When Neetu and Dawinder arrived at the Love Commandos shelter, a dog named Romeo sniffed them for guns and explosives. A young man led them past a double gate and into a three-bedroom apartment. There was a minifridge and a wall shrine of assorted Hindu deities. He brought them to one of the bedrooms, which was cluttered with newspapers, ashtrays, and biscuits. An older man, dressed in a tracksuit, was sitting in a plastic lawn chair in front of a computer. This was Sanjoy Sachdev, the organization’s chairman. He looked unwashed and reeked of cigarettes, but everything he uttered sounded to Neetu and Dawinder like poetry. He told them that even the Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati had married against caste tradition. Neetu and Dawinder felt a rush of confidence.
The Love Commandos operated like a family, Sachdev said, so couples were to call him Baba, or grandfather. (He was a youthful fifty-six.) There were three other commandos, who lived in the building next door and were to be addressed as Papa. Each of them had his particular responsibility: Harsh Malhotra, a former interior decorator and local politician, coordinated rescue operations for couples in distress. Sonu Rangi, a former volunteer for the Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena party, organized weddings. Govinda Chand, a college student, paid bills and assisted with other work. Sachdev oversaw the registration of marriages.
Before starting the Love Commandos, Sachdev had tried to open a poultry farm, a sweetened-milk company, and a factory for car parts; all those businesses tanked. He worked briefly as a consultant to Indian Railways, entered and lost a local election, and finally became a journalist. But he sensed that he was meant for a larger purpose. One Valentine’s Day, a colleague in the newsroom told him about the Hindu-nationalist groups that roamed parks and college campuses to protest the Western corruption of Indian values. They beat up couples, cut their hair, sprayed them with chili powder, and pronounced them brother and sister. Hearing of the victims suffering for their love, Sachdev thought, “Who were these people to poke their dirty nose in between?”
In 2010, when a court verdict on the Manoj-Babli honor killing was making national headlines, he got the idea to create the Love Commandos. He didn’t like the term “runaways,” so he referred to his clients as “people leaving parental homes for the unification of the love family.” He wanted them to relish their freedom. “This country is sitting on a volcano,” he said. “This is a country of six hundred and fifty million young people. Each young person has a heart that is burning with a flame called love.”
As it turned out, Sachdev had never been in love himself—it was only his work. “I didn’t have time to fall in love,” he said, “because I was busy solving other people’s problems.” When he was twenty-eight, he had an arranged marriage. His wife, whom he described as a dutiful woman, now lived in his hometown, thirty miles from New Delhi, and took care of his father. Sometimes Sachdev would go to see her, but months might pass between visits; planning trips depended on his mood. They had four children, who were grown, and had given him what he described as “an eternal feeling of love.”
Sachdev served Neetu and Dawinder cups of tea and told them the rules of the shelter: no sex, no afternoon naps, and no contact with the outside world. Couples were required to surrender their cell phones so that their location could not be traced. They were also expected to pay for their wedding ceremonies. Neetu and Dawinder were so grateful that, without being asked, they handed over Dawinder’s ATM card and told Sachdev the PIN.
Sachdev thanked them and brought them to their room. It had no windows, and the walls were chipping with pistachio-green paint. On the floor were three tattered mattresses—they would sleep beside the two other couples lodging there. Neetu was surprised; she had assumed that the young man who had escorted them in, and others she’d seen in the kitchen, were domestic help.
Sachdev told them that they had ten minutes to freshen up. Neetu changed into a shalwar kameez, Dawinder threw on a clean shirt. Rangi took them to a nearby building, where, above shops selling spare motorcycle parts and batteries, they stepped into an apartment that had been converted into an Arya Samaj temple. (Arya Samaj, a nineteenth-century movement that supports caste system reform, facilitates intercaste marriage.) As a priest chanted Vedic scriptures, Neetu and Dawinder exchanged garlands and circled a holy fire. A photograph was taken as evidence, and two witnesses, acquaintances of Rangi’s, signed a religious marriage certificate. The last step was to submit the certificate to the government marriage registrar to make their wedding legally binding. Sachdev would take care of that.
Under the authority of the state, love marriages are permitted in India; according to tradition, they are forbidden. In villages across the north, khap panchayats, councils of unelected wealthy elders, resolve local disputes, issue diktats about daily life, and enforce the caste system above the rule of law. Each caste has its own khap to represent its interests.
Following the Manoj-Babli honor killing, a khap leader was convicted of murder. But that ruling was soon overturned, and khaps have continued to facilitate acts of violence, thanks in part to the complicity of politicians who rely on them for votes. “If you say, ‘I’m a Brahman,’ then even the poorest of Brahmans will vote for you,” Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Centre for Social Research, a gender equality group in New Delhi, told me. While India is still debating how much sway khaps should hold in modern society, khap leaders appear on television threatening anyone who crosses them. If nontraditional marriages are socially sanctioned, they argue, the fabric of Indian culture will unravel.
In 2010, women’s rights activists began lobbying for a law to criminalize honor killings, seeking to penalize the full gamut of associated offenses—harassment, intimidation, economic sanctions, social boycotts—that can endanger couples, their families, and anyone harboring them. In their approach, the activists sought to emulate India’s laws against dowry and child marriage, which identify the tradition at the root of the crime.
On their advisement, Kirti Singh, a Supreme Court lawyer in New Delhi, drafted the Prevention of Crimes in the Name of Honor and Tradition, a bill that would hold accountable families that act alone, or with khaps, to punish people who enter love marriages. She also sought to end collusion between vengeful families and the police. “The police don’t act for the couple,” Singh told me. “Instead, they act for the girl’s family. Because they themselves come, I suppose, from a society and a way of thinking that believes there shouldn’t be choice marriages, particularly in cases where it’s an intercaste marriage.” The bill stipulated that if a couple tells a public servant that they want to be together, the police cannot process a family’s complaint against them. That would counter a common tactic in which families file false cases of kidnapping and rape against the groom. wedding gown with long train