One woman's path to the Love Commandos
Sapna Singh was poorly treated by her family over many years and forced to marry an alcoholic drug addict. When Sapna found the Love Commandos, it meant finding safety.PT0M0S 620 349
By accident or design, the alleyways that lead to the front door of the Love Commandos' secret shelter are sinuous and narrow.
After a series of phone calls over several days, a commando agrees to meet us at a pre-arranged spot, an intersection in a north Delhi suburb. We shake hands quickly, before he turns and plunges into the labyrinthine arteries of the city.
For all the braggadocio of their name, the Love Commandos are people who don't - always - want to be found.
Puja sought refuge with the love commandos after threats of honour killing from her village for marrying Kapil, a fellow villager against the wishes of her village community and family. She sustained head injuries from jumping off the 1st floor of her in-laws house when she was forced to be the second wife of a 30 year old man. In India on 25 October 2012. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax
Ten minutes and a dozen disorienting corners into the neighbourhood stands an unmarked brick apartment, a modest building with a blue door. From here - HQ - the Love Commandos run a quiet war on a very specific violence committed against women in India.
''Honour killings'', so-called, are an ancient but growing problem in modern India. Young women who defy their parents's orders about who to marry, or who not to see, are perceived to have disgraced the family. Retribution is swift, and often brutal.
In Uttar Pradesh last week, a 25-year-old woman was strangled by her father, and her body hacked to pieces by four other family members, because she had an affair with an older man.
On a mission ... Love Commandos Harsh Malhotra and Sanjoy Sachdev. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
In Bareilly a week earlier, a 17-year-old who tried to elope with her boyfriend was beheaded by her father in a market. Her partner has been missing for three weeks. He is presumed murdered too.
And last month in Kolkata, Mehtab Alam dragged his 22-year-old sister Nilofar Bibi out into a street, took out a butcher's knife and decapitated her.
Nilofar had recently fled the abusive arranged marriage she'd been forced into at 14, and gone into hiding with a former boyfriend.
As Mehtab murdered his sister, he told passers-by ''she has sinned and has to be punished''. He then took her head, along with the knife, to the police station to hand himself in. He has been charged, but his family say they are proud of him, for upholding their honour.
Honour killings rarely attract significant attention in India. Many are never reported. Women simply disappear. As all of India roils over the recent Delhi gang-rape murder, and protests across the country demand renewed attention on women's safety and rights, honour killings remain a known, but barely noticed, fact of Indian life.
While honour killings do occur in cities, many happen in rural villages. They fall in the darkness beyond the media's spotlight, and outside the ambit of India's emerging urban middle class, which has led the recent women's rights protests.
The Honour Based Violence Awareness Network estimates 1000 people are murdered every year in this country for ''honour'', a rate of nearly three a day.
The killer is almost always a family member.
Perpetrators are only occasionally brought to justice, despite a Supreme Court warning that those ''planning to perpetrate 'honour' killings should know that the gallows await them''.
India's urban drift, social mobility's impact upon the caste system, and the rise of mobile phones and social networking sites is eroding the authority that parents and khap panchayats - village caste councils - once held over young Indians.
Arranged marriages are still in the majority in India. Forty-seven per cent of Indian women are married before they turn 18, almost one in five before they are 15, according to UNICEF.
But increasingly, young men and women are finding partners themselves, outside the strict parameters of their village and their caste.
Increasingly, they are choosing to defy family orders.
Enter the Love Commandos.
Their mission is to help couples caught in the crossfire of their warring families: to take them to safety, to find them medical care, legal assistance, new places to live, and, often, to marry them.
The Commandos run a series of secret safehouses across the country, to where frightened couples can flee. They provide food and shelter, and do whatever they can, within the bounds of India's unwieldy legal system, to help lovers start new lives, even down to being the sole witnesses at clandestine weddings. Superficially, it's all very Romeo and Juliet, but our scene is not fair Verona.
Sitting in the dark, between cups of sweet chai, cigarettes and an endlessly ringing mobile phone, the founding father of the Love Commandos, Sanjoy Sachdev, says patriarchal India grips tightly to anachronistic ideas about women's honour, and their rights.
''People use the phrase 'honour killing': there is no honour in killing. There is no honour in torturing. We feel it is a national disgrace, what occurs in our country.''
He says it is almost always women who suffer most. ''She has to bear much more torture, agony, abuses, beating and even killing, because we live in a male-dominated society, chauvinistic society. When a girl falls in love, her character is assassinated in this society.''
His organisation runs on donations and goodwill - ''we are broke'', he says more than once - but he believes India's attitudes can be reformed. ''In this country, parents think children are their property, and they can tie them anywhere, sell they anywhere. This must change.''
Arjan* was already living in Australia when he turned to the Love Commandos.
His girlfriend Nayana*, two years older and living at home with her parents in Punjab in India's north, was from a higher caste than he, and her parents were adamant she would not marry him.
Family expectation is a powerful force in India. Girls, especially, who resist it risk being cast out, their futures ruined and their reputations blackened by their own family. Or worse.
''There was a lot of emotional pressure from her parents. They said they would marry her to someone else. They were emotionally blackmailing her, saying they would do something to themselves if she shamed them,'' Arjan says.
Over months, the pressure grew steadily more intense. ''Her brother was very violent, sometimes doing physical torture against her, hurting her. She was very fearful. She felt she couldn't do anything.''
In spite of the pressure, Nayana was determined she would be with the man she loved.
''They tried their best to stop our relationship, but she was very strong. She made it possible for us.''
Arjan flew back to India. He and his girlfriend escaped into the custody of the Love Commandos, who arranged for them to be married in secret in Delhi in October last year. He just shy of his 22nd birthday. She was 24.
The couple now lives in a major Australian city, and hope to stay.
''We find it very good in Australia, it is a nice place to live.''
Back in India, relations are slowly improving with her family. The passage of time has brought a level of acceptance, but the pair don't yet live free from fear. Arjan and Nayana remain wary of having their names or photographs, or even the city they live in, being made public.
At the Commandos' rented headquarters in Delhi, in a bare, upstairs room reachable only by a rusted ladder, Sapna Singh sits and waits.
She is the Commandos' latest client. Right now, she doesn't know her next move, but for the moment, she is happy here. She feels safe.
Sapna has fled from the western state of Gujarat, where her family kidnapped her, beat her and forcibly married her to a stranger because she had fallen in love with a Muslim boy.
''For two months, continuously, I was beaten and my father insisted I marry someone else. But I refused. My father continued to pressure me; he even threatened to kill me, as well as the boy that I loved.''
When she fled to the police, the police held her in detention, before calling her family and sending her back. She was locked inside her parents' house - with the TV turned up loud so neighbours couldn't hear her cries for help.
Finally, she was married off to a man she'd never met, a drunk and a drug addict, who abused her from the day she was dumped at his house.
''For four months, his family tortured me so much. They put kerosene on my body to burn me … they kept me covered in kerosene for two days. It was stinging all over me, and they wouldn't allow me to put water on my body. All during this four months, they beat me and tortured me whenever they wished.''
She called her father and begged to be allowed to come home.
''My father told me 'you are dead to us. Those people could kill you and it would not matter to us.' ''
Sapna had seen the Love Commandos on a Hindi language TV channel. At the first opportunity she fled for the sanctuary of one of their hideouts. She is waiting to be reunited with the boy she wants to marry. ''This is all because he is a Muslim. But I see my future with him.'' She worries for her youngest sister, who, she says, ''has problems in her life. She was 15 and she was married to someone very old''.
Sadly, Sanjoy Sachdev says, Sapna's horrific experience is unexceptional. ''Every case is a heart-shaking case. Many times, tears come into our eyes on hearing the tales of these innocent and harmless young children, who have committed no crime.''
India's treatment of women, and its failure to adapt its ancient traditions, which Sanjoy is at pains to assert he respects, to the expectations of an emerging modern nation, is its greatest failing, he says.
The government has made vague promises to strengthen legislation against honour killing, but little concrete action has followed, and the laws already in place are barely enforced. Killing people is already illegal, Sanjoy says. It is attitudes that must change, a process that could take decades.
An unashamedly and happily uncured romantic, Sanjoy waxes lyrical about love, its potential and its power. He invokes Mahatma Gandhi's message of tolerance.
''The great father of the nation is for non-violence. We Love Commandos seek only to give voice to these young people who do not have one. We believe love shall prevail, love shall conquer the world one day, than there shall be no room for hatred.''
* Names have been changed.