It was a world-famous charity dedicated to rescuing star-crossed Indian lovers. For the past nine years, using a network of secret safe-houses across India, Love Commandos sheltered thousands of young people seeking to marry outside their caste, religion or clan – and who feared their families might kill them for it.
Sanjoy Sachdev, the organisation’s chairman, became one of India’s most celebrated activists. Bollywood star Aamir Khan interviewed him on television. International clothing brand Bjorn Borg raised money for his group. Filmmakers and journalists found the craggy, chain-smoking activist who could quote Robert Frost irresistible.
Now Indian police are asking: was he a fraud?
Sachdev, 58, was arrested at the Love Commandos headquarters in Delhi on January 31 on suspicion of extorting money from at least one young couple in his care, confining them in the building and threatening to send them back to their families if they refused to pay.
“They wouldn’t let us go out, even to the balconies,” the woman told The Guardian. “We had to get sunlight from a small window in the bathroom.”
Since the arrest, six more couples have come forward with complaints about Love Commandos, including one now living in the United Kingdom, according to the Delhi Commission for Women.
Sachdev denies the allegations. “The charges as such are fake and we will be pleading so in any trial,” says his lawyer Vikrant Choudhary.
Those who followed and promoted Love Commandos for nearly a decade are shocked and confused. “In 10 years they have saved thousands of couples,” says Miriam Lyons, a British director who filmed the organisation on and off for five years. “I am in admiration for their work. It is extraordinary what they do.”
Love Commandos was founded in 2010, the same year a spate of so-called “honour killings” provoked an outcry in the Indian capital. Sachdev and his associates had already gained a minor profile for their work as volunteer bodyguards for couples who were being attacked by Hindu fanatics for celebrating Valentine’s Day.
As Love Commandos’ fame grew, so did the number of young people seeking help. There is no official figure on honour killings in India, but a study has estimated at least 1,000 people are murdered by their families each year for pursuing the kinds of romantic relationships that are a staple of Bollywood blockbusters but off-limits to most young Indians.
In response Love Commandos opened new shelters. It created a network of safe houses across India. Some days its staff of fewer than 10 people would receive more than 300 calls – including regular death threats. “India is a country of killers of love,” Sachdev told 2016 documentary.
The charity that ‘made things worse’
One of those calls for help was from Rajesh, 27, who learned about Love Commandos from a YouTube video in November. His situation was desperate. Six months earlier he had secretly become engaged to Amrit, a woman from Maharashtra he had been chatting with on Facebook for years.
Amrit is Brahmin, the “highest” caste in India’s intricate social hierarchy, and has strict parents. “They have orthodox thinking,” she says. “They think girls should not go outside, they should not wear jeans.”
Marrying a boy from a “lower” caste such as Rajesh was out of the question. “We were afraid of ‘honour killing’,” Rajesh says, nodding in Amrit’s direction. “Her uncle has guns.”
Rajesh saw Love Commandos as the solution. “Unfortunately it made things worse,” he says.
According to the complaint registered with police, shortly after Rajesh and Amrit arrived at the shelter on December 20, Sachdev asked the couple to hand over Rs 40,000 to cover the expenses of their marriage and lodging.
He asked for more money in the subsequent days. When Rajesh refused, staff at the shelter threatened to send them back to their families, according to the complaint.
“We were forced to clean the shelter and take dogs for walks, and when [Rajesh] and I tried to leave the shelter they forcibly blocked our way,” Amrit told police.
She resolved to raise an alarm. Late in January, Amrit was taken to the Delhi Commission for Women to fill out paperwork about her marriage.
When Sachdev was called to a meeting, leaving Amrit behind, she saw her opportunity. She found a commission staff member, reported her allegations and rushed back to the lobby.
“When [Sachdev] came back, he asked me: ‘Did you say anything?’” Amrit claims. “I said no.”
“But I had done everything,” she adds, grinning.
The following day, DCW officers raided the Love Commandos shelter. Sachdev’s arrest was international news.
Couples who have been assisted by Love Commandos are struggling to process the allegations against the organisation. “Nobody ever asked me for any money,” says Vijay Kumar, who was staying at the shelter until two days before Sachdev’s arrest. “Whatever I paid, I paid voluntarily to cover the expenses for my marriage.”
Kumar, 22, is now in hiding with his wife in a neighbouring state. Her family is looking for the pair. Without Sachdev, they would never have been able to marry, Kumar says. “Whatever life I have now is a gift from him.”
Couples trapped in ‘what might feel like a prison’
Lyons, the filmmaker, says there was occasionally resentment between Sachdev and the couples he sheltered. She remembers the shock on the faces of some of the new arrivals when they saw the humble conditions inside Love Commandos shelters. As well as sheltering couples, the organisation also tried to teach them life skills such as cooking and cleaning.
Some bristled at being made to do these chores; others would fight against attempts to stop them from spending too much time on the balconies or walking the streets, to avoid the safe houses being compromised. A ban on sex inside the cramped shelter often created tension.
“[The couples] want to be free and they find themselves in what might feel like a prison,” Lyons says. “But it’s for their own good and they can’t seem to think long term.”
“There were issues like you have in a family,” she adds. “Young people fight back against their parents because they want more freedom. And parents say, this is for your own good.”
Sachdev’s lawyer says his client is the victim of a conspiracy. “There is a vendetta going on,” he said. “There are certain NGOs in the locality who are against the organisation.”
Love Commandos had just become registered as a charity, but its existence was still precarious. Sachdev frankly told the BBC in 2012: “We need money. We are broke. Our friends are broke. I’m not sure how long we can sustain this.”
The pressure had grown in the past year. The organisation had started closing shelters, Choudhary said. By January, it was running just one.
“They were facing a money crunch,” Choudhary says. “The organisation was not able to finance itself.”
Sachdev has been remanded in custody while police investigate the allegations against him. Police are looking for other senior leaders from the organisation.
The eight couples who were staying in the Love Commandos shelter, including Rajesh and Amrit, are stranded. They have been placed in temporary safe houses by Delhi authorities. But India has no shelter system for couples fleeing their parents. “It worries us,” Rajesh said.
Now, couples who ring the Love Commandos hotline get a new answer: the number is switched off or unavailable.
Names have been changed to protect identity.
This article first appeared on The Guardian.