Neha, a pretty 19-year-old from Haryana's Rohtak district, combs her hair as she sits on a folding bed in a small room next to the district police colony. The names of numerous couples are scrawled on the walls: Joginder weds Sakita, Rajan weds Tamanna, Jaswant weds Priyanka. A cheap travel bag, a makeup kit, a packet of Parle-G biscuits and some steel utensils lie next to Neha. Outside, in the balcony, her husband, Sanjay, a pale 22-year-old, is hanging freshly-washed clothes on a line.
An armed policeman with a mobile phone in his hand appears. "Your parents are here. Talk to them. Tell them when you would like to go with them," he tells Sanjay. The couple looks nervous. "What to do?" Sanjay asks Neha. "Not now. Tell them we will get in touch with them when we want," the girl shoos away the policeman.
Neha's family was against her relationship with Sanjay, who is from the same village - something that's taboo in the region. They wanted her to marry a civil engineer in Delhi. On a humid night earlier this month, Neha slipped out of home and eloped with Sanjay to a common friend's place. The following day, the couple got married at a local temple in the presence of Sanjay's friends, got the marriage registered in court, and sought police protection. The court ordered the police to provide shelter to the couple at a protection home in Rohtak, one of the 19 such facilities in Haryana.
Falling in love can be a risky proposition in India's towns and villages where caste and tradition wield tremendous power. Families and village councils do not sanction marriages within the same village and clan or outside the caste and community. Killing transgressing couples to save the family's 'honour' is not uncommon in Haryana and Punjab. There are no government figures on such killings.
However, according to Honour Based Violence Awareness Network, an international digital resource centre working to advance understanding of honour-based violence and forced marriage, around 1000 honour killings occur in India every year. But defying all odds, ignoring social divides, entrenched tradition, and risking their lives, couples continue to fall in love. Against the backdrop of a largely hostile society, these government-run homes, where runaway couples live under police protection, offer these men and women the only shelter they can depend on and perhaps saves their lives.
According to an Indian Express report earlier in August, more than 1,400 couples lived in protection homes in Haryana in 2014, up from 366 in 2010 when the state high court ordered the establishment of these homes in each district of Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh.
The shelter is a refuge for couples that keeps them safe until their elders swallow their pride, get rid of their murderous rage, and come around to accepting the marriage. Neha and Sanjay say that they would have been killed had they been living anywhere outside the protection home. "They would not have thought for a moment before eliminating us to redeem their honour," Neha says stoically. Now the couple's parents are ready to accept the marriage and want them to leave the protection home. Neha's family wants to have a traditional ceremony after the monsoon on an auspicious date fixed by the family priest. But that is a month away. "What if they change their minds in the interim? That's why we think it's best to move out of here a day before the ceremony," says Sanjay.
The love stories of each of these couples is unique but there are threads of commonality. Most come from conservative backgrounds where the arranged marriage is the accepted way of choosing a partner. In such milieus, connectivity, cheap smart phones and social networking sites are changing the rules of love. As assistant sub inspector Surinder Kaur, who is in charge of the protection home in Haryana's Hisar district, succinctly puts it, "Yahan aapko milega Facebook aur missed call waala pyaar (Here, you find cases where love has blossomed over Facebook and missed calls)."
Take the story of Rohit, 23, and Pooja, 21, who have been living at the Hisar safe house for more than a month.
Pooja belongs to a family of rich farmers in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. She remembers the day - January 18 - when she chanced upon Rohit's picture while browsing her younger sister's whatsapp contacts. "It was love at first sight," she says bursting into giggles and hiding her face in the folds of her stole.
A distant cousin of her aunt's, Rohit lived 250 km away in Haryana. The two started exchanging messages before graduating to phone calls. At that time, Rohit, the son of a government clerk, was in his second year at college. Pooja had quit studies after class 10. That was the most girls in her family were allowed to study.
In early July, Rohit drove his bike to Haridwar. The two met for the first time at Har Ki Paudi, a ghat on the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar. The meeting lasted for an hour. "I had no doubt that this was the man for me," says Pooja.
After a fortnight, Rohit once again embarked on the journey. This time, he returned with Pooja. "I consulted my friends who had got married in a similar way. They told me that we could seek police protection. It's only after I had done all the arrangements that I went to bring her," says Rohit.
Since the time the duo arrived at the shelter, 29 other couples have availed of the facility. "If we spend some more days here, we could become counsellors for other runaway couples," jokes Pooja, who has mehendi on her hands. "One of the girls who was here applied it. She left yesterday. We all got emotional," she says.
Outside the homes, civil society is fighting to end honour killings. "Short-stay homes for love couples can be a temporary mechanism to protect them but it would never help in developing understanding between the community and couples. There have been cases of couples getting killed within two-three years of leaving protection homes," says Shafiq ur Rehman, founder of Empower People, a nonprofit organisation, which works for the prevention of bride trafficking and honour crimes in India. In the last five years, civil society, the national commission for women, and the law commission have drafted their versions of a law against honour killing. Last month, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) held a protest in Delhi demanding the passage of their version of the bill. "The government has circulated the draft law prepared by the law commission in the states, and is prepared to enact a law which is narrow and patriarchal in its vision to deal with such crimes," AIDWA claims.
While all this is happening, protection homes offer couples a rather gloomy honeymoon getaway. Typically, there are about five couples to a room. While some homes have iron beds, others have mattresses on the floor. Couples bond over games of cards, Ludo, and exchanging their woes. The women look lively in bright suits with sindoor (vermilion) and choodas (red and white bangles worn by new brides). The men sporting stubble and in worn out shirts and denims appear tense. Private moments are hard to come by. "We lost our freedom but this is for our safety," says Mamta, 23, who has been living at the Hisar protection home for 10 days.
It is not always elders in the family from whom newlyweds seek protection. Ramesh, 43, and Seema, 41, both widowed, got married a week back. Ramesh is a carpenter and Seema, a daily wage labourer. they are neighbours and have three children each. The man's family members, particularly his mother and eldest son, are opposed to the idea "This, despite the fact that my parents and I live separately and that they had ousted me from their property long ago. I am an independent man and take my own decisions," says a bewildered Ramesh. When his family did not stop harassing them, the couple moved court. As a stop-gap arrangement, they were shifted to the shelter home. They have a court hearing the next day after which they plan to return home.
Life in a shelter can be bitter. The Rohtak home is run on Red Cross property. The gate of the first floor room housing five couples is locked from the outside while a class on First aid proceeds in the adjacent room. ASI Rajbir Singh says this is for the security of the premi jode and that the gate is opened once the two-hour long class is over. "Young men from nearby villages attend these classes and someone could come in disguise and harm a couple," he says.
Moral policing also figures. "We do not want others to get influenced by their presence," says Singh. The truth is the room is opened for just 30 minutes in the evening. During the rest of the day, couples are allowed out only if it's absolutely necessary. "The former in-charge of the home used to make couples uncomfortable. He'd ask questions about which hotels we had spent nights together," says Alok, 24, who lives at the home with his wife, Meena, 22. "Someone complained about him to his lawyer and got him removed," he adds.
At some shelters, the staff hands over couples' phones to them only when they want to make a call. While parents and friends can visit at some homes, others allow such meetings away from the premises and in the presence of a protection officer.
Sadly, there is no guarantee of a happy ending for couples once their stay at the shelter home is over.
Brajesh Boora, a legal aid lawyer, who counsels runaway couples, says, "For such marriages to succeed, at least one of the partners has to be earning. Of all the couples coming to protection homes, only 10 percent would fall in that category."
"But then these are matters of hearts; mind stops working."
(Names have been changed to protect identity)