This Holi, students of a women’s college in south Delhi have had balloons with something other than coloured water thrown at them. Judging by its stickiness and smell, they suspected it to be semen.

On Monday, a psychology student and hostel-resident of Lady Shri Ram College described her harrowing experience of being hit by a “liquid-filled balloon” on her way back from lunch on social media.

She had just started for college from Amar Colony at about 5 pm. Within a minute of her autorickshaw ride, the student wrote, a “liquid-filled balloon” hit her hip and burst open, its contents seeping into her clothes.

“It dried white on my black leggings, and the foreign smell clearly indicated that it wasn’t water,” she wrote. But she did not know what it was till a friend in the hostel told her that “semen-flinging…was currently the Holi fad in the back market area”.

The college’s women’s development cell held an open meeting with about 40 students during lunch break on Tuesday. A teacher who attended it said she was stunned to hear that the psychology student’s experience was “not one isolated incident”. She said three students related separate incidents, all from the past few days, in which they had balloons filled with what they thought was semen, tossed at them. But no police complaints have been filed and none of the students were willing to speak. “They said the fluid was sticky and smelly,” she said. The spots where most students face harassment are fairly close to the college – the lane running behind it, the residential areas of Zamrudpur, the National Park right outside its back gate and even market areas like Amar Colony.

The students’ union and the college administration also contacted the police, said the women’s development cell in a statement. “Patrolling around the college has been increased,” it said. “A mobile number given by the Police has been widely circulated amongst students. They are being urged to lodge their complaints.” From March 8, the police will conduct self-defence training on campus. The principal, Suman Sharma, added that about a fortnight ago the bushes around the college, frequently used as a public toilet by men, were trimmed and on Tuesday, the college hosted an interaction with Esha Pandey, the deputy commissioner of police, special police unit for women and children.

Holi and the college

Harassment starts weeks before Holi. A second-year political science student said she had two balloons with water thrown at her within a few minutes on February 17, close to two weeks before Holi. “Another friend had three balloons pelted at yesterday,” she added. “Two of those were by people on motorcycles.”

Shreya Sahni, a third-year political science student and member of the women’s development cell, however, said that what the students are experiencing this year is not new. “My sister graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in 2012 and she had told me about this,” she said. “This is just the first time somebody has posted about this [on social media].”

In response to that post, made on Instagram, another alumna wrote: “They have been doing this for years now. We’ve (my friends and I) all faced semen filled balloons at one Holi or another during our LSR days.”

Sahni herself had a water-filled balloon thrown at her last Holi and an egg last November. “The back lane is dark and very long and usually there is no police patrolling there,” she said. Students staying in the hostel on the campus of the South Delhi Polytechnic right behind our college and those in Amar Colony have to use it.

Referring to interactive sessions with the police, she pointed out that it is always women who are lectured. “I have not heard of any government body talking about going to the boys and telling them what to do.”

However, as one teacher pointed out, there is little a college can do about incidents outside its premises, beyond seeking greater cooperation from the police. The students’ union president, Amita Yadav, issued a statement saying: “The matter was taken to the [Deputy Commissioner of Police, the Additional Commissioner of Police] and the Police Commissioner. Police picketing and patrolling has been ensured at and around the two gates of LSR, and the nearby areas of Amar Colony, etc.”

Was it semen?

While Lady Shri Ram College students strongly suspect the “sticky and smelly” substance in some of the balloons thrown at them is semen, others, mostly men, are not so sure. An article on the subject posted on Facebook invited some scepticism. Men discussed the composition and properties of semen and whether it is possible to fill a balloon with semen fast enough that it can be tied, carried to a street and tossed. “Semen dries real quick, as it is a colloid with fructose base,” wrote one. “As a result of which it is stored in liquid nitrogen mixture…To make a balloon filled with semen, about 50 odd men would have to ejaculate in a balloon at the same time.”

Another Facebook user speculated it would take “a whole town” to fill a “single mini size balloon” for it to be “turbid enough to burst on impact”. A third simply stated it is “not possible technically” and that the balloons thrown at the students may have contained rice starch.

No matter what the balloons contained, however, harassment during Holi is a common experience. The same day the psychology student had the balloon thrown at her, Sahni’s friend had “mud or dirt” flung at her from inside a car right outside the college, between 4 and 5 pm. “It is usually during the day – they want to be able to see the reaction too – and balloons are typically aimed at particular body parts like the hips or breasts,” said Sahni. “Women have started restricting their movements. It is like men are saying ‘These roads are ours and women cannot claim them’.”