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Marrying for love in India can be risky — it often comes without parental consent

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Marriage has a very specific meaning in India. It's a union that's been arranged by the bride and groom's families, or at least done with their blessing. Our next story is about love marriage, which often comes without parental consent. It can be risky, with partners from different social groups facing the potential threat of violence. However, a group called the Love Commandos vowed to help. Rough Translation podcast host Gregory Warner and reporter Lauren Frayer look into whether the group made good on its promise or took advantage of vulnerable couples.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Back in 2018, a newlywed couple named Akanksha and Surya made a long bus ride from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi. They finally felt a sense of hope about the future.

AKANKSHA: Love is a beautiful feeling. (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Conscious new husband, Surya, was a lower caste. We're only using their first names for their safety. Akanksha says her parents were opposed to the match. She says they locked her up after discovering she and Surya had secretly wed...

AKANKSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ...And tried to force her to file rape and kidnapping charges against him.

AKANKSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Now, we didn't ask Akanksha's parents about these allegations out of an abundance of caution for her safety. But involving the police to break up unapproved marriages - that's a familiar strategy.

AKANKSHA: I'm very emotional that time. And I'm also scared.

WARNER: But during the time that Akanksha was locked up, Surya made a phone call to a volunteer group called the Love Commandos. They helped put pressure on the police, arranged for Surya to find Akanksha and rescue her...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

SANJOY SACHDEV: Welcome.

WARNER: ...And then paid for a bus ticket to bring the newlyweds to their main shelter.

SACHDEV: It is our base shelter - base shelter of the Love Commandos.

WARNER: Sanjoy Sachdev is the group's co-founder. He launched the Love Commandos more than a decade ago with this unique idea - to give couples on the run a place to hide from their parents.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: We had to go up this very steep set of stairs - like, it was almost like a ladder - through this door and then into the safe house.

WARNER: NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer made a trip to the shelter in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SACHDEV: Here, you have a metal detector for checking.

FRAYER: Checking to see if I've come in with weapons.

SACHDEV: Yeah.

WARNER: The idea for the Love Commandos has its origin in a familiar holiday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Happy Valentine's Day.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Happy Valentine's Day.

WARNER: At least to judge by the ads you would see on TV. Valentine's Day in India...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) My baby.

WARNER: ...Is about as cheerful and as corporate as almost anywhere else on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) This is so romantic.

WARNER: But...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It's Valentine's Day today.

WARNER: ...Look at Indian news, and this is your Valentine's Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And we're not surprised because you are seeing Bajrang Dal workers chasing couples in...

WARNER: Hindu nationalist vigilantes are known to target couples they find in the street on Valentine's Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They had said that they will hit the couples with sticks and...

WARNER: They say that the holiday is a Western import that's corrupting Indian values.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And hit them with rotten tomatoes and all these kind of statements that they had...

WARNER: But Sachdev defended Valentine's Day. He started helping to protect couples that were being attacked. And then in 2012, his new group...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Love Commandos.

WARNER: ...Entered the national limelight when he appeared on the country's biggest talk show.

SWATI MALIWAL: And I was quite fascinated because it's a very good story.

WARNER: Swati Maliwal is the head of the Delhi Commission for Women, or DCW.

FRAYER: And would you say you were on the same side, the same side in terms of helping these couples?

MALIWAL: Initially, yes, because what he actually told us was very different from what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: In January of 2019, after the Love Commandos had been in operation for almost a decade, Maliwal received a tip from a young woman who was staying at the shelter with her husband.

MALIWAL: And we were totally shocked to hear what we heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALIWAL: He was charging a lot of money from them. He was also threatening them. The men were - and the women - were supposed to work all the time. So it was quite bizarre. That very night, we did a surprise inspection of the shelter home.

FRAYER: You knocked in the door. And what happened?

MALIWAL: The door was open.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALIWAL: The environment was very bad. There were just two rooms, so many people forced to live in that room. And when we went in, we thought that we are rescuing one couple, but everybody who was there, they screamed. They shouted. They just told us that somehow just get us out.

FRAYER: She then calls the police, and each of the Commandos is taken to the local police station.

WARNER: In our reporting for the Love Commandos podcast series, we collected stories from at least 30 people who stayed at the shelter over the years. Many of them alleged that the Commandos demanded money from them and withheld important documents they needed to start their lives as newlyweds. The trial against Sachdev and the Commandos is ongoing, but they face six counts, including wrongful confinement, extortion and criminal intimidation. Sachdev and the other Love Commandos deny all of these accusations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: As for Akanksha and Surya, the newlyweds we met at the top who escaped to the shelter, they still call Sanjay Sachdev the respectful term Baba, grandfather.

SURYA: Baba is like God to me because he helped me at that moment when I have no one in my back.

WARNER: And even many couples who accuse Sachdev of exploiting them look back on their time in the shelter with something like nostalgia. Mansi Choksi is a writer and journalist and my co-host on our Rough Translation podcast series. She's got a theory.

MANSI CHOKSI: It's probably the only time in their entire life where it's going to be just them alone. They're in this, like, zone at the shelter where they can actually nurture and hone their relationship, get to know each other. This is a gift that most people that enter arranged marriage don't get.

WARNER: Mansi says that in a country where couples are told that love marriage is a selfish act, the very existence of the Love Commandos offers an alternative, that choosing one's own beloved is morally right and worthy of protection. Since the raid, every couple that stayed in the shelter has had to figure out their own new relationship to their family. Akanksha was cut off by her own parents, but her husband's mom took her in and even threw her a wedding.

AKANKSHA: Family is happy, and (non-English language spoken).

WARNER: "Now," she says...

AKANKSHA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: "...There is no need to play hide-and-seek anymore."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: All five episodes of Love Commandos from Rough Translation are available now. Listen to the series from beginning to end wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.