“We operate from a secret shelter,” says a Love Commandos representative over the phone. “We don’t have an office. We usually meet journalists at our base shelter.” How can one reach you, then? Your address is not listed on the website, I say. “You are not getting my point. Had we mentioned our address online, someone would have shot us a long time ago.”
The volunteers and co-founders of Love Commandos, a Delhi-based, non-profit organisation that helps harried runaway couples get married and protects them from communal hardliners, have a reason to be secretive: they are often at the receiving end of insults and threats from khappanchayat members, conservative parents and conniving cops — people and groups opposed to inter-caste and inter-faith marriages.
The man on the phone tells me to reach a particular Metro station in central Delhi and call him again. After reaching the station, a different call operator directs me to a nearby neighbourhood. “Call us once you reach,” he says. When I do, he asks: “What colour shirt are you wearing? Someone will come to pick you,” and hangs up. A minute later, a grey-haired man, wearing a Nehru jacket and kurta-pyjama, stops a few steps away from me, turns his head sideways to scan the street, faces me, nods slightly and smiles. Sanjoy Sachdev, Love Commandos’ chairman, knows a thing or two about making an entry. Sachdev’s theatrical audacity befits the organisation’s motto, too: “Pyaar karna paap nahin hai — virodhi hamaara b aap nahin hai.”
On any given day, Love Commandos’ base shelter is either one or all of the following: a 2-BHK flat, an NGO’s head office, or a protection home. “Even right now our base shelter is protecting three couples and two boys,” says Sachdev. When couples reach its 24×7 helpline numbers, the call is simultaneously routed to 12 phone numbers within the organisation. “We first ask them to e-mail the exact nature of the problem, along with a scanned copy of age and address proof.” Then, a volunteer in the concerned city sets out to secretly authenticate these details.
“Then, we get them married at a lawfully valid location (such as select courts or places of worship),” says Sachdev. If the couple needs a secure shelter, they can stay at a permanent house owned by the organisation. “They can stay for however long they want — some have stayed with us for four hours, some for 14 months.” Love Commandos is currently sheltering 73 couples in its eight permanent shelters (including the base shelter) in Delhi NCR. The organisation has more than 350 temporary shelters, too, all over the country — these are the houses of couples, now well-settled in a new life, who were once rescued by Love Commandos’ members.
Love Commandos has been around for less than five years, but its history is about a decade and half old. In 2001, Sachdev and a few friends created Peace Commandos — a group that protected lovers on Valentine’s Day. On July 7, 2010, Love Commandos, helmed by the same six core members — journalists, businessmen and lawyers — who founded Peace Commandos, came into being. Since then, the NGO has grown at a rapid rate: it consists of more than 17 lakh volunteers, spread across the country and receives “300 to 500 calls” every day.
Most callers fall in the 21-30 age bracket and span a wide range: doctors, engineers, police officers, advocates, shopkeepers, labourers, rickshaw pullers and defence officers, among others. “That says a lot that irrespective of your financial standing, you might not be allowed to make your own life decisions,” says Sachdev. Love Commandos receives the most number of calls from Andhra Pradesh, followed by Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Barely anyone calls from the north-eastern states. “There are only three makeshift shelters in the northeast — one each in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, where not more than six couples have stayed.”
Love Commandos was featured on Satyamev Jayate in an episode on honour killings in season one; in April 2014, tennis player Björn Borg raised money for the organisation through a digital campaign called ‘Unite the Lovers’; Belgian photographer Max Pinckers featured the couples in his award-winning book, Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty. And, yet, the founders are finding it difficult to prevail over the odds.
“We have had to sell our cars; Harsh (Malhotra) sold his 3-BHK flat,” says Sachdev. It costs Sachdev and his friends around Rs 10 lakh per month to sustain Love Commandos. The organisation relies solely on philanthropic contributions, but they have been falling well short of reaching the target for months now. “People keep talking about corporate social responsibility, but why don’t they come forward and help us?” he asks. “Right now, I have only Rs 1000 in my account. But, even then I am quite content. We have helped unite more than 38,500 couples, that too in less than five years. Can anything be more satisfying than saving lives?”
You can visit Lovecommandos.org to contribute
Photos Courtesy Max Pinckers (www.maxpinckers.be)