Despite many efforts to modernise India’s traditional society, the population is still divided along caste and religious lines in large parts of the country. Child marriages have plummeted sharply in recent years, but arranged marriages are still very prevalent. According to a recent study, almost three quarters of the population are in favour of arranged marriages. Many Indians think that an arranged marriage is better for everyone, as it gives the families the opportunity to bond, makes the irrational search for the one true love unnecessary and ensures the support of the parents, who usually have the last say in the choice of a suitable partner. Potential partners have to pass many tests: they are screened for religion, caste, qualifications, complexion – even horoscopes are taken into account. Love, however, is not one of the examined criteria. It simply does not have the same priority as in the West. Love unregulated by marriage is something foolish, something dangerous. Especially in the rural parts of India, entering into a relationship outside of a marriage is a shameful thing to do. A lot of families turn on their children when they find out, demanding that any contact between the lovebirds cease immediately. Some families even resort to violence, in some cases, even to murder. An estimated 1,000-4,000 people are killed each year in India in honour killings, which are committed in retaliation for actions deemed shameful by the family or the social group of the victim.
There are those, however, who do not break under the immense psychological pressure and decide to stand up for their love. But where do they go? Where do they get help? In recent years, a non-governmental organisation has achieved remarkable things in this field: The so-called ‘Love Commandos’.
The organisation which was founded in 2010, is supported by, amongst others, tennis player Björn Borg. These days Love Commandos has more than 600,000 members across India. Its initial founder, Harsh Malhotra, was assaulted himself when he went to meet his future wife’s family. After he escaped he went on to create the Love Commandos. Just like the Gulabi Gang, which we have reported on in an earlier issue, the non-profit fights against the problems in India’s deeply traditional rural societies. The organisation’s motto, “no more honour killings”, reflects the frequency of which honour killings occur, committed in connection with relationships unwanted by the families of the victims.
The organisation, which is funded entirely by donations and voluntary contributions from its helpers, provides counselling to desperate couples and helps those who don’t see any other way to escape the clutches of their relatives. All of the organisation’s activities are coordinated from a small office in New Delhi, with eleven branch offices spread across the country. On average, the Love Commandos receive 300 calls a day and the comment section of their website is full of gripping stories. In many cases, however, there is not much time to ponder over whether or not to elope. Preparations need to be made quickly and in total secrecy. In order to help the unhappy lovers escape, the Love Commandos rely on a network of voluntary helpers committed to the cause. The couples, once rescued from their homes, are then brought to one of the organisation’s 200 shelters that serve as safe houses, where they can stay and eat free of charge and marry in freedom, albeit in seclusion, whilst waiting for an opportunity to start a new life together. The Love Commandos even supply the jewellery and clothes for the wedding ceremony if the couple does not have any.
However, committing to their love and putting themselves in the hands of the Love Commandos also takes a terrible toll on the lovers. For security reasons and for fear for their lives, they are not allowed any contact with their families. Getting in touch with the Love Commandos means leaving everything behind and not everyone can cope with that. Even when everything goes well and the couple can start a new life in new surroundings, it does not mean that their families will stop looking for them. Supporters of the Love Commandos have repeatedly been harassed by the relatives of the people they helped to escape. Some families also press false charges against the newly-weds in order to have them arrested. Then, the Love Commandos need to appeal to courts or use their influence to change the minds of local officials. A sad example of how unforgiving some families can be is the story of Hakim Abdul, who was saved by the Love Commandos along with his wife, only to be murdered brutally after he appeared on a popular Indian talk show to talk about his experiences. This
means that while the couples get to live with each other, the fear of being discovered will always hang over them like an ominous dark cloud.
Today, after only four years of existence, the organisation is well-known across India and has an ever increasing amount of supporters. In total, the Love Commandos claim to have brought 30,000 couples together. The fight against honour killings continues.
By Michael Schätzlein
Picture 1: kunjan detroja, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Picture 2: Patrick, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0