Wed, Oct 13, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Love Commandos rescue lovers in India

By Gethin Chamberlain  /  The Observer

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Kripa waits in her room. A boy slips in and hands her a small canister of pepper spray, which she tucks beneath her dupatta, her scarf. She waits again. Someone else is coming. She raises the canister, holds her breath and presses the trigger. As her would-be captor gasps for air, Kripa dives for the door, running between the houses. There is a car waiting just outside the village. She jumps in and the driver guns the engine, kicking up dust as they speed away.

A few hours later she is in a safe house with Prashant, the boy she loves, the boy she was barred from marrying on pain of death because he is from the lowly Meena caste while she is a more exalted Jat. The Love Commandos are celebrating another victory against the forces of conservatism that decree that a couple’s feelings have no part to play in marriage.

It is a reflection of just how tightly caste still holds India in its grip that a group such as the Love Commandos should need to exist at all.

However, exist they do, a volunteer force dedicated to rescuing young lovers from families who would rather kill them than suffer the social stigma of an unsuitable match, and from the khap panchayats, the notorious village caste councils that rule on who can and cannot marry and regularly pass sentences of death on those who refuse to accept their diktats on caste or gotra (another subdivision based on lineage). The Love Commandos’ telephones ring night and day.

What started as a group of like-minded friends protecting couples trying to celebrate Valentine’s Day is rapidly becoming a national movement, with 2,000 volunteers across the country and more coming forward every day.

Founder Sanjoy Sachdev leans against the blue-painted wall of the back room of their headquarters, a small house tucked away among a warren of backstreets in the heart of old Delhi, retelling Kripa’s story. His legs are stretched out in front of him on the bed that fills half the room. The 51-year-old is smoking a cigarette and talking on a mobile phone.

“Welcome to the Love Commando helpline, Channel 12. Good afternoon. Sir, kindly speak in English or Hindi. Yes, yes, we can help you,” he tells the caller.

Sachdev draws on the cigarette, listening to the voice on the other end of the telephone. It is a young boy from Andhra Pradesh, worried that his girlfriend’s parents will take her away.

“If your girlfriend accepts that she is rich and you are poor, let the people in the village be angry,” Sachdev tells him. “We are here to support you. Continue your love affair and call us when there is a problem. You can always call us.”

It is not always so simple: Sometimes they have to act fast.

“When we get a call to say someone’s life is in danger our teams rush to help,” Sachdev says.

The volunteers — doctors, lawyers, engineers, shopkeepers, students — are unarmed save for the pepper spray.

“We wanted to shun violence with non-violent means,” Sachdev says. “But we use the pepper spray when someone has to be rescued and life is in danger.”

The Love Commandos claim to have helped hundreds of couples marry since they set up the hotline in July.

“You have to understand that in every nook and corner of the country there are couples under threat,” Sachdev says. “Our society does not accept love. There is a social stigma involved in a boy and girl in love.”

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