos serve as their springboard into a shared future by offering shelter, organizing weddings, sometimes helping find jobs and apartments. “We smooth their path, nothing more.”
What comes next is a journey into the unknown. Sometimes a life in isolation. Like that of one couple now trying to reboot their lives in the city of Chandigarh, six hours from Delhi by car. They agree to talk only if their identities will be disguised. He is a computer programmer. She is a housewife. No one knows their story—none of their friends, and certainly none of his colleagues. There is no one they can trust. “Since our wedding, we have had no more contact with our families. We are happy to be together, but sad to have lost our families,” the husband says.
* * *
Hardly an hour goes by without some Indian couple dialing the Commandos’ hotline. Its ringing is the safe house soundtrack. Some just want advice. Others need a place to hide. Then things have to move fast. As they do now.
Sanjoy and his friends have spent the entire night on the phone. They talked until two in the morning with a desperate couple who left the safe house two weeks ago against the Commandos’ advice. They went home for a visit. Immediately, their families separated them. “I told you again and again not to trust your parents!” Sanjoy bellows into the receiver. He commands the nervous man on the other end of the line to follow his instructions to the letter. All six members of the Love Commandos now go hastily through their contact lists, working connections, mobilizing volunteers to bring the couple back to Delhi, organizing a police escort to the train station. At four in the morning, somewhere in Punjab, the two intimidated young people board a train bound for Delhi, arrival 9 a.m. “Acha,” Sanjoy hums, exhausted. “Very good.” Case closed.
Three years after the honor killing of her son, Vedpal, his mother Mesar Mohan, still mourns.
Govinda, at 25 the youngest member of the team, is assigned the task of picking up the fugitives at a metro station on the outskirts of Delhi and bringing them to the safe house. He struggles through the dense pack of motorized rickshaws, pedestrians, mopeds, and donkey carts, jumps over a dead dog, avoids steaming mounds of trash, looking constantly at his watch, giving instructions over the phone, and runs up the stairs of a metro station where he waits. Hordes of people stream through the station’s security gates. At 9:30 the couple has still not arrived. Their cell phones seem to be turned off. Govinda fidgets, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He presses redial yet again. Nothing. “Something must have happened,” he mutters.
Then, at last, they emerge from the crowd. A skinny figure with a goatee and a chunky girl in a sari. Shankar and Kanchan cling to each other and the handles of their bag, tired and scared, looking over their shoulders as though afraid a family member might suddenly appear out of nowhere and grab them. Govinda takes the bag and leads them to a rickshaw. Only after they are back in the safe house do they begin to relax. Kanchan trembles and bursts into tears. “I will never trust my parents again,” she says. Then she hands over her cell phone.