NPR’s Love Commandos

Love Commandos, the new season of NPR’s Rough Translation podcast starts out with a story about a man I have never heard of: Sanjoy Sachdev

Sachdev first appeared on a 2012 episode of Satyamev Jayate, an Aamir Khan talk show about social issues. He introduced India to his organization, Love Commandos. Love Commandos helps young couples whose parents are trying to stop them from getting married. Most of these couples are interfaith or intercaste. And potential victims of honor killings.

Gray-haired and slight, Sachdev exudes larger-than-life charisma on the show, peppering his speech with theatrical sayings such Pyar karna paap nahi hai aur virodhi hamara baap nahi hai ( Falling in love is not a sin, don’t let the haters win).

In 2019 the police arrested Sachdev for extortion and intimidation. Many of the couples living in the shelters he had set up accused him of extorting large sums of money from them and exploiting them for cheap labor. 

Hosted by Gregory Warner in conversation with Mansi Choksi and NPR reporter Lauren Frayer, the Love Commandos podcast attempts to untangle the case. Was this a politically motivated arrest, given India’s charged, changing culture? Is Sachdev a savior or a tyrant or both? 

Bollywood drama in real life

After a slightly expository first episode, the show reels you in, telling us the story of one couple. The narration plays out like a Bollywood movie: Surya and Akanksha, two young neighbors, fall in love. They secretly pass notes to each other through bathroom windows, run away on a train when Akanksha is forced into an engagement, and are tricked into coming back by their parents and are separated. Relatives take Akanksha to her ancestral village and lock her up. Interestingly, when Sachdev comes to the rescue, he is able to do so because he has contacts among the police.  Unlike Bollywood, in real India, what you need is less hero, more influence peddler. 

The dark side

The episode then shows us the other side. Unlike with Surya and Akanksha, another couple talks about being asked for money and giving Love Commandos all their savings. Mansi Choksi, the co-host, has mentioned similar incidents in her book The Newlyweds, where the couples claim that the Love Commandos refused to help unless paid. And Sachdev’s accounting doesn’t seem to add up.  

Life at the shelters is not easy. No phones – because they can be traced. But you also can’t document abuse if you don’t have a phone. No sex – because it’s disrespectful to do it when everyone is sleeping on mattresses in one big room.  No naps – because it makes you lazy. But how much of this is Sachdev’s own conservative worldview? In one episode, he seems to find the actual idea of romance ridiculous, if not mildly abhorrent. 

Love Commandos
Love Commandos Raquel Scoggin/NPR Credit: Raquel Scoggin/NPR

In addition, all couples must do chores as part of learning to lead an adult life. And some of those chores allegedly involve cleaning the co-founder’s toilets. It’s a nuanced telling – are Sachdev and co-founder Harsh Malhotra exploiting these young people in their charge (Sachdev has a prior record of multiple failed businesses)? Or is his an authoritative, paternalistic style under which some couples thrive and some don’t? There’s a moment of confusion and mild shock among the non-Indian NPR crew when one of the couples mentions Sachdev asking them to press his feet, an ask that probably feels very natural to many Indians (I was regularly chastised for refusing to press my grandfather’s). In India, running away from one set of expectations sometimes just lands you with another — whether it’s at a shelter or an in-law’s house. 

So – conman, cult leader, or crusader for love? Love story or crime thriller? We may never have clear-cut answers, but this is a podcast that makes the search for them fascinating.

Rough Translation: Love Commandos airs Wednesdays on NPR

Sandhya Char has been contributing to India Currents since 2002. Her work has appeared in several publications including in India West, India Post, Rediff/India abroad, ComputerEdge magazine and Shadowed...