On 20th and 21st March, most of India will celebrate the festival of Holi. Parties will be thrown in streets and colleges, housing societies and offices. Entire markets will be set up to sell holi supplies- gulal, pichkaris, colour to mix with water, balloons and so on. Bollywood songs will blare from speakers, thandai and mithai will be spread out on tables. Women will retreat into houses out of fear as men carry out their drunken song and dance in public, taking over entire cities and villages. Women who want to be a part of the festivities will have to ward off constant unwanted touch, unwanted groping, unwanted hugs, and sometimes fail to ward them off. Women will pretend to be okay with gangs of men picking them up and putting them into ponds, throwing liquid-filled balloons at them, forcing their clothes into translucence, rubbing colour on their faces violently enough for it to go inside their eyes and noses. Women will be ridiculed for taking offence or refusing any of this.
In 2018, on the eve of Holi, large numbers of women in Delhi took to the streets, in order to protest what they called a culture of harassment that is prevalent during Holi. Besides the usual harassment, women had begun to be attacked by balloons filled with semen and egg yolks with almost no repercussions. They demanded that police and local authorities take an active effort to discourage the harassment against women that was encouraged and normalised during the festival, with cries of ‘bura na mano holi hain’ every time women protested. Other women have spoken up against the media representation of holi, with Bollywood songs saying constantly that women are sex objects and that harassment of women is a festive activity. In a song Ang se ang lagana, for instance, Sunny Deol’s character promises to touch every part of his lover’s body with his own, and says he’s undeterred by even her complaints to the police. In most practises, every aspect of women’s privacy and bodily autonomy is violated.
However, it is important to remember that the problem with Holi is not merely one of bad practise or faulty representation. It is not something that has been tarnished in modern times, but is a ritual of violence at its very core. The first day of Holi is celebrated with what is known as Holika dahan, or the killing of Holika. The Puranic origin myth says, according to K. Jamnadas, that “the powerful King Hiranyakashyapu sent his sister Holika to kill his ten year old only son Pralhad, as he was worshipping the Brahmanical god Vishnu against his wishes.” She sat with Prahlad on a pyre because she had a cloth which could resist burning. However, after Prahlad prays to Vishnu, the wind blows, wrapping Prahlad with the cloth while Holika burns to death. According to Jamnadas, the Puranas were the only holy texts which Bahujan people were allowed to listen to, and were written in order to create justification in their minds for the violence that was committed against them. In most of these myths, Bahujan people are demonised and referred to as ‘asuras’, and violence against them twisted into a ‘triumph of good over evil’. The myth of Holika then, can be seen as a mere justification of the murder of a Bahujan woman in terms of devotion to a Brahmanical god. This is not the only instance of violence that is associated with the festival. A practise called Garoba, which is carried out during Holi in Maharashtra, involves hanging pumpkins from poles and can be traced to a Hindu practise banned by the British government, which involved hanging lower caste men from poles. The Marathi poet Tukaram who spoke strongly against caste, is said to have “vanished” on the day of Holi as well. Another myth involves the Hindu god Krishna “playing” with the women of Vrindavana, which again, heavily implies harassment.
At the core of Holi, then is violence which is reinforced by the idea that it is a day when there are no moral repercussions for any actions and repressed desires can be fulfilled. In a profoundly casteist and misogynist society, these desires often involve the infliction of violence against the oppressed, and the lack of moral repercussions is most useful for those in power, as can be clearly seen in the events of even just the last few years. For instance, in 2016, on the day of Holi an 80 year old woman was dragged out of her own house by three men she knew, who were in an inebriated state, and took turns to rape her. The woman died soon. In 2017, on the day of Holi, a 6 year old girl was raped by a stranger that couldn’t be found or recognised by the police for weeks. In 2018, in Rajasthan, a 26 year old Dalit man was beaten to death while his house was set on fire. In Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit family’s shop was set ablaze, while they managed to flee from a mob trying to push the family, including two children, into the fire. In the same year, Hariom Yadav, a UP MLA was accused of abducting a Dalit woman in order to ‘celebrate Holi’. When the oppressed celebrate the festival too, they are made the targets of violence. In 2017, for instance, in Madhya Pradesh, an upper caste couple pushed a Dalit man into a Holi bonfire that he had lit himself. In 2018, in Jharkhand, a 52 year old Dalit man was beaten to death by the police for applying colour on an upper caste man. This the oppressive reality of Holi, a festival which is constantly portrayed in mainstream media as a festival of Hindu-Muslim unity, conveniently sugarcoating its brahmanical and patriarchal nature.
Clearly then, what happens on Holi are not transgressions, but merely expressive of what our society is at large. What does it mean then, for us to continue to celebrate this festival that justifies this kind of violence? It is not merely a matter of myth and tradition but reflects strongly in the very real instances of violence that are carried out in society even today- as recently as four months ago, a 15 year old Dalit girl burned to death as she was set ablaze by two men in Agra. We as feminists, then, must reject such a tradition, and all versions of it, in all capacities possible.
Image credits: Neetisha Xaixo