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.