India’s Love Commandos

Dec 11, 2013 at 8:38 AM ET

Rajesh was a ladies’ man until last year, when he fell in love with a 24-year-old theater actress living in Delhi. Within a few months the couple decided to marry. Perhaps a bit naively, neither expected their parents to object much. But the kids are from different castes and the complaints began immediately. Over the year since their engagement, they objections have only grown louder. In a country where extreme measures—including acts of murder known as “honor killings”—are taken by families or clans to prevent unwanted marriages, the couple fears for the worst.

One day while watching an episode about honor killings on the popular television show Satyamev Jayate, Rajesh first heard of a organization called Love Commandos. He was struck by the group’s mandate, which is to assist people who are in love with their plans to get married, despite both family objections and mortal threats from the violent and vocal corners of their community. The organization insists it is “dedicated to helping India’s lovebirds who want to marry for love.” It helps them elope if necessary, tries to find them legal assistance when required, and often steps in to save their lives by providing shelter and safekeeping. At a time when there’s been little if any abatement in young people being murdered by their relatives and community leaders over their decisions to marry, the Love Commandos fill a complicated void.

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“We want a casteless society,” says Sanjoy Sachdev, the head of Love Commandos. “We want a love-filled society. We know love begets love, and love will rule the world one day.” Sachdev, who also works as a journalist, says that a dozen or so years ago he became worried about persistent and growing inequalities in India over caste and religion, as well as increasingly ascendant concerns like wealth and education.

The division between and young and old in India grows deeper every day. Confronted with the archaic prejudices of their parents, many kids deploy timeless techniques of parental manipulation like begging and lying to prevent being booted from the house, disinherited, expelled from their larger community and even to ward off violent threats. But the issue of caste is still not something many families in India are willing to overlook.

Rajesh’s girlfriend, we’ll call her Natasha, is a Brahman. Traditionally priests, they are at the top of the Hindu caste system. Rajesh and his family are Kayastha—traditionally scribes and record keepers. They are not the bottom of the caste system, but the gap between them and Brahman is distinct.

In the months following their engagement, Rajesh says, his parents were persistent in finding another girl for him to marry. He was bombarded with between 35 and 40 proposals and resumes of girls that his parents had picked out from their community and from responses to profile ads they’d placed on his behalf on several matrimonial websites. Rajesh eventually shut down, refusing to discuss marriage with them.

Natasha, a dark-haired and spunky woman, wasn’t prepared for the downward spiral her parents’ objections would take. Not only were they upset that Rajesh was from a lower caste, but eventually they came to suspect that because of his family’s name, he was from a clan not of scribes but of barbers. The pressure on Natasha to break up with Rajesh continues to intensify. Every day ends in a fight with her parents, who grill her whenever she leaves the house.

“There is a good possibility that she could be physically locked up inside the house,” Rajesh says. “If that happens I will have to approach the Love Commandos.”

It’s probably no surprise that situations like these are often far worse for the girl, whose movements can be restricted to school and the house. “It is shocking that when a girl falls in love how much her family tortures her,” says Sachdev. He adds that it is common for the family to cut short the girl’s education and clip all modes of telecommunication in the effort to sequester her.

Sachdev says Love Commandos get nearly 7,000 calls each day now, up from 150 when the operation started in 2008. Situations range from simple mediation to full-blown cover to prevent honor killings, which even today happen with surprising regularity. The most recent reported honor killing happened in September in the Rohtak district of Haryana, only an hour’s drive from the capital, Delhi. A girl, 20, and a boy, 23, from Gharnavati village in Rohtak ran away to get married. The girl’s parents encouraged them to return home, promising that they would not be harmed. When they did, she was lynched in public, and the boy was beaten and beheaded.

The prevention of honor killings is at the heart of Love Commandos. If a couple fears violent retaliation and notifies the Love Commandos, the group dispatches volunteers to extract them—or gives them advice on how to escape. “We have a roster of volunteers all over the country. We dig into that list, find the closest people and send them,” Sachdev says of his more than 100,000 members. “It’s dangerous work. There is no fixed structure for this. Anyone who believes in love and wants to help, she or he can join us for as long as they want. It is purely on a voluntary basis.”

Sachdev explains that it’s simply too risky for him to get into the specifics of individual operations or tactics. It endangers both volunteers and those who seek help. He claims there is a bounty on their heads courtesy of village councils and powerful people whose children they have helped.

Although the Love Commandos have received a great deal of positive publicity, the organization does have its critics, even beyond the people they’re working against. Critics of the group say that the volunteers lack the expertise to handle sensitive cases, though the prefer to remain anonymous. Another, more glibly, calls the Love Commandos “more noise than action.”

Sachdev shrugs off detractors and suggests that political parties should think about legislation to protect the rights of lovers. “Love removes inequalities and makes for a better society,” says Sachdev.

Earlier this week, despondent and out of ideas, Rajesh called the Love Commandos for advice about how to tackle the caste problem preventing his marriage. It was close to midnight, and a sleepy volunteer answered the line, took down some of his details and said to call back.

Rajesh is quick to explain that his situation is not yet an emergency and that the line he called was not the 24-hour-a-day hotline meant for emergencies. He called back as instructed and expressed his concern that his girlfriend would be kept captive in her house. The Love Commando suggested that he monitor the situation and to contact them for help if it gets worse.

For now, Rajesh will step out of line and let the other 6,999 daily callers plead their case.