When India's Interfaith Couples Encounter Threats, 'Love Commandos' Come To Their Aid Couples who marry against their parents' wishes sometimes risk their lives in doing so. That's where the Love Commandos come in. They run 500 safe houses and help couples elope or hide from relatives.
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When India's Interfaith Couples Encounter Threats, 'Love Commandos' Come To Their Aid

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When India's Interfaith Couples Encounter Threats, 'Love Commandos' Come To Their Aid

When India's Interfaith Couples Encounter Threats, 'Love Commandos' Come To Their Aid

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have a story of what can go wrong when you fall in love. In India, parents have a big say in who their kids marry. When a child's heart tugs them another way, particularly towards someone of a different caste or a different religion, it can lead to violence. NPR's Lauren Frayer has this story of one couple who had to escape.

SAUMIL SHAH: See, we actually met at the working place. And then we started meeting each other. And then we fell in love with each other.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Saumil Shah says it was at an electronics store where they both worked three years ago that he first laid eyes on the woman who would become his wife. Saumil was just back from doing an MBA in England. Zarina had earned a computer science degree. They flirted at work. Zarina is shy and soft-spoken, but she says she knew right away.

ZARINA SHAH: I feel good with him. I'm very happy with him.

FRAYER: And the future?

Z. SHAH: Very bright.

FRAYER: Saumil and Zarina just got married, but there was no big wedding. They eloped far from home? And they didn't tell their families. They couldn't. Zarina's family is Muslim, and Saumil's is Jain, one of India's smaller faiths. This marriage was forbidden by both families.

S. SHAH: Her parents didn't agree with this, and the same with my parents just because of the religion.

FRAYER: They pleaded with their parents. They're 31 and 26. They're not teenagers. They're educated. They thought this through. But when Zarina's family arranged a marriage for her to a Muslim man instead, she and Saumil decided to escape.

S. SHAH: Her brother is working at the airport. So we had to decide a day where her brother has off. And we had to run away in the night, about 2:30, I guess.

FRAYER: Were you scared?

S. SHAH: We were actually scared, yes, because anyone could catch us.

FRAYER: They both still lived at home. Zarina's parents were suspicious. She pretended to be asleep when they peeked into her room at 2 a.m. Then Saumil pulled up in a taxi outside. It was now or never, Zarina recalls.

Z. SHAH: (Through interpreter) My parents are nice people, but I wanted to marry for love. They were forcing me to marry someone else. It would have ruined his life and mine. But I still love my parents.

FRAYER: She doesn't know if she'll ever see them again. Zarina tiptoed out of the house she grew up in. She scaled the locked gate out front, tossed out her phone and escaped with her beloved to a city neither had ever visited, the Indian capital, New Delhi. And that's where I met them - in a safe house run by a group that calls itself the Love Commandos. It helps interfaith and intercaste couples elope and hide from their families. They've got 500 shelters across India.

SANJOY SACHDEV: Here we have a metal detector.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

FRAYER: Checking to see if I've come in with weapons.

SACHDEV: Yeah.

FRAYER: The Love Commandos founder, Sanjoy Sachdev, scans me for weapons. He made me promise not to reveal exactly where we are. He says he gets threatening phone calls every day from the parents of those he helps - love couples, he calls.

SACHDEV: Now, these parents watch movies full of love stories. When a love couple is separated, they feel sad. But when their daughter is in love, they beat and even kill.

FRAYER: In the southern city of Hyderabad, police say a father recently hired a hitman to hack to death his son-in-law in the street, his pregnant wife beside him. Theirs had been an intercaste marriage. India only started keeping track of such killings in 2014. The most recent statistics show 71 such murders in India per year. But activists say there are thousands of mysterious accidents. And for every young lover killed, there are dozens who face harassment by their families. Women often get it worse, Sachdev says.

SACHDEV: Females are more beaten. Their education is stopped. Their employment is stopped. Their movement is stopped. Their phones are snatched. They are forced to marry anybody else. And then they have to escape.

FRAYER: For the past six weeks, Saumil and Zarina have been staying night and day in a windowless room with three other couples in their same situation. The Love Commandos help them arrange religious conversions, weddings, restraining orders and airline tickets to start a new life far away. It's like the Witness Protection Program for newlyweds. But it's not the only option for couples in this predicament. In southern India, they're using technology. There's a smartphone app called Kadhal Aran, which means protecting love in the local Tamil language. Vasumathi Vasanthi designed this app, which aims to help couples who want to marry outside of Hinduism's often rigid caste system.

VASUMATHI VASANTHI: Whenever people need any help, they want to go to the police station, but they have the fear to go to police station. They can just download the app, and that's it. We will be there to help you.

FRAYER: The app pings a network of volunteers who connect the couple with lawyers, police or counselors. Technology is also how some of these couples meet in the first place. In the old days, Indians didn't socialize much outside their faith or caste. Now there's social media.

RANU KULSHRESTHA: I think the numbers are increasing now.

ASIF IQBAL: The exposure to phone and...

KULSHRESTHA: I think they're studying together.

IQBAL: Studying together.

KULSHRESTHA: I think more girls are going for higher education.

FRAYER: Ranu Kulshrestha and her husband, Asif Iqbal, are an interfaith couple who run a support group for people like them. It's called Dhanak, rainbow in Hindi.

KULSHRESTHA: We get, on an average, 50 SOS calls for help within a day.

FRAYER: In fact, when I arrived at their office, Iqbal was on the phone with a client who's threatening suicide. They counsel couples on what happens after they escape, after the wedding, when happily ever after means reconciling their differences.

KULSHRESTHA: You discuss things like, what will be the religion of the children? Sustaining the marriage - even when they find difficulty in getting a house.

FRAYER: Lots of landlords in India will not rent to interfaith or intercaste couples. Weeks after I met Saumil and Zarina in the Love Commandos safe house, I got a text from Saumil. They're out. They've moved to Mumbai and managed to rent an apartment, their first home together alone. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Delhi.

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