Mandeep had found Lata through a common friend in Facebook. She was a student, and he worked in technical support. After two months of online chatting, he called. One more month and there they were – meeting each other for the first time at a coffee shop in some town towards the north of the country. Within the next few months Lata had got her phone confiscated by her family. They had found out.

Lata’s family tried to lure her with the hope of getting married into a rich family, but she was adamant. Her boyfriend was the only one she was ever going to marry.

Determined to escape and create a life of their own, they called the Love Commandos.*

Meet the Commandos – a group of aging journalists and businessmen based in New Delhi, who provide protection and legal assistance to couples who dare to choose each other over the diktats of their families and clans. They operate a helpline for couples under threat and requiring assistance. On receiving a call the volunteer Commandos rescue the couples and provide them temporary shelter.

I was fortunate enough to find an opportunity to chat up with the Love Commandos leadership. Here are some excerpts:

Sanjay Sachdev, Chairman, Love CommandosSanjay Sachdev, Chairman, Love Commandos, Photo by Mandeep Gulia

How did Love Commandos start? What was the inspiration behind starting it?

Sanjoy Sachdev, Chairman: We had gone to Tees Hazari courts in Delhi. It was a case of son of a friend of Mr. Sonu Rangi (Presently our Commando Co-ordinator), who was in jail on charge of Rape. The girl had deposed before the magistrate that she was in love with Sanjay (accused) and even refused to undergo medical examination. She had stated that the relation was with consent but the Delhi Police had under the pressure of the family of the girl put the boy behind the bars.

We argued the case and got him bailed out the same day. We were assisted by Advocates Mr. Vinit Jain and Mr. Sanjay Kumar. While on way back Mr. Sanjay Kumar, advocate Delhi high court suggested that we should do something to stop crimes in the name of honour, as we have been having Valentine peace Commandos (helpline for couples under pressure from families and needing assistance), for 15 days a year since 2001.

After reaching back we were discussing the proposal in our core team of activists when a call from a journalist Mr. Rajiv Tyagi (Then working with Mid Day Delhi edition)  came and who wanted to know our reaction on Khap dictats. We said that soon we would be converting our valentine day helpline to 24X7 helpline for lovers to combat and counter fundamentalist and orthodox dictats of Khaps and other such elements. It was while answering his queries that Mr. Harsh Malhotra (presently our Chief Co-ordinator) said finalized the name Love Commandos along with the helpline number.

It is worth mentioning that Mr, Malhotra has made a world record in Love by marrying his own wife six times.

Have you ever had any negative experience of your own related to any marriage against the advice of the family?

Sonu Rangi, Commando Co-ordinator: None in the members of the core team had any such experience. I’m proud to say that our parents never considered it necessary to obstruct our freedom of choosing our respective life-partners.

With the social pressures Indian rebel couples usually face, you must be receiving a considerable volume of calls. How are you handling it logistically?

The Mid Day Delhi story I just mentioned was reused by NDTV and Dainik Jagran on July 5th 2010, followed by many other TV channels and newspapers. As media coverage spread the message of the Love Commandos all across the country we started getting a huge volume of calls, starting with 7000 calls the very first day, as against our expectation of 100/200 calls a month! As you might have guessed – we didn’t have the logistical capacity to handle that kind of volumes in the beginning. Gradually we put together a network of attending the calls on same number on 12 lines by using call forward when busy to other numbers. It was getting too expensive for us. Now we have got CUG system from Reliance (As all numbers are in the 93 range), and thus been able to get operational costs (relatively) under control.

Two years into our operations we were also lucky to meet Vinay from gandhig.com who who offered us a free website which is still functioning as our official website www.lovecommandos.org. The website has been instrumental in spreading our message not only in India but to the entire international community.

Love Commandos provides food, shelter, protection and legal assistance to runaway couples. Financial challenges must be there…

In this country you may find hundreds of people donating money in the name of religion but it is tough to find people doing the same to protect the freedom of the youth.

Harsh Malhotra, Chief Co-ordinator: We are under heavy debts. We have sold out our belongings to run the Mission because in this country you may find hundreds of thousands of people donating money in the name of religion but it is tough to find people doing the same to protect the freedom of the youth of this country. We are grateful to the Journalist community. Media people, film and documentary makers from India and abroad have all contributed financially to our cause and that’s how we could maintain our operations till date. Couples who feel strongly about our cause have also extended help from time to time. Most of the couples we’ve supported are still in the process of settling down and getting their lives in order. We hope they also come back and help us whenever they’re ready.  

We request the couples to bear the expenses of their lawful marriages, registration (if desired), legal applications (generally no fee is charged by our lawyers), official process for protection or rescue etc. But in many cases we end up supporting this process partially or fully, as the couples are often financially unprepared. Shelter, food, medical assistance, beddings and sometimes even clothes are totally free and are provided by us.

The couples manage cooking and cleaning of the shelters themselves, giving them an atmosphere of home away from home. They get both affection and scolding so that they can realise the difficulties of life in future.

What's your operating structure like?

Harsh Malhotra, Chief Co-ordinator: Our network of volunteers is our backbone. We have no formal structure, no records as we are missionaries, not clerks. Anyone willing to become a volunteer can fill in a simple form at www.lovecommandos.org or send an sms with his or her name and address to 09313784375.

When we get a call we search in our computer or manual records and call volunteers from the area. So far we have 11,00,000 plus intending volunteers all over the country but as we have no resources to get such a huge number of forms printed and posted there are no records.

Our experience has been that each and every volunteer had rushed at the cost of his or her life to save couples and that signifies victory of Mission Love for me. We feel that the youth needed a voice and we have become the instrument for that.

Love Commandos provides assistance to couples marrying against their families’ preferences. I understand that a large part of these couples were not accepted by their families because of being intercaste. Are there any other types of social rejection of couples that you’ve seen in your work with Love Commandos? How is each type of challenge/risk different (intercastevs inter religion vs any other type)?

Sunil Sagar, Commando Trainer: General problem is of inter caste and inter religion. However some gotra, near relative, distant relative, financial position, educational status, total opposition to martial freedom from families have also been causes and it has always been more difficult to handle such situations.

Have you ever faced opposition to your operations from clans/police/other bodies?

Govinda Expert Commando: Yes it’s very common. We have heard that many clans have announced rewards on the heads of Mr. Sachdev and Mr. Malhotra totalling to over 10 Lakh. However we never care about such unlawful opposition and continue to fight for justice to Lovers. What we do is to support the law, not to oppose it, and we’re thankful to Central Delhi District Police for always helping us do so. We are also thankful to NCW in many cases.

I’ve read mostly about relatively less educated couples from the so-called lower strata of the society seeking help from Love Commandos. Are there similar cases you’ve handled with couples from educated, so-called better off backgrounds too?

We’ve even had MBAs, doctors and sports personalities of national fame deprived of marital choice and asking for our help.

Harsh Malhotra Chief Co-ordinator: You would be surprised to know how many. We had engineers, doctors, advocates, professors, policemen, government officials, bank officials, MBAs and BCAs, MSW, sports personalities of national fame, people with families of political background, people with families of judicial background, rich people  - all come to us for help on facing opposition to martial choice. Many of these cases have been reported also. We can’t talk about specific cases as we honour the privacy of the couples.

Love Commandos has completed almost three years in operation now. Have you noticed any shift in the way people think about marital choice?

Sanjoy Sachdev, Chairman: India is changing. So far as marital choice is concerned, it’s clear that the youth want a casteless society. But Rome was not built in a day and there’s a long way to go before we start seeing any real change.

In the Indian popular culture – starting from Bollywood to music to literature – we’ve glorified love and freedom of marriage for ages. Yet when it comes to real life the general attitude towards these issues seems to have remained largely unchanged over decades, across social and economic strata. Why do you think the regressive outlook towards marital freedom is refusing to let go of its stronghold in the Indian society?

Children are considered property and female children more so.

Harsh Malhotra, Chief Co-ordinator: Children are considered property and female children more so. But I’m convinced that the youth of India is rising and Love Commandos is proud to lead the change they want.

Today we’ve online-ized the whole process of choosing one’s life partner and then matrimonial websites give you options to choose castes for potential partners. On the other hand Bollywood movies glorify so-called traditional outlook of life and marriage and K-series TV serials exalting arranged marriages gain wild popularity. Do you think intolerance towards sexual/personal freedom is making a comeback as “cool” in today’s Indian society?

There will come a day when you will find such promoters of casteism finding it hard to support their existence.

Sanjoy Sachdev, Chairman: Films and serials are a face of the society and all stories are taken from goings on in real life. I’d say that’s the reason all hit films tell love stories. As far as the matrimonial industry is concerned – they are profit-making entities and have no option but to sell what customers demand. But the youth believes in love and I’m sure given a choice most would desist from such sites or advertisements. I’ll go on to say that there will come a day when you will find such promoters of casteism finding it hard to support their existence. Sexual and personal freedom is guaranteed by our great constitution and by Hon’ble Supreme Court, and it has to be honoured.

When a boy can choose the leaders of the country at 18 by casting his vote why can’t he marry at the same age?

However our laws are still male dominated. Like the one which says that the minimum age for marriage for a boy is 21 as against 18 for a girl. In my opinion it should be 18 for both. When a boy can choose the leaders of the country at 18 by casting his vote why can’t he marry at the same age? Indian Majority Act says a boy of 18 is major but Child Marriage Act says that till 21 he is a child whereas a girl of 18 is major.

I would urge the youth to come out on the streets against such discrimination.

What are your thoughts on how we should go about stopping honour killings at the grassroots level?

Sonu Rangi, Commando Co-ordinator: Only awareness can do so, not administrative measures alone.

What are your thoughts on how we can create a culture more tolerant of personal choice in marriage across social and economic strata in India?

Harsh Malhotra, Chief Co-ordinator: The onus lies on the youth. The youth has to be committed to protecting their own freedom and if they’re in love they should say so with pride. They should never succumb to the pressure and emotional atyachar of parents, families or so called society and should work for a new social order which exalts love, not vilify it.

What is your vision for Love Commandos?

Sanjoy Sachdev, Chairman: We are a voice for the youth as is mentioned in our theme song. We’ll continue to support and protect the freedom of the youth.  We believe that love shall conquer the world one day.

What message would you like to leave for the Love in India readers?

Prem Ka Vikas Ho, Premi Premikaon Main Vishwas Ho, Prem Virodhion Ka Naash Ho, Garv Se Kaho Hum Premi Hain

Kyonki

Pyar Karna Paap Nahin Hai Aur Virodhi Hamara Baap Nahin Hai

Because

Jo Premion Ke Saath Chale Ga Woh Vishva Paar Raaj Karga

Yane

Naya Sawera Ayega Premi Samaj Layega

Isiliye

Dunia Bhar Ke Premi Premikao Ek Ho

Lovers Unity Zindabad

*Names and other particulars changed.