Love Commandos helping Indian couples escape prejudice

Love Commandos helping Indian couples escape prejudice

NEW DELHI - Vandna left everything behind when she fled her parents' home in India to be with the man she loved, giving up family, friends and the studies she hoped would help her become a teacher.

It is only thanks to the Love Commandos, a New Delhi-based organisation that helps desperate couples who have defied their families, that the 22-year-old and her new husband have a roof over their heads.

The organisation is the brainchild of former journalist Sanjoy Sachdev, who launched it in 2010 after coming to the aid of a young man falsely accused of rape by the family of the woman he wanted to marry.

Since then, it has helped thousands of desperate couples in the socially conservative country, giving them sanctuary in safe houses and access to legal advice.

The organisation operates seven apartments in the Indian capital, but can also call on 300 couples to take in lovers fleeing relatives' wrath for a short period.

"Some stay with us 14 months, others 14 hours," said Sachdev.

Like many young women in India, Vandna was expected to marry a man chosen by her parents, who were furious when they discovered her relationship with Dilip, whom she married in July.

They first stopped her from going to college, where she was studying business and accountancy, and then hastily arranged a marriage to a male relative.

That was the final straw, and she fled the family home a day before the marriage was due to take place.

"I haven't called my parents or my friends since I left," Vandna told AFP, sitting beside her new husband in the modest apartment provided to the couple by the Love Commandos.

"I want to be a teacher and my husband wants to set up his business, but we don't know when that is possible," said the young woman, who rarely leaves their apartment.

'Lovers' rights'

India may be modernising rapidly, but Sachdev says that violence against young people who choose their partners against their parents' wishes is still a big issue.

"Because of caste, religious, economic or social status issues, many times parents still oppose their children's relationship," he told AFP.

"A lot of young people try to convince their parents to accept their marriages, but that often ends with girls having their education stopped and being illegally detained. It can even end with honour killings."

India has for centuries seen killings that target young couples whose families or communities disapprove of their relationships.

The killings are carried out by close relatives or village elders to protect what is seen as the family's reputation and pride.

That was the fate of 21-year-old Bhawna Yadav, whose parents and uncle are accused of conspiring to kill her and dispose of her body after she married in secret.

Her family had wanted her to marry a man from the Yadav caste to which her husband Abhishek Seth did not belong.

When they learned of the secret marriage, Bhawna's parents asked Seth to let her go back to the community for a celebration, which he agreed to do on the advice of friends. Shortly afterwards, he received a call from Bhawna's cousin to say she had been killed and her body burned.

"We had so many plans," Seth told AFP. "She wanted to go to Goa on holiday and for us to have our arms tattooed with a heart and our initials" - a promise that he has kept despite his wife's death.

Love Commandos founder Sachdev says horrific incidents like these often go unreported, with even police sometimes happy to turn a blind eye.

He says the authorities need to do better at protecting young couples, and even calls on political parties to come up with an "agenda for the protection of lovers' rights".

In the meantime, he says more and more young people are finding the courage to marry for love, defying pressures of family and society and even the threat of violence.

And although the tradition of arranged marriages remains strong in India, experts say things are getting better.

"I think education leads to greater involvement of girls in their marriage arrangement," sociology professor Sonalde Desai told AFP.

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