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Love Commandos rescue India's forbidden couples

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
updated 3:45 PM EDT, Mon October 8, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Volunteers help couples who, because of caste differences, aren't allowed to be together
  • Expert: Some who've resisted arranged marriage have been victims of honor killings
  • Young lovers Dev and Lalita ran away, and the Love Commandos helped marry them

(CNN) -- Devender had a crush on Lalita.

She was so pretty. He'd take long looks at her during class. When she left school, Dev would ditch just to watch her walk down the hall, push the doors open and glide away.

He thought about telling her all the time. But he was too scared. He liked her so much.

High school is intense everywhere in this world. India is no different.

One day, Dev saw his chance. He approached Lalita's brother. Please give this to your sister, he said, and handed the boy his number. And he waited.

Nothing.

"I was tortured," he said. "The girl I liked most wasn't calling me. I didn't have her number. I wanted to tell her, 'Lalita, I love you.' "

Days went by, and his mobile rang. Hearing her voice stunned him silent for a minute.

"Devender, are you OK?" she asked.

And they talked, as kids do, sweet and nervous. Pretty soon, they were in love.

Arranged marriages common in India

Eventually, Dev got the courage to tell Lalita that he just couldn't be without her.

Will you marry me? he asked. She said yes.

But she knew it would never be that simple.

Lalita and Dev are from different castes, he from a lower one than she. Lalita knew that her parents would be furious and that they were working on finding someone for her to marry. But she told them anyway, still holding onto hope that they might understand. They didn't.

'Honor' crime: Why just kissing a boy can trigger murder

"You will spoil your name!" her parents shouted.

Her father threatened to kill them both, and he hit Lalita.

"I was disturbed ... listening to (these) words," she said. "The day my father came to know, that night he hit me and tortured me."

The 22-year-olds sat side by side today and recalled what they believed was their only option.

"We decided we will die, because we don't have any other way," Lalita said.

Then, one afternoon, they caught a popular television talk show featuring an unlikely band of former lawyers and activists who've made it their mission to help doomed lovers.

India's Love Commandos, formed in 2010, give couples food, shelter and protection if they run away from their disapproving families. The group has more than 11,000 volunteers across the country who provide legal assistance, man 24-hour help lines and, in some cases, even marry desperate couples.

"We have far too many problems in India to worry about someone choosing to love another," said founder Sanjoy Sachdev, who married his wife because he chose to.

"How can society object to love relationships?" he asked. "Our young boys and girls have rights. India has become the 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."

So-called honor killings have surged in India over the past few years, with victims defying traditional Hindu customs. Many of the deaths have been those choosing to marry outside their caste. At least five couples were killed in 2010. But that figure doesn't begin to show what human rights experts say are likely hundreds of reprisals.

There are no official figures on honor killings, because they often go unreported or family members pass them off as suicides or natural deaths, according to Human Rights Watch. India's supreme court has issued notices to the national government and several states to protect couples, yet in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh provinces alone, an estimated 900 honor killings occur annually, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department, citing reports from nongovernmental organizations.

The Love Commandos stand a chance of accomplishing what officials have failed to do, said Meenakshi Ganguly, the Southeast Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

"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.

The spike in honor killings is partly a result of India's changing cultural norms and a generation fighting to keep things the same.

"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," Ganguly said.

Dev and Lalita started their relationship and fostered it through calls on mobile phones. They imagine they'd never have even met if it weren't for them both attending the same school, because they lived in villages that were miles apart.

She and Dev called Love Commandos, who are sheltering them in an undisclosed location.

When CNN visited Lalita's family to try to get their side of the story, her grandfather shouted that there was no point. Lalita is "as good as dead" to them, he said.

She knows she can't go home.

Dev says that her family has filed complaints against his with local authorities and that his family and a friend who helped them have been jailed.

But the two married, with Love Commandos' help. The group helped them craft a letter to their families, letting them know.

They are thinking about the future. Dev said he's going to make sure that Lalita continues going to school.

They are happy, they said, and have no regrets.

"We are both fine," Lalita said. "If society thinks otherwise, let them."

Why do honor murders still happen?

CNN's Sumnima Udas and Tim Schwarz contributed to this report.

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