They met on the bus to college in 2005. Soon he was cutting class all morning to ride the bus and make sure he had the chance to talk to her. Puja Bharti says she knew within moments of speaking to her now-husband, Veer, that it was love. And she knew that this love was going to be a big problem.
Veer and Puja are from different jati in the Hindu caste system. And although they have thoroughly modern Indian families who sent them to earn college degrees and urged them both into business, neither family would tolerate the idea that their children should have a "love marriage," as it is known here.
Mr. Bharti's father confronted him about the relationship in 2008, and when he refused to renounce Puja, beat him up and threw him out of the house. He moved in with friends in another city, found a job and started saving money in the hope of persuading her to elope. Her family, meanwhile, began a campaign of physical assault and emotional abuse that escalated until, one day in September, she overheard her brother saying the time had come to kill her, since she stubbornly refused to marry any boy the family chose for her. So Ms. Bharti ran away and used her last rupees in a payphone call to Mr. Bharti. And he in turn made a call to a number he'd read in the paper, and saved just in case.
He called the Love Commandos. And they kicked into action.
The Love Commandos call themselves "the only voluntary organization dedicated to helping India's lovebirds." It's a rather grand slogan for an organization run out of a cave-like room in a congested neighbourhood in inner-city New Delhi. The Commandos have no formal structure, no operating budget, no fancy uniform. But the national network of volunteers is united by a fierce frustration with the fact that resistance to love marriages remains pervasive in every social and religious community in a modernizing India – and often leads to violence. Much of the Commandos' work involves advising young couples on their rights, and how to deal with police.
"This thing they call honour killing – it's people in love," said Harsh Malhotra, a travel agent who founded the group last July after a series of murders of young lovers by their families. (Twenty years ago, Mr. Malhotra met his own wife after he dialled a wrong number and they started talking – he was badly assaulted the first time he met her family and they had to elope.)
Indian society is liberalizing in many ways – but not about marriage, added Sanjoy Sachdev, who now runs the group. Love across caste lines causes the most problems, but a difference of religion is a close second, followed by a difference in economic class or education level. Yet even when there are none of these differences, parents in every class simply object to children making this decision – seen as a matter for the extended family – themselves.
Last Wednesday, a young couple committed suicide by jumping under a train after their families learned they were cross-caste dating. Two days before, a father and two sons in Uttar Pradesh were charged with the shooting death of a 21-year-old daughter who was in love with a neighbourhood boy of a different religion. And two weeks ago, the Supreme Court handed down death sentences to eight men in Uttar Pradesh, and life imprisonment sentences to 20 more, who burnt alive a young Dalit man, his upper-caste fiancée, and the cousin who tried to help them elope in 2008. The judges made clear they were trying to convey the repugnance of the state at "honour killing" – but the number of such attacks rises steadily year-on-year.
Mr. Sachdev said the issue has "the whole country burning" and they receive between 500 and 5,000 calls a day. When a Globe and Mail reporter visited the makeshift office recently, there was one call in a two-hour period.
That said, Mr. Sachdev has a lengthy roster of young couples who are fulsomely grateful to the Commandos: Vijay Sagar and his wife Simran were attacked by her parents, Sikhs in the Punjab, who objected when she fell in love with a less-educated Hindu. The Commandos helped them elope, and then register their marriage. Mujahid MohammedAbdul and his wife Anita, in Hyderabad, stayed in a Commando shelter twice in the past year, after her family – Hindus – repeatedly tried to kill them both because he is a Muslim. Police have refused to enforce the protection order the Love Commandos helped them obtain, Mr. MohammedAbdul said – "The law is good – but the enforcement is not good. Lovers should not be killed."
As Mr. Sachdev tells it, rescuing lovebirds is a dangerous business: "This is Govinder, who boosted a girl from a 15-foot high wall to escape a mob of family – nearly there was a casualty," he said, introducing one young man. Then Mr. Sachdev called another fellow, who, he said, had to jump onto a slow-moving train to elude an angry family. The young man ducked his head shyly, and murmured that it was nothing.
When the Commandos got the call from Mr. Bharti, they interviewed the couple separately, to make sure Ms. Bharti was not being coerced. Persuaded by their tale of five years of suffering – and her fresh bruises – they took the couple to a liberal Hindu temple, where they were wed. Then the Commandos helped them register their marriage with civil authorities, and to obtain protection orders from police against their families. And finally, the Commandos took them to a small flat where they could stay. Newlywed but penniless, they had nowhere to go.
Mr. Sachdev noted that while the Supreme Court has issued many verdicts enshrining choice in relationships, the rank-and-file police force tends to share the "backward mentality" – and almost always acts for parents (by throwing young men in jail, for example, on trumped-up rape charges), rather than to protect lovers.
Today Veer Bharti, now 25, and Puja, 23, are living a lonely life in another state – her family has made clear they will kill her if they find her, she said. When they took their protection order to the local police station, the police scoffed and asked why they had married in this inappropriate fashion.
"We're just living in hope that all will be okay," Ms. Bharti said quietly. Her new husband touched her hand briefly, and added, "We're going to have children, and protect them, and give them the option to marry whomever they choose."