On the eve of Valentine’s Day, a group of boys from Delhi University’s (DU) Hindu College decorated what they call the ‘virgin tree’ with water-filled condoms and a big poster of a “happy couple” – this year it was Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma.
They were preparing for the annual tradition of the ‘virgin tree puja’ which is meant to help them lose their virginity within six months of worshipping the tree.
As they were busy tying balloons on the tree and chanting “Bharat Mata ki Jai,” residents from the college’s women’s hostel broke the locks on the hostel’s gates and stormed onto campus –all to support Pinjra Tod’s campaign to disrupt the infamous ritual.
The virgin tree puja, which has been taking place since 1953, is widely considered offensive and misogynistic by women who say it encourages the objectification of women. Pinjra Tod members also say that the particular form of worship is rooted in caste-based practices. The puja involves a male student dressing up as a priest to perform religious rituals while other men sing hymns in praise of Damdami mai or a Bollywood actress of the worshippers’ choosing.
Pinjra Tod has been raising their voice against this ritual for the past several years and has also faced backlash for doing so. This year, the collective’s members and their allies snuck onto campus, holding a banner which said, “End Neoliberal Brahminical Patriarchal Culture”.
The ritual, as the students pointed out, objectifies women and enforces patriarchy. Even the hymn they sing has lyrics like “Tumko din bhar dekhu, raat bhar so nhi paata” (I stare at you all day and can’t sleep all night).
As the protestors addressed a crowd of supporters, outlining the sexism in the whole ritual and on campus at large, they faced retaliation of multiple kinds – first from the organisers of the event, who heckled and even physically intimidated the women – and later from the administration who turned a blind eye to the situation.
Referring to the organisers who were decorating the tree, Uttam, a commerce student at Hindu College, said, “When I tried stopping the boys, they tore my jacket and tried attacking me. I was scared a bit initially but later gathered the courage to fight back.”
Pinjra Tod members alleged that the police stationed on campus sided with the puja’s organisers and intimidated those who were protesting against them.
“When we broke the curfew, more than 300 students from the boys hostel started shouting slogans against us. The police protected them but not us”, said a member.
‘Love is not restrictive’
Other student collectives from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and DU extended their support to the protest and shed light on how the ritual overlooks homosexual relationships while addressing a gathering at the college gate.
“When we tried explaining them all that was wrong with the ritual, they said they have also put the pride flags to celebrate homosexual relationships except the poster had the picture of a heterosexual couple,” said Yogita, a student from Hindu College.
Adding to this, Snehashish from JNU said, “Love cannot be restricted to one single virgin tree. It goes beyond pre-set boundaries of sexuality and desires but these people are only enforcing heterosexual relationships.”
As students sang protest songs and shouted slogans at the entry gate of the college, one of the of the organisers attacked a student and targeted several others which lead to a brief scuffle outside the campus.
The students and their allies then marched to the faculty of arts building to stage another peaceful protest.
The day concluded with Pinjra Tod members singing Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s revolutionary poem Hum Dekhenge and vowed to continue to oppose such patriarchal traditions across the country.