x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 September 2017

The Love Commandos: an Indian group dedicated to helping young lovers

They are committed to rescuing the young and amorous from the often violent clutches of families that disapprove of their relationship.

Rajveer Singh, 21, and Madri Devi, 20, both Hindu but of different castes, are among the couples helped by the Love Commandos.
Rajveer Singh, 21, and Madri Devi, 20, both Hindu but of different castes, are among the couples helped by the Love Commandos.

DELHI // The girl climbed through the window of her college classroom and ran across the courtyard where a friend was waiting to help her over the 15-foot perimeter wall. On the other side was Govinda, one of the commandos, ready to catch her as she leapt from the top of the wall.

Her brother had seen her escape, and was already in pursuit as she was bundled into the waiting getaway car and sped out of town. There was no time to wait for Sonu Rangi, another of the commandos, who was on the other side of the college. He had no choice but to run, sprinting across town to the railway tracks where, by a stroke of luck, he was able to jump aboard a slow-moving train.

It sounds like a scene from a Bollywood movie, but this is the real world of the Love Commandos, a volunteer group dedicated to rescuing the young and amorous from the often violent clutches of families that disapprove of their relationship.

This recent rescue mission took place in Faridabad, a small town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The couple, who wish to remain anonymous, had eloped and married in secret a few weeks before.

"She was from a Brahmin family and they disapproved because the boy was from a lower caste," said Harsh Malhotra, a Love Commandos coordinator who helped organise the operation.

"The family convinced her to return saying they would accept the marriage, but that was a lie. They kicked the boy out of her house and kept her locked up in her room. They only let her out for college. The boy twice attempted suicide, until he heard about our organisation."

Within days, the Love Commandos had dispatched their team to Faridabad. The couple are now in hiding in another part of the country and are expecting their first child in the new year.

The Love Commandos began in 2010, at a time when a series of honour killings - the murder of sons and daughters by parents who felt their relationships had disgraced the family - were much in the news.

A year into their "mission of love", the team's helpline is inundated with dozens - sometimes hundreds - of calls every day.

"When we started we never expected the problem was so big," said Sanjoy Sachdev, the organisation's founder. "The effort has left many of us penniless and jobless, but we are the only ones in this country giving a voice to the youth of today so we will not give up."

Stories about the Love Commandos initially focused on the extremes of caste violence, but the flood of calls over the past year has shown the vast majority of relationship difficulties in India stem from the much more common tradition of parents approving their child's partner.

"The problems cut across all barriers - not just caste, but also religion, educational background, economic status," said Mr Sachdev. "The stories are different, but they are all about freedom of choice, which is supposed to be guaranteed in our constitution. Where do these parents derive their right to prevent that freedom?"

Deep in the narrow passageways of old Delhi is a tiny, ramshackle two-story house warped by a large oak tree growing through its side. It is one of several shelters set up by the Love Commandos to house young lovers on the run.

For the last few weeks, it has been home to a Christian couple, who recount their own story.

"I am only 18 and my parents wanted me to finish my studies before marriage, but we were in love and we could not wait," said Asmita Joseph, originally from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.

In May, she ran away from her parents during a trip to the local mall, and soon after married 22-year-old Kapil in a secret ceremony in Delhi.

"Our families don't get along - there is an old argument from the past - so they will not accept our marriage. When I finally told my parents, they were very angry, very aggressive," said Mrs Joseph.

But she admits that her decision to flee parental control makes her a rare exception in a country where arranged marriages are still common.

"All my friends believe in boyfriends and love only when they are young. They still believe arranged marriages are the best way when you get older and want to settle down."

Even among the English-speaking urbanites arranged marriages remain an accepted part of life, although here the traditions are adapting to new conditions.

Ashish Poddar is a 30-year-old clothes exporter and former DJ from Delhi. In many ways, he is representative of the increasing westernisation among India's emerging middle class, and yet this

this year he decided to abandon the vagaries of the Delhi dating scene and seek his parents' assistance.

"In love marriages, people are always on their best behaviour until you get married and then everything can change very quickly. Parents are far more experienced and it is worth listening to them.

"For me, whoever I marry should gel with my family and get along with them. When you bring home someone of your own choice, questions arise, and if something goes wrong, then you are blamed. I wanted my parents to approve of them."

For people from Mr Poddar's background, the big difference with previous generations is the power of veto. "It happens I said yes to the first girl they brought me, but the final choice was always going to be mine."

Vaishali Khurana, a 27-year-old fashion coordinator in Delhi, has yet to meet her ideal man, but has embraced her parent's involvement as a way of expanding her options.

"Every evening, my parents get the laptop out and show me some of the profiles and pictures," she said.

"It's more like dating, but under the umbrella of my parents. In the old-fashioned way, they used to push you straight into marriage and it was almost totally finalised by the time you even met the boy.

"I'm moulding my own way - they choose the guy, but we go on a few dates and my parents respect my opinion on him."

These compromises appear to offer a way of combining the strength of India's family bonds while catering to the new generation's demand for personal freedom.

But beyond the more privileged areas of the capital, such luxuries of choice are not so common, and the power of tradition can often turn violent.

Also staying at the Love Commandos' shelter are Rajveer Singh and Madri Devi, a Hindu couple barely out of their teens, who eloped this year knowing their families would not approve of their inter-caste relationship.

Shortly after they were married, Mr Singh was tracked down by the members of Madri's family and brutally beaten with hockey sticks and chains.

"I was unconscious for two hours. They wanted to kill me. It took two months for me to recover," said Mr Singh. "I got in touch with the Love Commandos, and they brought us here."

It is these cases where the Love Commandos will continue to offer a vital lifeline.

"It is not the individual parents," said Mr Sachdev. "It is the society around them that tells them their honour is at stake.

"Still, we hope that day will come when love prevails over the whole universe."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae