As Western notions of love gain greater acceptance in an increasingly urbanized and middle-class India, ancient traditions like caste and the conduct demanded by such classifications are coming under attack.
Still, the practice of marriage for many Indians remains rooted in age-old customs -- namely, in most cases, one’s spouse is selected by one’s parents and family (i.e., the "arranged marriage"), and the candidate must belong to one’s same caste.
Historically, if a young Indian couple fell in love in defiance of their parents’ wishes, they often faced grim consequences, even death for their transgressions.
Such killings still occur, particularly in rural villages where notions of caste, religion and tribe remain powerfully enforced by patriarchal codes.
However, in the 21st century, some in India are fighting back against such restrictions.
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The Love Commandos is a New Delhi-based voluntary vigilante organization that seeks to protect young couples who have broken taboos by entering into a sexual relationship/marriage and have been threatened by their families. In certain extreme cases, illicit young couples face a death penalty -- i.e., “honor killings” ordered by the council elders in their home villages (the still powerful, influential and all-male khap panchayats).
Sanjoy Sachdeva, the founder of the Love Commandos, told the Global Post newspaper that such panchayats have placed a $40,000 bounty on his head as punishment for helping and sheltering young couples flee the wrath of their village councils.
Honor killings have typically been associated with Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa, but they frequently occur in India across all social classes and faiths. Many such murders are disguised as suicides or accidents, often making prosecution impossible. Even if the young lovers escape the anger of their parents, they still may face hostility from the police and court system.
The Love Commandos claim that they have helped up to 30,000 couples since the 2010 founding and still receive about 300 calls per day from frightened couples in need.
“It is a war against fundamentalists,” Sachdeva told the Global Post. “It is a war against orthodox people -- whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or of any other religion. No religion preaches to hate love.”
The Post cited the case of Rahul Acharya, 28 and Puja Singh, 23, who married in secret after falling in love when they met at a wedding. Acharya is a member of the priestly Brahmin caste, while Singh belongs to the Rajput warrior caste, causing much hostility and consternation among their parents. Eventually, the couple managed to escape together to Delhi where the Love Commandos took them in. Singh’s father subsequently filed a kidnapping and abduction charge on Acharya, whose absence from his bank job has put his career in grave jeopardy. They remain under tight security with little hope of a prosperous future, but at least they are alive and together.
Sachdev told CNN that marriage rules and rites should be the last thing on Indian peoples’ minds.
"We have far too many problems in India to worry about someone choosing to love another," he said. "How can society object to love relationships? Our young boys and girls have rights. India has become [a] country of killers of love. Every couple that approaches us is under so much pressure, so much stigma, where they feel they may be killed any minute."
Meenakshi Ganguly, the Southeast Asia director of Human Rights Watch, praised the Love Commandos.
"There isn't a social worker network available to these young people who feel really isolated, so this group could be doing a wonderful thing," she said. "There's more television, more kids are going to college and blurring the social lines, so that people have a chance now to find a partner for themselves.”
Indeed, as an increasing number of young Indian men and women mix with each other in schools and work, such inter-caste love affairs and marriages are likely to increase, placing more pressure on hidebound traditions, but also triggering a more violent backlash from reactionary forces that still hold sway across much of modern India.
As such, honor killings will likely continue. The U.S. Department of State reported that, in 2012, at least 900 such murders were recorded in the northern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh alone, although the actual number of casualties is probably far higher.