At Harper’s, Mansi Choksi tells the story of Neetu and Dawinder, a young couple from rural India who flee to a safe house run by the Love Commandos. The young couple wanted a love marriage — as opposed to an arranged marriage, which is still common in India — so they paid the Commandos to perform a marriage ceremony, register the union with the government, and protect them from physical harm at the hands of enraged family members incensed by a marriage against caste tradition. Love Commando services are expensive, and they also exact a different and predatory price: young couples are expected to run errands, walk the bomb-sniffing dog, cook, clean, and keep house for their would-be protectors while under their watch.
Across the Indian countryside, romantic relationships can easily become ensnared by taboos. Sometimes, the consequences are fatal. In 2007, the bodies of Manoj and Babli, lovers from the same village and the same gohtra—believed to be descendants of a common ancestor—were found in gunnysacks dumped in a canal not far from Kakheri. Babli’s family, which was wealthier, had forced her to drink pesticide; they strangled Manoj to death. With support from leaders in their village, Babli’s parents saw the murders as the only punishment commensurate with their humiliation. This is a common view: according to the latest count released to the public, 251 honor killings occurred in India in 2015.
“Hello, Love Commandos,” the voice on the line said.
“We have come,” Dawinder said.
“We have been waiting for you.”
The Love Commandos, on the other hand, advertises a one-time fee that covers the cost of a wedding ceremony and registration; couples are invited to stay as long as they need. Perhaps more important is Sachdev’s promise to protect them even when it compromises his safety. Armed men and disgraced relatives routinely come knocking, he said, and at least four khaps have issued bounties for his death. None have made good on their promise, but he and his colleagues have been beaten. “Look, we are madmen,” he explained. “We are not scared of dying.”
Neetu and Dawinder had been in the shelter for several weeks, but Sachdev still had not taken their paperwork to the registrar. Whenever they asked, he assured them that he would get to it as soon as he could. Sometimes he would say there was too much traffic or that he was feeling ill. In the meantime, he would ask them for money to help cover the cost of his hospitality. As days progressed, according to Dawinder, they paid Sachdev fifty thousand rupees ($775) in unidentified general fees. Neetu would remind him that marriage registration cost only a few thousand rupees; Sachdev would look hurt and say that he had treated them like his own children, but now she was bringing money between them.
While they waited, Dawinder and the other young men at the shelter were expected to run errands for Harsh Malhotra, the chief coordinator, a hulking man with a short temper. Whenever he rang a bell, they were to gather on the balcony to receive instructions. He’d have them go out to buy him a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey, play cricket with his nephew, mop, sweep, or walk Romeo. The women stayed inside to clean and cook.