TW: Love Commandos fight India's ugly tradition11:50 am - 01/06/2013
BY ACCIDENT or design, the alleyways that lead to the front door of the Love Commandos' secret shelter are sinuous.
After a series of phone calls over several days, a commando agrees to meet us at an intersection in a north Delhi suburb. We shake hands quickly, before he plunges into the city's labyrinthine arteries.
For all the bravado of their name, the Love Commandos are people who don't always want to be found.
Ten minutes and a dozen disorienting corners into the neighbourhood stands an unmarked brick apartment. From here the Love Commandos run a quiet war on a very specific violence committed against women in India.
''Honour killings'' are an ancient but growing problem in modern India. Young women who defy their parents' 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.
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, presumed murdered.
And last month in Kolkata, Mehtab Alam dragged his sister Nilofar Bibi, 22, out into a street and decapitated her with a butcher's knife. He took her head to a police station to hand himself in. He has been charged, but his family are proud of him for upholding their honour.
The Love Commandos try to prevent such atrocities by providing help and shelter.
And their helping hand has reached as far as Australia, where a couple who defied parents to marry now live happily, though still in some fear of retribution.
Honour killings rarely attract significant attention in India. Many are never reported at all. Women simply disappear. As all of India roils over the recent Delhi gang-rape case, and protests across the country demand renewed attention on women's safety and rights, honour killings remain a known, but barely noticed, fact of life.
While honour killings do occur in cities, many happen in rural villages, beyond the media's spotlight and outside the ambit of India's emerging urban middle class that has led recent women's rights protests.
The Honour Based Violence Awareness Network estimates 1000 people are murdered for ''honour'' in India every year, and the killers are almost always family members.
Perpetrators are brought to justice only occasionally, despite a Supreme Court warning that those "planning to perpetrate honour killings should know the gallows await them".
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, UNICEF says.
But increasingly, young men and women are finding partners themselves, defying 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 help and new places to live, and, often, to marry them.
The Commandos run secret safe houses to where frightened couples can flee. They provide food and shelter, and do whatever they can within India's unwieldy legal system to help lovers start new lives.
Sitting in the dark, between cups of sweet chai, cigarettes and an endlessly ringing mobile phone, Love Commandos founding father 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,'' he says. ''We feel it is a national disgrace what occurs in our country."
He says it is almost always the woman who suffers most. "She has to bear much more torture, agony, abuses, beating and even killing, because we live in a male-dominated society, a chauvinistic society. When a girl falls in love, her character is assassinated in this society.
"In this country, parents think children are their property, and they can tie them anywhere, sell them 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 with her parents in Punjab in India's north, was from a higher caste, and her parents were adamant she would not marry him. (*Not their real names)
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.
Arjan says Nayana was under 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."
Over months, the pressure grew steadily. "Her brother was very violent, sometimes doing physical torture against her, hurting her.''
But Nayana was determined to be with the man she loved.
"They tried their best to stop our relationship, but she was very strong,'' Arjan says. ''She made it possible for us."
Arjan flew back to India. He and Nayana escaped into the custody of the Love Commandos, who arranged a secret wedding in Delhi last October. He just shy of his 22nd birthday. She was 24. The couple now live in a major Australian city, and hope to stay.
Back in India, relations with Nayana's family are improving slowly. Time has brought a level of acceptance, but the couple are still not free of fear.
Even in Australia, they are wary of having their real names or photographs, or even the city they live in, being made public.
At the Commandos' headquarters in Delhi, in a 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."
She went to the police, but they held her in detention before sending her back to her family.
She was locked in her parents' house, with the TV turned up loud so neighbours could not hear her cries for help.
Finally, she was married off to a man she had 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,'' she says. ''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.
''During this four months, they beat me and tortured me whenever they wished."
She begged her father 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 TV channel. At the first opportunity she fled to 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,'' she says. ''But I see my future with him."
Sadly, Sanjoy Sachdev says, Sapna's horrific experience is not exceptional. ''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.
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, then there shall be no room for hatred."
The source has some additional pictures of the Love Commandos.