By Mansi Choksi
On the night of November 27, 2016, Dawinder Singh dropped a bottle of sleeping pills outside his neighbor’s door. He had a soft, cheerful face, a head of woolly curls, and a tendency to laugh at the wrong times. Everyone in Kakheri, his village in the northern Indian state of Haryana, believed him to be gone, perhaps abroad. But here he was, a handkerchief tied over his mouth as if he were a bandit, fleeing to the bus stop.
Inside the house, Neetu Rani, the birdlike beauty he’d grown up adoring, was waiting for her parents to finish their soap opera. Neetu was trim and stylish, and talked about Bollywood actors as though they were her next of kin. When her mother and father went to bed, she went outside to retrieve the pills.
Two nights later, Dawinder returned in a car with a couple of his cousins, whom he’d recruited by making them watch romantic movies. When they reached Kakheri, they parked on an empty road and waited. At one in the morning, his phone rang. It was Neetu, scolding him in whispers: “What kind of sleeping pills are these?” Her parents had finished bowls of laced beans and rice but were still shuffling around the house. Dawinder asked her to be patient.
After an hour, she called again, reporting that she had shaken her mother, pretending to be scared of the dark, and there had been no response. Dawinder got out of the car and hurried to her house. She had told him not to come barefoot, but knowing that he would anyway, earlier in the day she had cleared the yard of branches and razor-rimmed leaves from the babul tree. Dawinder helped her haul her four suitcases over a low wall, and after the last one, she hoisted herself to the other side. Then they ran: through the narrow lane where they first saw each other, past the cowshed where she used to hide to take his calls, past their school and her father’s firewood shop. Finally, they reached the car.
There was a thick blanket of fog in the air when the cousin behind the wheel began driving. In the back seat, Dawinder slipped a set of twenty-one bangles around Neetu’s wrists: reds and golds stacked between whites and silvers. This was her choora, the marker of a new bride. If she wore it for a year, Dawinder would be guaranteed a long life. He tied a mangalsutra, a thread of small black beads, around her neck, and painted the part in her hair with vermilion. Neetu was now his wife, he announced. She thought that their love story was just like in the movies, only without nice costumes.
As the car sped onto the highway, Neetu began to grasp her new reality. Outside the window, rice fields flew past. She felt herself floating through space. Suddenly her stomach churned, and she realized that she needed to vomit. The car screeched to a halt; she climbed out to throw up. A few miles ahead, she needed to stop again. And again.
Three hours and five episodes of retching later, the cousins dropped the couple at a bus stop in the town of Rajpura, about seventy miles from home. When the bus came, they found seats by the window. Neetu rested her head on Dawinder’s shoulder and described the agony of waiting for her parents to drift off to sleep. “Who knows when they will be able to eat or rest again,” she said.
The sun was rising when the bus rolled through a traffic jam outside New Delhi. Dawinder saw a big, heaving city whose crowds could swallow them up and provide the anonymity they needed to survive. Neetu’s eyes watered from the pollution. Dawinder called his aunt Kulwant, who he suspected would be the only one able to receive the news of his marriage without collapsing. She asked to speak to Neetu. “Don’t betray him now,” Kulwant said. Neetu promised that she would not.
They hailed a rickshaw, which bobbed in and out of potholes and squirmed through waves of pedestrians. Neetu saw a storefront that displayed red, blue, and yellow bras; in her village, she’d been able to buy them only in white. They rode past cheap hotels that offered rooms by the hour, places where married men took their mistresses. Dawinder clutched her hand and told her to trust him.
The rickshaw stopped outside a rusted gate. They looked up at a crumbling building covered in lime plaster, scaffolding, and saris hung to dry. Outside, men were smoking and staring. Dawinder had seen videos of this place, but in person it looked nothing like he had expected. It was too late to turn back now—they had saved up ten thousand rupees ($150) to reserve a space. He took out his cell phone.
“Hello, Love Commandos,” the voice on the line said.
“We have come,” Dawinder said.
“We have been waiting for you.”
In Kakheri, the news of Neetu and Dawinder’s disappearance broke with the sunrise. Neetu’s father—Gulzar Singh, known as Kala—walked around the village, crazed. With his wrestler’s physique and pencil-thin mustache, Kala looked like the villain from the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic in which each character is meant to embody a trait that is supremely good or evil.
Sudesh Rani, Neetu’s mother, sat in her kitchen, sobbing. Friends gathered to commiserate: a runaway daughter was as good as dead. Women in rural Haryana are required to cover their heads and fade into the background in the presence of men; young girls are expected to stay home until they are transferred to a husband through an arranged marriage. Neetu had disgraced her family not only by eloping but by doing so with the short, slow-witted son of a neighbor. According to custom, men and women of the same village are considered to be siblings—the rule serves to maintain a separation of the sexes—which put Neetu and Dawinder’s relationship under the umbrella of incest. Worse, Dawinder was a Sikh, from the Mehra caste of palanquin bearers and boatsmen. His father, Gurmej Singh, was a truck driver turned farmer. Neetu was a Hindu of the Panchal caste, a rank of goldsmiths, stonemasons, and carpenters. Kala, a landlord with a firewood shop, was an important man in the community.
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.
Neetu and Dawinder’s match should have been unthinkable. When they met, in 2005, her family had just moved up the street. She was nine, he was twelve. After school, Dawinder would play video games with Neetu’s brother, Deepak, and Neetu would play house with Dawinder’s sister, Jasbir. They all got along well for a few years, until one afternoon, when Deepak grabbed Dawinder’s neck during an argument. Kala, who was known to have a short fuse, broke them up and slapped Dawinder, who can still recall the sharp pain of the blow. The families stopped speaking. Besides, the children were entering their teens, and it was not proper for girls and boys their age to spend time together.
A year later, Dawinder noticed Neetu looking at him on the walk home from school. When he got to his house, he made himself a cup of tea and climbed onto a stool in his parents’ room, curious whether he could see her from the window. She was out on her terrace, still watching him from a distance. Feeling bold, he raised his glass to her. She responded by bursting into laughter.
Dawinder was sure that this girl was trying to get him into trouble. But every day after that, Neetu would dawdle on the way home so that the two of them could talk. If no one else was around, they would run into a shed on their block so they could be close. On Karva Chauth, the Hindu festival in which married women fast until sundown for the safety of their husbands, Neetu refrained from eating to show Dawinder that she’d taken him as hers.
Within a year, the relationship was discovered. One night after dinner, assuming that her parents were asleep, Neetu sneaked into Dawinder’s house. The two had hardly a moment together before Sudesh thundered in and dragged her out. She warned Dawinder that if he wanted to live, he should leave Kakheri immediately. Neetu wept all night, begging her mother to believe that she would never see him again. Sudesh cried, too, stopping only to pummel Neetu’s back or pull her hair. Days later, Neetu’s parents carted her off to stay with relatives out of town, and the following spring, they sent her to boarding school.
Dawinder was dispatched to England. His parents sold off their largest piece of ancestral land to pay for his enrollment at a university in London. Upon arriving, however, he found out that they had been scammed; the university had been offering sham degrees and was soon shut down by the government. He eventually got a job as a stock boy at a supermarket run by a Sikh family and was able to send a portion of his salary home every month. But after a year, he was arrested for selling liquor without a license and deported for overstaying his visa. It was too dangerous for him to return to Kakheri, so he went to live with his aunt Kulwant, in another village, and worked at her son’s cell phone shop.
Dawinder and Neetu, who had gone on to college, managed to stay in touch. She begged her classmates to let her receive his calls on their cell phones, which they kept hidden behind toilet tanks. The two would discuss mundane subjects—who ate what for lunch, gossip about her brother’s failed love affairs—and assess the profound obstacles facing their relationship. Finally, one evening in 2016, Dawinder told Neetu that this had gone on long enough: they needed to get married. She was twenty and he was twenty-three.
The night that Neetu and Dawinder eloped, his parents were in Ladwa, a town some fifty miles from home, bringing a relative to the hospital. Shortly after their son’s departure was discovered, Gurmej—a short, soft-spoken, fragile man—received a call from a cousin asking to meet him outside the hospital. He found ten men waiting there, wielding bamboo sticks. Kala was sitting on the hood of his car, swaying his head from side to side like a madman, threatening to kill everyone in sight. The men threw Gurmej in the car and drove off.
They brought him to the police station near Kakheri and demanded that the officer on duty compel Gurmej to reveal where the children were hiding. The officer sat them all down, served a round of tea, and explained that he had already been informed about the couple by the Love Commandos, a shelter for people who wanted to marry against the wishes of their families. Neetu and Dawinder were legally adults, who had taken each other as husband and wife. The matter was out of his hands.
When Neetu and Dawinder arrived at the Love Commandos shelter, a dog named Romeo sniffed them for guns and explosives. A young man led them past a double gate and into a three-bedroom apartment. There was a minifridge and a wall shrine of assorted Hindu deities. He brought them to one of the bedrooms, which was cluttered with newspapers, ashtrays, and biscuits. An older man, dressed in a tracksuit, was sitting in a plastic lawn chair in front of a computer. This was Sanjoy Sachdev, the organization’s chairman. He looked unwashed and reeked of cigarettes, but everything he uttered sounded to Neetu and Dawinder like poetry. He told them that even the Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati had married against caste tradition. Neetu and Dawinder felt a rush of confidence.
The Love Commandos operated like a family, Sachdev said, so couples were to call him Baba, or grandfather. (He was a youthful fifty-six.) There were three other commandos, who lived in the building next door and were to be addressed as Papa. Each of them had his particular responsibility: Harsh Malhotra, a former interior decorator and local politician, coordinated rescue operations for couples in distress. Sonu Rangi, a former volunteer for the Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena party, organized weddings. Govinda Chand, a college student, paid bills and assisted with other work. Sachdev oversaw the registration of marriages.
Before starting the Love Commandos, Sachdev had tried to open a poultry farm, a sweetened-milk company, and a factory for car parts; all those businesses tanked. He worked briefly as a consultant to Indian Railways, entered and lost a local election, and finally became a journalist. But he sensed that he was meant for a larger purpose. One Valentine’s Day, a colleague in the newsroom told him about the Hindu-nationalist groups that roamed parks and college campuses to protest the Western corruption of Indian values. They beat up couples, cut their hair, sprayed them with chili powder, and pronounced them brother and sister. Hearing of the victims suffering for their love, Sachdev thought, “Who were these people to poke their dirty nose in between?”
In 2010, when a court verdict on the Manoj-Babli honor killing was making national headlines, he got the idea to create the Love Commandos. He didn’t like the term “runaways,” so he referred to his clients as “people leaving parental homes for the unification of the love family.” He wanted them to relish their freedom. “This country is sitting on a volcano,” he said. “This is a country of six hundred and fifty million young people. Each young person has a heart that is burning with a flame called love.”
As it turned out, Sachdev had never been in love himself—it was only his work. “I didn’t have time to fall in love,” he said, “because I was busy solving other people’s problems.” When he was twenty-eight, he had an arranged marriage. His wife, whom he described as a dutiful woman, now lived in his hometown, thirty miles from New Delhi, and took care of his father. Sometimes Sachdev would go to see her, but months might pass between visits; planning trips depended on his mood. They had four children, who were grown, and had given him what he described as “an eternal feeling of love.”
Sachdev served Neetu and Dawinder cups of tea and told them the rules of the shelter: no sex, no afternoon naps, and no contact with the outside world. Couples were required to surrender their cell phones so that their location could not be traced. They were also expected to pay for their wedding ceremonies. Neetu and Dawinder were so grateful that, without being asked, they handed over Dawinder’s ATM card and told Sachdev the PIN.
Sachdev thanked them and brought them to their room. It had no windows, and the walls were chipping with pistachio-green paint. On the floor were three tattered mattresses—they would sleep beside the two other couples lodging there. Neetu was surprised; she had assumed that the young man who had escorted them in, and others she’d seen in the kitchen, were domestic help.
Sachdev told them that they had ten minutes to freshen up. Neetu changed into a shalwar kameez, Dawinder threw on a clean shirt. Rangi took them to a nearby building, where, above shops selling spare motorcycle parts and batteries, they stepped into an apartment that had been converted into an Arya Samaj temple. (Arya Samaj, a nineteenth-century movement that supports caste system reform, facilitates intercaste marriage.) As a priest chanted Vedic scriptures, Neetu and Dawinder exchanged garlands and circled a holy fire. A photograph was taken as evidence, and two witnesses, acquaintances of Rangi’s, signed a religious marriage certificate. The last step was to submit the certificate to the government marriage registrar to make their wedding legally binding. Sachdev would take care of that.
Under the authority of the state, love marriages are permitted in India; according to tradition, they are forbidden. In villages across the north, khap panchayats, councils of unelected wealthy elders, resolve local disputes, issue diktats about daily life, and enforce the caste system above the rule of law. Each caste has its own khap to represent its interests.
Following the Manoj-Babli honor killing, a khap leader was convicted of murder. But that ruling was soon overturned, and khaps have continued to facilitate acts of violence, thanks in part to the complicity of politicians who rely on them for votes. “If you say, ‘I’m a Brahman,’ then even the poorest of Brahmans will vote for you,” Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Centre for Social Research, a gender equality group in New Delhi, told me. While India is still debating how much sway khaps should hold in modern society, khap leaders appear on television threatening anyone who crosses them. If nontraditional marriages are socially sanctioned, they argue, the fabric of Indian culture will unravel.
In 2010, women’s rights activists began lobbying for a law to criminalize honor killings, seeking to penalize the full gamut of associated offenses—harassment, intimidation, economic sanctions, social boycotts—that can endanger couples, their families, and anyone harboring them. In their approach, the activists sought to emulate India’s laws against dowry and child marriage, which identify the tradition at the root of the crime.
On their advisement, Kirti Singh, a Supreme Court lawyer in New Delhi, drafted the Prevention of Crimes in the Name of Honor and Tradition, a bill that would hold accountable families that act alone, or with khaps, to punish people who enter love marriages. She also sought to end collusion between vengeful families and the police. “The police don’t act for the couple,” Singh told me. “Instead, they act for the girl’s family. Because they themselves come, I suppose, from a society and a way of thinking that believes there shouldn’t be choice marriages, particularly in cases where it’s an intercaste marriage.” The bill stipulated that if a couple tells a public servant that they want to be together, the police cannot process a family’s complaint against them. That would counter a common tactic in which families file false cases of kidnapping and rape against the groom.
Singh delivered her draft legislation to the Law Commission of India, an executive body tasked with legal reform. Two years later, however, the commission released its own version of the bill, Prevention of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliance. The revision maintained that khap intervention in marriage should be criminalized, but it did not account for the roles of families and police officials. For that bill to become law, it would require input from representatives of every state and union territory, along with approval by three national ministries, before it could be presented to a standing committee, which would then consider it for parliamentary debate. Yet today, five years later, the proposed legislation has not been cleared by the ministries. “This bill will never be a priority for the government,” Ravi Kant, another Supreme Court lawyer, told me. “The government doesn’t want to put its hand somewhere it can get stuck.”
One afternoon, Jagmati Sangwan, an activist with the All India Democratic Women’s Association, a feminist group, took me to a government safe house for couples at an abandoned school in Rohtak, a town in Haryana. Her organization had scored a rare victory for runaways when it successfully lobbied the Punjab and Haryana High Court to establish the safe houses, in 2010. But few people were coming, Sangwan told me, because they feared that police would turn on them.
When I visited, four couples were asleep on the floor of a classroom. The walls had been carved with lovers’ names. Only runaways who have been granted protection by a legal order are permitted to stay there; one pair told me that they had stolen gold from their parents to hire a lawyer to petition the court for their admission. The order comes with an expiration date, however, and after a couple leaves the safe house, they are likely to go on being harassed by their families.
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.”
Photographs from New Delhi by Max Pinckers, from his series Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty © Max Pinckers
Read the full story, published in Harper’s Magazine in the January 2018 issue, here.