Sanjoy Sachdev’s Love Commandos is a perennially cash-strapped national network of volunteers who say they have helped around 50,000 interfaith and intercaste lovers in distress.
On the phone, Sanjoy Sachdev, 57, always sounds like he’s in the middle of some cloak-and-dagger activity. “Can I call you tomorrow? There’s a rescue operation happening now.” When we finally meet at the Delhi Press Club, he is bleary-eyed because he hasn’t slept the previous night. “Sometimes we go six nights like this,” says the founder and chairman of Love Commandos, a perennially cash-strapped national network of volunteers who say they have helped around 50,000 interfaith and intercaste lovers in distress since the organization was set up in 2010.
Former tennis star Björn Borg became their single biggest donor after he wrote them two cheques of 50,000 Swedish Kronas (around Rs3.9 lakh now) each in 2013-2014. “He heard about us from international media reports and then his company sent a team to verify our existence and work,” says Sachdev. After an hour of listening to him, I’m ready to sign over my fortune to the cause of love.
The night before I met Sachdev, five of his volunteers whisked away a woman whose father, a goldsmith, was taking her by train to a famous Shiva temple in Ujjain to pray that she would see the folly of her ways. He was angry that she had fallen in love with her upper-caste friend who ran a chain of coaching classes for Indian Administrative Services (IAS) aspirants. “She stood at the door of the compartment at Agra and the operation was over in minutes,” Sachdev says. “Today they are getting married.”
Love Commandos helps lovers elope, protects them from violence, provides them a safe place to stay for as long as they need it and even organizes their marriage. It has 450-plus makeshift shelters throughout India run by volunteers where couples can hide for a few days before fleeing from the area in which they reside.
Why didn’t you help Hadiya, I ask, referring to the Kerala medical student who converted to Islam and married the man she loved. In May, the Kerala high court annulled the marriage saying that Hadiya had been indoctrinated. The Supreme Court will rule on the annulment next month.
“If any of them had called us, we would have helped them legally. If they had needed shelter we would have provided it. We have high hopes in the Supreme Court. Our judiciary has broadly given good judgements,” he says, quoting two specific cases of the highest court.
The first was in 2007 when the division bench of justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan reversed the ruling of a lower court that had found a man guilty of murdering his intercaste lover. The justices noted that the couple were in love and that the woman’s family hadn’t given them permission to marry. It seemed plausible that the couple had decided to commit suicide. “Such a reaction on the part of a girl to sacrifice her love and accept a decision of her parents, even though unwillingly, is a common phenomenon in this country,” the court said.
The second case was in 2011 when justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra said that since the petitioner was a major she was free to marry or live with anyone she liked. They said intercaste marriages were in the national interest as they would aid in destroying the caste system. “If the parents of the boy or girl do not approve of such inter-caste or inter-religious marriage the maximum they can do is that they can cut off social relations…but they cannot give threats or commit or instigate acts of violence and cannot harass the person…,” they added, directing local administration and the police to help such couples.
Those who cry “love jihad” every time two people from different faiths decide to fall in love and get married or bring out their arsenal when lovers cross the caste barrier have clearly never read this judgement. The term love jihad irritates Sachdev, but he says no political party has any agenda for the protection of lovers’ rights.
Before the 2014 general election, Love Commandos wrote to all political parties asking them to clarify their stand on love. Not one replied.
All parties are the same, Sachdev reiterates, though last year was not an easy one for young people in love. “Fundamentalists tried to create fear in the minds of lovers.”
One unexpected side effect of this was that, for the first time, couples were ready to do whatever it took to get married. “Previously, it was always the women who converted. In 2017, they were all ready to convert, depending on whichever was faster. Not one man said, ‘I won’t convert, let her’,” says Sachdev. Converting to a partner’s religion is often the easiest way to get married swiftly because the Special Marriage Act—which is meant to help interfaith couples—requires couples to give a notice period and issue a public announcement of the impending marriage in the area where one of the partners resides, a most unfeasible option if you are on the run.
Our conversation is constantly interrupted by phone calls. “Why do you need a lawyer? You said you respected their wish to get married…now what is the need for tension?” he asks a caller named Archana, the sister of a Jat girl who has fallen in love with a man from a different caste. The couple are hiding out with Love Commandos in Delhi. The girl believes her parents will kill her if she goes back home, Sachdev says.
Right now there are seven couples at their base shelter in Delhi, including Ravi Kant Meena and Uma Bharti, an intercaste couple from Rajasthan, both teachers, who have been on the run since they opposed their families and got married last February. Since then the couple have endured illegal confinement and physical violence at the hands of family.
Coincidentally, all the couples staying at the shelter when we meet are cases of intercaste love. In 2014, the India Human Development Survey, conducted by the National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, found that just 5% of Indian marriages were intercaste.
These love stories are a sad testament to the fact that we still don’t respect the basic right to choose one’s own life partner. “One day when the volcano erupts, young people will come out on the streets and all traditional political forces will be washed away,” he says.
“South India is as bad, the north just has a bad name,” says Sachdev, when I ask him which part of India opposes love the most. Now the war against love has spread to the North-East too,” he says, adding that the Love Commandos helplines have recently been getting calls from Assam and Meghalaya. “Who knows what new poison is spreading there?”
Never mind, Indian lovers will find its antidote.