Defying the honour-killers: India's caste-busting Love Commandos
In today's India, inter-caste and inter-religious marriages are on the rise
Within hours of safely arriving in New Delhi as a couple, Manouj and Kavita were at a court performing the rites for their marriage.
The court was about to close, so it was a hasty affair. They managed to snap a total of 19 photos on Manouj's cellphone. It's as close to a wedding album as they will get.
But the alternative was far worse. What they left behind was a certain end to their forbidden relationship and, almost certainly, physical harm.
"My family does not approve of inter-caste weddings," Manouj, 22, said in an interview (both only used their first names to protect their identity).
"They said that if I go ahead they will kill me."
When Kavita, 19, told her family she had fallen in love with someone from a different caste, "they hit and scolded me."
They then immediately found a suitable groom, and had her engaged.
The invitations went out. Her wedding was three days away when she and Manouj made their move.
Enter the Love Commandos
Kavita and Manouj had fallen in love at college. She shared his worldview, he says. She says he makes her laugh.
Together they joined the hundreds of thousands of star-crossed lovers caught up in the upswell of love-inspired challenges to India's old marriage traditions.
Once he was sure Kavita wanted to marry him, Manouj went online looking for help and found just the group that assisted people in their predicament.
Known as the Love Commandos, the group arranged the wedding and now gives Kavita and Manouj shelter in a secret location in Delhi.
"We do not agree that this arranged marriage is tradition," said Sanjoy Sachdev, one of the founders of the Love Commandos.
"Making an arrangement that means forcing marriage upon one. And forced marriage is an international crime."
Warriors for love
In its five years in existence, and with the help of volunteers and various religious clerics from across India, the organization estimates it has helped nearly 40,000 couples — a drop in the bucket considering the demand.
But that the group exists at all, routinely receiving dozens of calls a day from couples desperate for help, speaks to the rising number of inter-caste and inter-religious unions — and the growing backlash against them.
Walking into their unassuming shelter, the commandos don't exactly look the part of warriors in the name of love.
Several men sitting around a room are either staring or talking on their cellphones as the calls come in.
Couples staying at the shelter until they work out their plans are in the common area preparing lunch. There is a rotating menu posted on the wall, alongside articles published in local papers about the commandos.
The group has enjoyed intense local coverage, appearing on a popular talk show where another of the commandos, Sanjoy Sachdev, said loving is not a sin.
"If an 18-year-old boy can choose the prime minister of the country, why can't he choose his life partner?" he said, to applause.
Love marriages are as old as India itself, and today their numbers appear to be growing.
More people are moving to the city, including (more independent) women who come to work.
Today, it seems that both Indian men and women are increasingly opting to choose their own life partners and live away from their families.
But sometimes those unions cross religious and caste lines, which is where problems begin.
The number of honour killings in India is also high, and they occur daily across the country, affecting both young women and men.
"When they get here they're really scared," Harsh Malhotra, another of the Love Commando founders, says of the couples seeking shelter at the organization.
"They are like children for us. These couples come here because their parents didn't give them enough love and affection."
At the shelter, couples receive counselling. Then if they want to marry — as Kavita and Manouj did — and are of legal marriage age, the ceremony is arranged right away, to make them "legitimate" at least in the eyes of the law.
Sitting on a volcano
When we were at the shelter, a call came through to Malhotra from a father wondering why the group's number is on his daughter's phone.
The commandos appear worried for her safety — and theirs.
Sometimes, parents manage to track down their offspring using their cellphones and come to take them home. Sachdev says the group is constantly threatened, which is why it recently changed location.
"Many want to kill us," he says. "The caste councils and clan councils have put huge bounties on our heads."
But that doesn't dissuade them.
Sachdev says the world's largest population of young people is chafing against tradition and, for some, that poses serious dangers.
"India is sitting on a volcano," he says. "The youth has lost faith in the system."
Manouj, like many young people here, agrees.
"The caste system and society's conventions should change with time,” he says. "If water stays stagnant at the same place, it starts getting polluted."
For their part, the commandos do see mixed marriages as a path to a more inclusive India, less divided by caste and religion.
"To save this country," Sachdev says, "it is most important to save love, lovers and love relationships."