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Where families forbid love, 'love commandos' step in to help young couples in India

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the world's most populous nation, which is now India, with more than 1.4 billion people, arranged marriages are normal. Parents usually find spouses for their children based on caste or religion. Now a younger generation is pushing back, sometimes leading to fractured families or violence at home. My colleague Lauren Frayer spent five years as NPR's India correspondent, and she's reported a new series for NPR's Rough Translation podcast. It's about love, marriage but also secret notes, a threat of suicide and a vigilante group that goes by the name of Love Commandos.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This is a group that helps people escape and elope with a person of their own choice. The group also manages their marriage paperwork, helps them get a marriage license, register their marriage, gives them a place to stay in a safe house in Delhi to start their life as newlyweds away from threats from their families. And in the summer of 2018, I went to this secret safe house in Delhi. I met the head of the Commandos on a street corner outside of a metro stop in Delhi.

RASCOE: Yeah, his name is Sanjoy Sachdev.

FRAYER: And he wouldn't tell me where the safe house was. I had to follow him. He hops on a motorbike. I hop in an auto rickshaw with my producer, and he literally does everything short of, like, blindfolding us so we wouldn't see where we were going. We wind through these narrow alleyways. We did, like, five or six turns so we would lose track of where we were going, and eventually we end up at the heart of Paharganj. And this is a Delhi neighborhood that's famous for backpacker hotels. It's near a train station. There are also some brothels. And we pull up next to this nondescript four-story building, and he opens the door to this secret safe house.

SANJOY SACHDEV: Welcome. It is our base shelter, base shelter of the Love Commandos.

FRAYER: Inside the shelter, I met couples. Some of them hadn't been outdoors in two months, they said. Part of the deal of this shelter protection is you put your safety in these men's hands so they confiscate your cell phones. You have no contact with your family. You wait weeks, sometimes months for the Commandos to get you a marriage license, register that marriage license with police and get you police protection if you need that, and only after they're confident that you will be safe on the outside do they let you go.

RASCOE: I mean, what did the couples there tell you?

FRAYER: Some of them had these dramatic escape stories. And a couple of months later, I started to hear from them, and I heard, you know, even more dramatic versions of their escape stories and violence that they faced. And I also started to hear different versions of life in that shelter, versions that I found pretty troubling.

RASCOE: Well, so it sounds like the safe house may not have been so safe for them after all. Like, what did they tell you?

FRAYER: They described long days of cleaning and cooking and running the shelter themselves, being asked to fork over large sums of money to the Commandos and even being asked to give foot massages to some of the Love Commandos. And then the real shocker came.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Owner of NGO Love Commandos has been arrested for allegedly harassing and blackmailing interfaith couples who sought help at his shelter home in Delhi.

FRAYER: To be clear, the Love Commandos are charged with six offenses, including extortion, for demanding and taking money from couples in their care, and with wrongful confinement, for allegedly keeping couples longer than was necessary in the shelter for their safety. Sanjoy Sachdev and his colleagues have repeatedly said they are not guilty. They have entered a not guilty plea in court. They're still awaiting trial. But Sachdev says he's the victim here of a big misunderstanding and of a political conspiracy because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a Hindu nationalist, and under him, forces of tradition have been really emboldened. Sanjoy Sachdev has been affiliated with a few different opposition parties. And when he was arrested, he said this is a political conspiracy against me.

RASCOE: Why was Sachdev even doing this? Like, with so much stacked against him, why did he say he was really putting himself on the line to help these other people?

FRAYER: I mean, I've spent years thinking about that, about his motivations. And I think what he would say is that he just believes it's right. He just believes that young people should have a right to marry who they choose. And one of those couples were Surya and Akanksha. And for safety reasons that will become clear later in this story, I'm only going to use their first names here, but Surya and Akanksha grew up as neighbors. And what happened was what happened to a lot of teenagers.

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

FRAYER: They're 15 and 17, and they fall in love. The difference is that Surya and Akanksha are from different castes, and many people in India feel that you should marry within your caste. And you should also marry the person that your parents arrange for you. Both of them had to accept that they were going to go against all of these traditions in their society and against the path that pretty much everyone they knew had taken.

RASCOE: That's a lot for a teenager in love to have to deal with. How did they figure this out?

FRAYER: They come up with three plans. Plan A, we'll convince our parents. They'll accept our relationship. We'll win them over. They'll love that we're together. Plan B is if our parents don't accept our relationship, we're going to have to run away, and we're going to have to elope. And plan C is suicide.

RASCOE: My goodness.

FRAYER: And they hope it doesn't reach that. But they say, if we're not allowed to be together, we're going to send a drastic signal to everyone in our community, to other parents in this situation. Surya and Akanksha sneak around for years. And then on Akanksha's 21st birthday, her parents call her into the living room, and they say, congratulations. We've arranged a marriage for you to a guy on the other side of the country. Akanksha is horrified, and she gives them a surprise of their own by saying, well, I can't marry that guy. I want to marry the neighbor, Surya.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: So how do her parents react to that news?

FRAYER: They're pretty adamant that she doesn't get to choose. They say, no, don't be silly. You're not marrying the neighbor's son, Surya. We've found a perfectly good match for you within our caste. And they take away a Akanksha's phone so that she can no longer text Surya. But the couple find ways to communicate. They start slipping notes back and forth through a window in the bathroom. And one day, Surya slips a note with just one letter. And Akanksha knows exactly what it means, the letter B.

RASCOE: Plan B.

FRAYER: Right. Plan B.

RASCOE: But in this case, it means, let's run away together.

FRAYER: Akanksha gets permission to attend computer class. And she leaves her computer class one morning. Surya pulls up on a motorbike outside. She hops on the back of the bike, wraps her arms around his waist, and they run away together. But they go to the train station, and they board a train, and they start zigzagging across India. Akanksha's father and Surya's mother start to chase them. And it worked. Surya and Akanksha decide to go back to their parents. But just to be safe, they take out an insurance policy, and that is they decide to get married. And it's a done deal. And then they reunite with their parents, and Akanksha says her father is livid. Surya and Akanksha immediately recognize their parents have no interest in allowing them to stay together. And then it gets worse. Akanksha says her extended family takes her away and locks her up.

Now, I just want to be clear. I am telling you Akanksha's side of the story. I did not reach out to her parents to verify this. I did verify it with Surya and members of Surya's family and the Love Commandos, which helped document their escape. But I have not reached out to a Akanksha's parents out of consideration for her continued safety and well-being. And she says her family beats her, even her grandmother. And she told me she remembers the feeling of the rings on her father's fingers as his fist hit her face.

RASCOE: My goodness.

FRAYER: And at some point into this ordeal, Akanksha manages to steal her aunt's phone and send a text off to Surya. She's able to send just one line of text. The text says, I am alive. I'm in this village. But I think they might kill me. And Surya - he doesn't dare respond, but he makes one phone call to the only group he thinks can help them. And that's the Love Commandos. And so the Love Commandos help Suriya get to a Akanksha's ancestral village and try to rescue her. And at the same time as the Love Commandos and Surya are trying to get to that village, Akanksha's family is telling her, he's not coming for you. He's never coming for you. You need to file rape and kidnapping charges against Surya. It's the only way to save our family honor. You need to say he tricked you into marrying him and that everything that's happened was against your will. And after more than a week of this, she says, fine. Take me to the police station. I will literally say whatever you want. I will file charges against Surya.

RASCOE: Oh, no. So she's going to betray him?

FRAYER: They sit her down in a police station, one parent on each side. And the police officer turns on a tape recorder and says, do you know a man named Surya? What did he do to you? And she says, yes, I know a man named Surya. He's my husband, and I want to be with him. And the police are like, well, that's not what you're supposed to say. She says the police stop the tape, rewind it, turn it on again. Do you know a man named Surya? And Akanksha repeats, he's my husband, and I want to be with him.

RASCOE: This is so dramatic. It's like a movie. Like, how do her parents react?

FRAYER: Well, her parents are like, we're done. Like we are washing our hands of this daughter that we can no longer control. And they walk out. And she's left at this police station with only the clothes on her back, no phone, no nothing. It's getting dark. And then Surya walks in. And I asked them later about that moment and what it felt like. And Surya told me it was like putting a fish back in water, like coming back to life.

RASCOE: And so then after he comes in, it's the Love Commandos who've come to help, right?

FRAYER: The Love Commandos help Surya get there and help both of them get to Delhi and to their safe house. Sachdev registers their marriage with local police. He arranges police protection. And they start the healing process. And they meet other couples for the first time who are in their shoes.

RASCOE: It sounds like in this story that the Love Commandos and Sachdev is doing something noble, right? So how did he come to be portrayed as a villain and arrested?

FRAYER: So in the shelter, I told you there was bonding among the couples, but it was also pretty intense. It's this, like, crazy Spartan boot camp with no contact with the outside world. And rifts, arguments start to form among the couples. Surya and Akanksha were very happy with the treatment they received from the Love Commandos. But a lot of other couples - in fact, most other couples that I have spoken with - they start to doubt the Love Commandos. And when Surya and Akanksha leave the shelter, other couples, more disgruntled ones - they decide to become whistleblowers, and they actually turn Sachdev in. And the tide just completely turns on him. He was charged with criminal intimidation, extortion, wrongful confinement, holding couples against their will. Now, Sachdev has pleaded not guilty. He denies any wrongdoing. And so do his co-defendants, the other Love Commandos. And so in our podcast, I spend a lot of time exploring who Sanjoy Sachdev really is, what life was like in this safe house and the stories behind all those headlines, you know, whether he is a hero or a villain.

RASCOE: Lauren, thank you so much for talking with us today. It's really an incredible story.

FRAYER: Thank you so much for having me, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONGFINCH'S "I LOVE YOU MORE (FABIAN)")

RASCOE: Download NPR's Rough Translation podcast for Lauren Freya's investigation into the Love Commandos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONGFINCH'S "I LOVE YOU MORE (FABIAN)")

RASCOE: And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.

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