Gethin Chamberlain for The National, 29 October 2010
Aarti is stumbling across the fields, tears streaming down her face. Every now and again, she turns to look back over her shoulder, terrified that she is being followed. The man had shown her a gun, threatened her. She knew if they caught her that her life would be in great danger.
She started to cry again. It was the third time her mother had sold her to a stranger. All to keep her away from Sanjay, the boy she loved, the boy she had first seen on the rooftop of the neighbouring house in the city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, that most famous monument to love. The boy who was from the wrong caste, the boy her mother would never let her marry.
Aarti reaches the road, hails a rickshaw, finds a phone and calls Sanjay. He calls the Love Commandos.
And now they are sitting in the back room of a small house somewhere among a warren of backstreets in the heart of old Delhi, in the headquarters of an unlikely group of freedom fighters.
“Welcome to the Love Commando helpline, Channel 12. Good afternoon. Sir, kindly speak in English or Hindi. Yes, yes, we can help you.” Sanjoy Sachdev, the group’s founder, is talking into the mobile phone which rings every few minutes.
It is a reflection of just how tightly caste still holds India in its grip that a group such as the Love Commandos should exist at all. But exist it does, a volunteer force of incurable romantics dedicated to rescuing young lovers from the murderous grasp of families who would rather kill them than suffer the social stigma of an unsuitable match, and from the kap panchayats, the notorious village caste councils that rule on who can and cannot marry and regularly pass sentences of death on those who cross them.
Their phones ring night and day. What started as a group of like-minded friends intent on protecting courting couples trying to celebrate Valentine’s Day is rapidly being transformed into a national movement, with 2,000 volunteers across the country and more coming forward every day.
A slew of so-called honour killings in northern India this year spurred the Love Commandos into action, convincing Sachdev and his friends to transform their ad hoc operation into a 24-hour national hotline. It also prompted the country’s Supreme Court to issue notices to the national government and six states to protect couples from the edicts of the panchayats.
Officially, the police recorded 19 murders in northern India as honour killings between April 19 and June 30 this year. But with many such killings dismissed as “suicides”, the true figure is probably about 10 times higher. One recent study estimated that there are more than 1,000 honour killings in India every year, the vast majority in the northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
The obsession with caste is nowhere better demonstrated than in the “Matrimonials” section of any of India’s national papers, where advertisers routinely stipulate the required social status of the bride or groom they are seeking for an arranged marriage to their offspring. Brahmins are much sought after. Rajputs too. (And even those claiming to be more cosmopolitan are no less demanding. “Caste no bar,” one advert declared last month, while stipulating that the successful groom must be a “Nasa space scientist, age 29-30.”)
Those who fail to make the grade are in mortal danger if they insist on pursuing their affairs: so too is the son or daughter of the family opposed to the match.
Falling for someone of the wrong caste, someone from the wrong gotra – another subdivision based on lineage – or refusing to marry the family’s choice of partner can all be deemed to have created enough dishonour to be punishable with death. Panchayats regularly pass death sentences, but often they do not need to: many families take matters into their own hands to avoid the opprobrium of the community.
Aarti found that out the hard way. The Love Commandos saved her in the end, but not before her mother sold her three times to get her away from Sanjay. She gazes at him now as she talks, her fingers playing with the fabric of her pink and orange dupatta (shawl). The 19-year-old has a slash of vermillion running along her central parting, the sign of a married Hindu woman. Sometimes she laughs, sometimes she cries, the tears spilling down her face as the story tumbles out.
“The first time I saw him I fell for him. It was my heart’s feeling. Even if I attempt to forget him I never can,” she says.
Sanjay is a daily labourer, 21 years old, making cardboard boxes for a handful of rupees. He sits beside her in his faded jeans and a cheap printed T-shirt, on a bed covered with a reddish brown blanket, in the back of a safehouse tucked away in the backstreets of Delhi.
“I had a clear view into her house,” Sanjay says. “We used to talk to each other across the rooftops. It was love at first sight. But it was when we fell in love that the problems started.”
Never mind that both their mothers worked as domestics, both their fathers were dead and they lived next door to each other: Aarti’s caste, Thakur, the dominant one in the street, easily outranked Sanjay’s Kashyap caste, listed by the Indian government under the category “other backwards castes”.
Three years ago, Aarti’s mother, Laxmi Devi, overheard her talking to Sanjay. “It was just sweet nothings,” she says, “I love you, that sort of thing.”
Laxmi Devi could not contain her fury. She told anyone who would listen that her daughter was consorting with a lower-caste boy and bringing shame on them all.
“My cousin was beating me and my mother was beating me and the whole neighbourhood was beating me because my mother made such a hue and cry about it,” says Aarti.
“They just didn’t want me to marry him. They said they would kill me, they would never let us get married.”
She dabs at her tears and goes on, speaking softly, eyes down. The first time her mother tried to sell her, she says, in 2007, she was tricked into thinking she was going to be allowed to marry Sanjay.
“She took me to a temple. A woman and a man came there. My mother was haggling with them,” she says. “She wanted to sell me as a slave for extramarital relations.”
She was taken to a village and locked in a room. “A lady came and told me that my mother had taken 10,000 rupees and that now I lived with them.”
But when she would not stop weeping, her mother was summoned back and had to take her home, where the beatings resumed. “Sometimes I was beaten with a stick, sometimes with a bat, sometimes my head was banged into walls or I was slapped and punched. They used to lock me up in my room.”
Last year a man came to the house. Laxmi Devi told Aarti to go with him to find Sanjay. She had decided to give up her opposition to the match, her mother said. This time they really would be married.
“He took me to a forest area by the Yamuna River and claimed to be looking for Sanjay. Then that man tried to have physical relations with me. He said he had paid my mother money. I pushed him and ran to the village nearby. Some ladies heard my cries and took me to their houses. They told me the man was engaged in the sale of girls and was a known bad character. They said I was very lucky because no one else had escaped from his hands.”
She was taken home and beaten again. But her mother appeared to be tiring of the fight.
On May 8 this year, she took Aarti and Sanjay to Ghaziabad, near Delhi, presented them at a temple and told them they were now man and wife. For four days, the couple were together. Then Laxmi Devi changed her mind. Aarti was summoned home again, ostensibly to be presented to her relatives. Instead, she was sold for the third and final time.
This time she found herself in Sobi Pura village near Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh. Some people had come to the house and given money to her mother. She says the people there threatened her with a gun if she tried to escape, but she seized her moment and ran across the fields. In her pocket she had only 35 rupees.
“I kept walking through the fields and after some houses reached a road. I saw an auto rickshaw. He asked five rupees to Tundla and from there I got a bus to Agra.
“I called Sanjay and told him where I was and he came to find me. After that, we were together.”
Sanjay had heard about the Love Commandos a few days earlier on a late-night television bulletin. Now he dialled the number. The voice on the other end told him to get to Delhi immediately.
When they arrived, they were taken under the protection of the Love Commandos, who moved them to a safe house. The group’s lawyers advised that, having already accepted each other as husband and wife in a Hindu temple, they were legally married according to Section 7 of the Hindu Marriage Act.
“They will stay with us until we have a guarantee that they will not be attacked or assaulted,” says Sachdev.
Sachdev leans back against the blue-painted wall of the back room of the house. His legs are stretched out in front of him on the bed that fills half the room. He listens to the voice on the other end of the phone. It is a young boy from Andhra Pradesh, worried that his girlfriend’s parents will take her away.
“If your girlfriend accepts that she is rich and you are poor let the people in the village be angry,” Sachdev tells him. “We are here to support you, continue your love affair and call us when there is a problem. You can always call us. My son, my blessings are with you.”
It is not always so simple: sometimes they have to act fast. “When we get a call to say someone’s life is in danger our teams rush to help,” says Sachdev.
The volunteers – doctors, lawyers, engineers, shopkeepers, students – are unarmed, save for pepper spray. They don’t use it often, but sometimes it is necessary to overpower those who are determined to stop them.
“We wanted to shun violence with non-violent means,” says Sachdev. “But we use the pepper spray when someone has to be rescued and life is in danger.”
On the cabinet next to him are a heap of papers, each of them relating to a rescue. The Love Commandos claim to have already helped hundreds of couples marry since they set up the hotline in July.
“You have to understand that in every nook and corner of the country there are couples under threat,” Sachdev says, lighting a cigarette, while from the room next door comes the sound of his lieutenants answering phones. “Our society does not accept love. There is a social stigma involved in a boy and girl in love.”
He is dressed in a neatly pressed gold kurta, slightly less pristine trousers. Money is tight. Sachdev, 51, is a journalist by trade (Harsh Malhotra, the Love Commandos’ co-founder, runs a transport business).
“We need places where the kap panchayats can’t come and kill us,” he says. “We are appealing to everyone who appreciates love to help us.
“We are branded people. We have had death threats and our effigies burnt. We want to continue our mission but if we do, we lose our jobs and if we don’t, the mission fails.”
They rely on individual donations of 100 rupees a year from their volunteers to keep going. At the moment, that gets them the small safehouse in the backstreets. They are cautious about revealing its location: Sonu Rangi, the operational commander, screens visitors, wary of reprisals.
Rangi is standing on a corner a little way down the street, wearing a purple shirt, just as he said he would be on the phone. He nods and sets off at speed down a warren of side streets. The alleys are strewn with rubbish; in places the mud is ankle-deep. Men push carts, heads down, swerving round the various animals wandering unchecked. Other men carry bags on their heads or across their shoulders. Overhead there is a tangle of electricity cables, loose wires hanging down into the street.
Rangi disappears around a corner into another narrow lane. There is no sign of him, but a door stands ajar. Inside, there is a small kitchen. A metal ladder stretches up to the first floor. Behind the ladder is the entrance to a room in which three men are sitting. They point through to the back room.
The walls are a dirty turquoise blue, the floor bare concrete. Sachdev apologises for the caution, explaining that it is necessary.
Initially, the police sided with their opponents, he says, but a couple of years ago they noticed that the tide was beginning to turn. In July this year, amid the publicity over the wave of honour killings sweeping the country, they decided to broaden their reach.
He flicks through the files. Here are Kripa and Prashant, under sentence of death because they refused to accept that they could not be together simply because he was from the lowly Meena caste while she was a more exalted Jat.
The Love Commandos smuggled pepper spray into the house where Kripa was being held against her will. Seizing the moment, she sprayed it into the face of her captor and fled, running to the car parked on the edge of the village where the Love Commandos were waiting.
Here is a marriage certificate for Sandeep and Kavita from Haryana. The panchayat had threatened them and the volunteers had gone to the village to rescue her. They had smuggled pepper spray in to her, but in the end she did not need to use it. Quickly they got her into a car and then drove the couple to a temple where the marriage ceremony was carried out immediately. The families were informed about the marriage through official telegrams.
And here is a picture of Sunil and Geeta from Rajasthan, at their wedding ceremony in Delhi’s Arya Samaj Mandir, a temple specialising in love marriages. Sonu Rangi is in the centre of the picture, helping with the ceremony.
Sachdev’s own marriage was arranged – “I had no opportunity as a student to find love” – but it produced four children. His brother had a love marriage and both his father and grandfather married outside their caste. Sachdev thinks everyone should have that chance.
“It is disgusting that the government is allowing these panchayats to take place,” he says. “The state should have arrested the criminals of the kap panchayats and put them behind bars for sedition because it is disloyalty to the constitution. But the sorry state is that the political leaders, for the sake of votes, have never dared, and the officers of the police have never respected the law.”
The Indian government is, however, starting to make noises about tackling the problem, with the home minister, P Chidambaram, announcing that he was actively considering a new law targeted at honour killing. The announcement came amid mounting pressure over the number of cases this year.
A young couple, Asha and Yogesh, tied up and tortured to death in Delhi in June because he was from a lower caste. A newlywed man, Rajesh Negi, set alight for marrying against the wishes of his family, again in Delhi. A couple, Inderpal and Maya, killed and left in a field in Tamil Nadu two weeks ago. The list goes on and on.
Even Bollywood has started to pay attention. A new movie, Aakrosh, focuses on the case of Nitish Katara, who was 24 when he was murdered.
His crime had been to fall in love with Bharti Yadav, the daughter of the thuggish Uttar Pradesh politician DP Yadav. The family did not approve. In his confession to the murder, Yadav’s son admitted hitting the young man over the head with a hammer before dousing him in petrol and setting him on fire. “The affair was damaging my family’s reputation,” he told police.
It is a mark of just how conservative many Indians still are in their attitudes towards caste that the film’s director, Priyadarshan, felt the need to stress that the film was not intended as a criticism of honour killings. “We have left a question mark at the end for the audience to decide whether the practice is right or wrong,” he says.
Kripa and Prashant would doubtless think the latter. They are in hiding in a safe house, 800km from Delhi. The death sentence passed on them by their kap panchayat remains in place.
Aarti and Sanjoy may be married, but they are still not free. They too are under sentence of death. Yet, even cooped up in their safe house, it is very clear that they are entirely at ease in each other’s company, laughing and giggling, a couple obviously in love. Those who defend the arranged marriage often argue that other cultures fall in love before marriage and out of love afterwards, while in India they marry first and fall in love later.
All Aarti and Sanjay want is a chance to work it out for themselves.
“We love each other and we want to be together. What is so wrong with that? Why should anyone have the right to keep us apart?,” says Aarti, anger flashing in her eyes. “None should have such a mother,” she says.