It was all very cloak and dagger. One winter morning last year, I was told by an anonymous male voice on the phone to be outside a certain abandoned movie theatre in Delhi’s Old City at a certain time. I was to come alone. “We will be watching.” I did as instructed and, getting out of my taxi, took up position in the spot described. Fifteen minutes passed and nothing happened. Then my phone rang. It was my contact again. He sounded troubled. “Why did you bring a taxi driver?” he asked. I found myself explaining that my car was elsewhere with the kids. “Who is this taxi driver, do you know him?” “Yes, he’s from our local taxi stand,” I replied. “Please tell him to go away.”
A few minutes after my taxi driver departed, I was given further instructions. “Look to your right. Do you see a man talking on a mobile phone?” I could indeed. “Now follow him.”
So I did. And the man led me through a warren of streets until I was truly lost. A final turn led down a dark, dingy and not very nice smelling alley. The man entered through a small, lopsided wooden door. I followed, having to stoop down, and found myself in a room little larger than a broom cupboard. It held a single bed and a chair. The bed was messy. A crumpled sheet was strewn with magazines and newspapers, pens, a couple of mobile phones, an ashtray brimming with butts, and an open pack of cigarettes. On the end sat the head of the Love Commandos, Sanjay Sachdev, a middle-aged, part time journalist. He looked dishevelled, like he’d just woken up, but greeted me with a warm smile and apologised for all the secrecy. “We have to be careful,” he said.
I sat on the end of the bed talking with him for an hour. Sachdev smoked half a pack of cigarettes while explaining how he and some colleagues founded the Love Commandos. It all began, he said, when hard line Hindu “youths” started attacking courting couples on Valentine’s Day. “We thought that is not right: our young people in India should have the right to show their affections in public. So we decided to do something about it.” The group evolved into one dedicated to helping couples from different castes and religions facing persecution and discrimination from parents and family.
Since then the Love Commandos, who maintain a twenty-four hour hotline, claim to have helped hundreds of persecuted lovers. They provide legal advice, shelter and arrange marriage ceremonies. They even help couples re-settle away from their tormentors. “This is one of our safe houses,” Sanjay told me. “A few days back there was a couple here. But now they have settled down and he has found a job.”
Sanjay arranged for me to meet Rajveer and Madhuri.
Rajveer was from a family of Thakurs, or landowners; Madhuri was a Bania, traditionally traders. When they told their respective families that they wanted to marry, the answer was a resounding “no.” So with the help of the Love Commandos, they absconded and got married. Later they made the mistake of returning to their “native place”, their ancestral village, hoping their families would accept their relationship. Rajveer was soon abducted. Four men took him to a secluded spot, beat him senseless and left him for dead. Madhuri told me that she was sure members of her family were behind the attempt on her husband’s life.
I knew then that I had the main plot for my new book and that I was going to call it The Case of the Love Commandos. It would be set, I decided, in rural India and the plot would center around a couple of absconding lovers: she from a high caste family, he from an untouchable, or Dalit, one. How, though, was I going to get Vish Puri involved? Should the boy be murdered? Or perhaps the Love Commandos could hire Puri to help them spring the girl from the clutches of her parents? In the end I came up with a better idea. One of Puri’s team would be moonlighting on the side for the Love Commandos. And who better than his undercover Nepali operative, Facecream?
My wife, Anu, also met the Love Commandos after I did and wrote a piece for the BBC radio’s From Our Own Foreign Correspondent. You can read and listen here.