Virgin Tree Puja Nahi Chalegi: What led to a scuffle at Hindu College on Valentine’s Day

19 February, 2019

In an annual Valentine’s Day ritual, students of the University of Delhi’s Hindu College recite a prayer to life-sized pictures of a woman celebrity—a different one every year—referred to as “Damdami Mayi.” The ritual, organised by a students’ union of the boys’ hostel, takes place around a tree in front of the college’s academic block. Participants of the tradition are said to lose their virginity within six months—earning it the moniker, Virgin Tree Puja. Since 1953, the union has conducted the puja without a hitch. But on the morning of 14 February this year, protestors led by the Students Federation of India, or SFI, the student-wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); Pinjra Tod, an autonomous collective of women students; and the Hindu College Progressive Front, or HCPF, an inclusive forum for students of the college to raise their concerns, disrupted the puja. Members of the SFI and Pinjra Tod broke into the college, chanting, “Virgin Tree Puja nahi chalegi”—Virgin Tree Puja should not happen.

The protestors criticised the tradition for perpetuating Brahminical patriarchy in the college. Members of SFI and Pinjra Tod that I spoke to noted that the ritual not only objectifies women but also takes cue from Hindu customs that are exclusionary of Dalits and menstruating women. PK Vijayan, a professor at the college’s English Department, told me that the puja “almost automatically has all the overtones of a [Brahminical] ritual, not least among them being the inherent tendency in [Brahminical] patriarchy to marginalize, objectify and exploit women and women’s bodies.”

While many have raised concerns about the ritual in the past, the scale of the opposition to it this year was unprecedented. On 11 February, the Women Development Cell, or WDC, of the college held a public consultation to discuss the patriarchal undertones of the puja. Three days later, at least thirty-five students swarmed Hindu College, drowning out the prayer ceremony with chants such as “Virginity is a myth.” As has been the case with other movements on campuses against casteism and patriarchy, all efforts against the ritual were met with stiff resistance from many students at the college, especially those associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The ritual includes a tradition of tying condoms to the tree. Ankita Biswas, the secretary of the ABVP’s branch at the college, agreed that the ritual objectifies women, but told me, “the puja has a very good message—it is spreading awareness around HIV.” She said that that she did not understand why it was being termed casteist.

In recent years, the union has attempted to pacify its critics by introducing a picture of a male celebrity to go along with that of the woman celebrity, for the ritual. “Sometimes, the picture of the male celebrity is not even there,” an alumna of Hindu College, who graduated in 2012 and requested not to be identified, told me. “The picture of the female celebrity is always up and much larger than that of the male celebrity.” Members of SFI and Pinjra Tod that I spoke to said that the move was tokenistic. Yogita Suresh, a third-year student at the college and a member of the HCPF, termed it as a “band-aid” solution. “The idea is not to objectify anybody in that way because it creates a false idea of love and desire,” Suresh said.

The union’s response to the criticism of the ritual was no different this year. At the WDC’s consultation, the union decided that instead of worshipping a woman actor, they would worship a celebrity couple—the cricketer Virat Kohli and the actor Anushka Sharma. Nilanjita Biswas, the president of the SFI’s branch in the Hindu College, told me a queer student in the room pointed out that their selection was still hetero-patriarchal, but nobody paid heed to his comment. Further, Biswas said that another student from the boys’ hostel claimed that stopping him from participating in the ritual was a “violation of his fundamental rights.”

Biswas recounted the proceedings of the consultation—nearly fifty students attended the consultation, and very few understood why the ritual was seen as casteist. When a student tried to explain the concept of “Brahminical patriarchy,” the ABVP members present at the consultation strongly opposed him, accusing him of making a “blatant attack on their religion.” The ABVP members also demanded that the SFI members at the consultation should leave the venue because they were carrying posters that stated, “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” and “Stop Objectification of Women.”

During the early hours of the night on 14 February, while men in college were decorating the tree for the ritual, another incident spurred tensions on campus. Women hostellers at Hindu College are subject to a 10 pm curfew, while the men face no such restrictions—a rule that has evoked many demonstrations against the college administration in the past. That night, “while the women were locked inside the hostel, men were shouting and sloganeering,” Benna Fathima, a second-year student and a member of the HCPF, recalled. “We were not even allowed to look outside to see what was happening.”

At 2 am, Fathima, along with two other women, climbed over the college’s gate to break the curfew. A women hosteller broke the lock at the gate, and around twenty women stepped out to march around the campus to celebrate their victory, Fathima told me. They were joined by members of Pinjra Tod and the HCPF. According to her, the men who were decorating the tree for the ritual included members of the ABVP. She noted that the male students were visibly agitated by Pinjra Tod’s presence and began chanting, “Virgin Puja hoke rahegi, aarti toh hoke rahegi”—the Virgin puja will happen and so will the prayer.

To contain the possible tussle, the college’s administration called the police to the scene. Suresh from the HCPF, who had also participated in the march, told me that though the men around the tree were chanting aggressively, “all the effort of the police was directed towards keeping the women at bay.”

In the events leading to the puja, protestors accused the ABVP of being aggressive and enjoying impunity. I spoke to Siddhartha Yadav, the state secretary of the ABVP, who distanced the organisation from the incident. “Whatever happened there, they were not representing the [ABVP]. They did that in their capacity as Hindu College students,” Yadav said. When asked what was the ABVP’s stance on the ritual, Yadav termed it as an “internal matter of Hindu College.” He said, “Whatever the college decides for themselves, ABVP is in favour of that.”

On the morning of 14 February, over one hundred and fifty students participating in the ritual surrounded the tree, which was decorated with condoms filled with water and confetti, and a huge poster of Sharma and Kohli. At around 10 am, the SFI and Pinjra Tod members manhandled the security guard to forcefully enter the college and disrupt the puja. Like every year, a first-year male student was acting as a priest to conduct the puja because he was the chosen “fresher of the year.” Dressed in a ritual garb, and wearing a thread across his torso—not unlike a janeu, a sacred thread worn by upper-caste Hindu men—the first-year student tried to recite prayers to the poster. But this year, the prayers were not audible over the sloganeering by the protestors as they chanted, “Maang ke lenge azaadi, tod ke lenge azaadi”—By demand or by force, we will get freedom.

As the protestors surrounded the tree, those who were participating in the ritual started pushing them, which led to a scuffle. At that point, Muskan, a student of Miranda House and a member of Pinjra Tod, climbed the tree to burn the poster with a lighter. But a male hosteller, who was already sitting atop the tree, tried to stop her. After a long tussle between the two to claim the poster, the banner tore. A number of female police officers present at the venue tried to diffuse the situation. “The police is here to tackle us, even though we are very clearly outnumbered and more at risk of getting hurt,” Evita Rodriguez, a first-year student at St Stephens College and a member of the Pinjra Tod, said.

I spoke to around ten students of the college about what they thought of the ritual. Most of them said that the issue at hand was objectification of women; none of them felt it was casteist. Mayank, a second-year student at the college, was outraged that the protestors wanted to abolish the ritual. He said, “What makes them think we can do that? This is tradition.”

At around 2 pm, the crowd around the tree moved to the building of the college’s faculty of arts. At one side of the building, a group of ABVP members were chanting, “Kisi ko nahi chodenge! (We won’t spare anyone!)” and “SFI wapas jao. (Go back, SFI.)”

On the other side of the building, members from the SFI, the HCPF and Pinjra Tod were speaking to the protestors, summarising why they were protesting against the ritual and the incidents of the night before. Rodriguez told me that the stakes of Pinjra Tod protesting were much higher because the “Hindu College Boys Hostel and ABVP had institutional backing, which organisations like Pinjra Tod don’t.” She added, “We are the ones at the risk of losing a hostel seat.” The crowd grew thinner as students began to leave the area around the faculty of arts, but the ABVP’s chants of “Kisi ko nahi chodenge” continued echoing in the background.