Holi is a Hindu festival which celebrates fertility, colour and love, as well as the triumph of good versus evil. Over two days each spring, people gather in public spaces all over India to chase each other around, throw handfuls of coloured powders at one another and get drenched in water.
But sometimes things get ugly. This year, some men in Delhi took the fertility celebration aspect to the next level by flinging semen-filled balloons at girls from local universities.
Earlier this week, at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) in Delhi University, an 18-year-old student posted on Instagram about a semen-filled balloon being hurled at her near campus. Nazariya, a grassroots LGBT-straight alliance group at the college, protested against the incident on Wednesday.
Then, on Thursday – the day before Holi – about 40 students of Jesus and Mary College (JMC) marched to the Delhi Police Headquarters, spurred on by a private Facebook post by a JMC student which narrated an incident on Wednesday, where two men on a bike flung what she says were semen-filled balloons at her during a bus ride.
Harassment masquerading as festivities is often heightened during Holi in Delhi, where as recently as last year the police deployed 25,000 policemen and 1,000 official vans to tackle this kind of misbehaviour, while nearby Gurgaon Police received nearly 400 calls from women complaining of harassment.
Some women at the protests told me they were tired of being harassed every year under the guise of a common Holi saying: "Bura na maano, Holi hai," or, "Don't feel bad, it's Holi."
The protests this week also included various slogans against the police, with students calling out officers for ignoring young women who are stalked, harassed or even raped.
According to Ravi Jatwani, president of the students' union at the JMC, police also failed to file a complaint against the man who flung two balloons at her last year, dismissing the incident as a mere "nuisance".
The professors associated with the movement think the problem is as much to do with the culture of impunity as the police's lack of action. "A five or six-year-old child may be throwing [a balloon] randomly, but very soon he’ll learn that there is a way of throwing it," Maya John, a professor at JMC, told me. "Throwing it at the breast, or at the buttocks [is wrong]. It’s very easy here to develop that culture of impunity at a young age."
Maya's colleague, Amita Paliwal, added, "Boys should be taught from the beginning that Holi is a festival of colours and not a means for you to take out sexual frustration."
The founder of the Nazariya group, Ruth Chawngthu, told me the recent incident was just one example an ongoing problem at the college. "LSR students have been facing semen flinging for the last three years," she said. "Similar incidents took place with Nazariya members as well, where both piss-filled and semen-filled balloons were thrown."
Some male students, meanwhile, have flooded Facebook with counter-protests, claiming that women have thrown menstrual blood-filled balloons at them, and equating the female protesters with the Ku Klux Klan.
The Delhi police, for whatever it's worth, ordered a ban on the sale of "rubber balloons of two inches or more in size, when un-inflated". They also banned the throwing of balloons containing water, colour or any other liquid for ten days on the 27th of February, a day before the JMC semen-flinging incident.
But Avantika Tiwari, a member of Pinjra Tod – a Delhi University-based women's collective which held their own protest against the incidents – told me she believed that such measures are fairly useless and that everyone needs to be held accountable.
"It's convenient that the college admins have not been responsive to the incidents, while blaming the police for inaction, when the institution itself was absent in carrying out their mandated duties of providing a space for women to access education by preventing and redressing sexual harassment."