Sadly, the Indian media still reports with dispiriting frequency on horrific accounts of so-called ‘honour killings’. These occur mainly in the Northern states and are virtually unknown in South India. One recent study estimated that there are more than 1,000 honour killings in India every year. The killings occur as a result of people marrying without their family’s acceptance, and sometimes for marrying outside their caste or religion. Incredibly, close family members are prepared to kill their own flesh and blood rather than suffer the social stigma of an unsuitable match, – as decided by themselves or the chap panchayats. These are the notorious village caste councils that rule on who can and cannot marry and regularly pass sentence of death on those who refuse to accept their diktats on caste or gotra (another subdivision based on lineage). Alarmingly, honour killings that were once confined to the ultra-conservative hinterlands are creeping into the nations’ capital as old and new India collide. An example of this that stunned Delhi occurred in in June 2010 on the outskirts of the city when a teenage girl and her boyfriend were tortured and murdered by the girl’s family, who objected to the relationship . I covered this for The Independent (see image below and Andrew Buncombe’s excellent full report here). This incident sparked an unusual amount of outrage due to the brutality of the offence and the fact that it had occurred in the city that was feverishly gearing up for the Commonwealth Games and keen to show its best side. Only a couple of weeks later there was a triple ‘dishonour killing’, again on Delhi’s outskirts, that involved three young perpetrators acting alone without direct sanction from community elders.
It was then something of a relief to shoot a positive story on honour killings in the shape of the Love Commandos. The organisation started as a group of like-minded friends protecting canoodling couples who were facing persecution while celebrating Valentine’s Day in India, as public displays of affection are still generally frowned upon here. But the spate of horrific killings in 2010 caused the group to expand their remit to helping India’s amorous couples who were falling foul of their own families. The Love Commandos were officially launched in July 2010 and rapidly became a national movement, with a reported 2,000 volunteers across the country and more coming forward every day.
Now a year into their “mission of love”, the Commando’s helpline is flooded daily with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of calls.”When we started we never expected the problem was so big,” said Sanjoy Sachdev, the organisation’s founder. “The effort has left many of us penniless and jobless, but we are the only ones in this country giving a voice to the youth of today so we will not give up.” But money is an issue. The Love Commandos rely on individual donations of 100 rupees (£1.40) a year from their volunteers to keep going. “We need places where the khap panchayats can’t come and kill us,” says Sachdev. “We are appealing to everyone who appreciates love to help us. We are branded people. We have had death threats and our effigies burned.” Sometimes when lives are at stake the Love Commandos mount daring rescues from caste violence that sound like scripts of Bollywood films. One such involved a Brahmin girl from Faridabad, a Delhi satellite town, who wished to marry a boy of lower caste. According to Sachdev she climbed through the window of her college classroom, negotiated a 15 foot perimeter wall and made it into a waiting getaway car just in time to evade capture by her angry brother in hot pursuit. In another, more gruelling case, the mother of Aarti an Agra girl who’d set her heart on a lower-caste boy made three attempts to sell her daughter to suitors to get her away from her love, Sanjay. The first of these sales was to a couple who bought Aarti for 10,000 rupees (£140) “as a slave for extramarital relations”. But Aarti protested so much that the couple called her mother to take her home, where regular beatings started again. Aarti eventually escaped and made her way to Delhi with Sanjay where they were taken to a safe house by the Love Commandos, – Sanjay had seen a news report on them just days earlier.
But the majority of Love Commando cases stem from the much more common tradition of parents approving their child’s partner.”The problems cut across all barriers – not just caste, but also religion, educational background, economic status,” said Mr Sachdev. “The stories are different, but they are all about freedom of choice, which is supposed to be guaranteed in our constitution. Where do these parents derive their right to prevent that freedom?”. On assignment for The National (article here) I heard directly about one such case from Asmita (18) and Kapil (22) a Christian couple who had eloped and were married in a secret. I met them at the Love Commando’s modest HQ in a warren of tiny streets in Old Delhi. While there were no caste issues there was an old inter-family feud that made the match unsuitable in their parents eyes and Asmita’s were disappointed that she had not waited to finish her studies before getting married. When they heard about the marriage they became ‘very angry, very aggressive’ said Asmita. ‘So we came to the Love Commandos for safe refuge and financial support but we hope to leave soon’ she concluded.
Also staying at the safe-house were driver Rajveer Singh (21) and Madri Devi (20). This Hindu couple eloped and married across castes. Rajveer’s caste is Thukur while Madri’s is Teli which is lower. After the marriage Madri’s family tracked them down and beat Rajveer unconscious using sticks and chains. “I was unconscious for two hours. They wanted to kill me. It took two months for me to recover,” said Mr Singh. “I got in touch with the Love Commandos, and they brought us here.”
Sanjoy Sachdev is surprisingly philosophical considering what he must go through “It is not the individual parents,” said Mr Sachdev. “It is the society around them that tells them their honour is at stake. Still, we hope that day will come when love prevails over the whole universe.” I can’t help thinking that until that day comes the Love Commandos will always be busy.
If you are an Indian needing the help of the Love Commandos, you can call their helpline on 09313784375.
The organisation, which is entirely run by volunteers, is in dire need of financial support, so if you can help, please contact the same number.
Method: for the first image I used two flash guns to provide fill-flash in the harsh light of the afternoon. I use fill-flash a lot for environmental portraits so that I can retain detail in the sky and background while simultaneously getting well-lit subjects in the foreground. If I was to expose just for the background then the people would be under exposed – in particular you’d get dark lifeless pits where their eyes should be. If I exposed just for their faces or eyes then the background would be blown out. By using balanced fill-flash you can, ideally, get the best of both worlds. In manual exposure mode I metered off the sky and under exposed by 0.7 of a stop. Then I asked Eric Randolph to kindly hold one of my Nikon SB800 flash guns off to the right to light the right-hand side of the group while I triggered this from an SB900 (via the Nikon Creative Lighting System) that was connected to the Nikon D3s via an SC29 extension cord and hand-held by me off to camera left. I took a few test frames and the speedlights were not quite lighting the group enough so I zoomed the SB800 to 50 mm from its default 24mm to give it a better throw and bumped the power up to plus 2 stops. I also boosted the more powerful SB 900 by a stop for the frame you see here. I could not shoot any longer as the subjects were getting restive in the 36 degrees of heat and constantly wiping sweat from their eyes. Its not perfect but not bad for a two minute set-up! All the other frames were shot in natural light.