India houses a highly structured hierarchical society codified by implied rules determining social and romantic relationships. Even though marriages between members of different castes are legal under the constitution; those who dare to do so sometimes risk their lives.

In rural areas, the Khap Panchayat (village councils) are among the last supporters of traditional conservatism. They severely condemn these mixed couples, who are perceived as a threat to social order.

They urge families to confine, beat and even sometimes kill their own children to safeguard honor. According to United Nation statistics, there are around 1,000 honor crimes committed each year in India.

Sanjoy Sachdev is a former journalist who created Love Commando, a voluntary organization dedicated to helping India's sweethearts who want to marry for love, in 2010. The lovebirds nicknamed him “Baba” (a common name for grandfather in Northern India). In its beginnings, the Love Commando was a bare telephone line used to help young couples living under the threat of honor crime.

Sanjoy says: “We were expecting to receive a hundred or so calls per year, but as soon as the service launched, our telephone was permanently ringing.” It quickly became necessary to adapt and organize protection for these young couples.

The first step was to organize their escape. In the more complicated cases, an expert commando deals with the release of confined young girls, equipped solely with pepper spray and Baba’s ever-loyal Rottweiler “Romeo,” then the young couples are led to one of the shelters — whose location is kept secret — by members of the group.

This shelter, one of several in Delhi, comprises two small bedrooms, Baba’s office, a kitchen and a tiny bathroom. At the time of my visit, eight couples were hosted there. In order to avoid accusations of kidnapping, Baba arranges and officiates a marriage for the young lovers as soon as possible. Far from the usual glitz of Indian marriages, these secret unions are conducted in the simplest manner.

Couples usually stay several months in a shelter from which they can’t exit, for safety reasons.

Love Commando claims to have helped over 35,000 couples since its inception. A bridging organization was quickly implemented, under which released couples temporarily host new couples in need of shelter. According to Baba, promoting love marriages means fighting against inequality and the caste system in general. He believes the latter will disappear following the propagation of mixed marriages.

Love commando

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

Inside one of Delhi’s shelter, Vikas and Anju, a young couple rescued by Love Commando, chat while Baba works on his computer.
Love commando

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

During lunch, couples gather in one of the shelter’s room, which will be used as a bedroom later in the evening.

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

Tanzila, 18, and Mohit, 21, met three years ago at school. Tanzila is Muslim, Mohit is Hindu. They tried to marry in secret but were reported by their friends. While Tanzila’s family isn’t opposed to a love marriage, they strictly refuse that she marry a Hindu. Her mother even threatened to commit suicide if the union with Mohit is confirmed. Baba paid for their train journey to escape from the village and take shelter with Love Commando. They are locked in this shelter for three months.

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

Vikas, 22, and Anju, 19, have been in a relationship for two years but belong to different castes. When they told their family about their relationship, Anju’s parents threatened to kill Vikas. Anju locked herself in at home for weeks under the constant supervision of her parents before a neighbor agreed to help her. He let her use his phone to call Vikas, who sought advice from Love Commando. Finally, she managed to escape under cover of darkness, and the two lovers boarded a train bound for Delhi and a Love Commando shelter.

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

In one of the shelter’s two small bedrooms, the young couple stored personal belongings that were hastily recovered before their escape from their village.

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

Deepika, 22, is Sikh and Kapil, 24, is Hindu. They have known each other for eight years. When Deepika’s parents found out about their relationship, they confined her for over a month and asked her to undergo a virginity test. Her father and her brother began to beat her and threatened to poison her. Fortunately, she managed to contact Kapil, who helped organize their escape.

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

Ajict, 23, and Danashree, 20. Danashree belongs to a higher caste than Ajict. They met at school and became a couple six years ago. When Danashree’s family learned that she was dating Ajict, they confined Danashree. She was forbidden from attending school in order to avoid contact with her lover. When Ajict learned that Danashree’s parents were organizing a marriage with a man from the same caste, he contacted Love Commando. They left together, fled to one of Delhi’s shelters and were married the day after they arrived. They have lived here for over a month.

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

Ishu is a 20-year-old Muslim in a relationship with Vinod, a 23-year-old Hindu. In this letter, Vinod apologizes because they were caught by Ishu’s uncle, who immediately informed her parents. Her family became violent and quickly organized an arranged marriage. Vinod then contacted Love Commando, having heard about them on TV. One morning, they escaped from their school to a shelter in Delhi.

Credit: Anne-Sophie Maurel

Sanjoy Sanchdev, known as Baba, at his workstation in the Delhi shelter. On his computer monitor: a picture showing the Love Commando team invited to attend a TV show.

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TNL Editor: David Green