There was the “semen-filled balloons” story, which was proved wrong. And then there was the story of a man almost beaten to death after a quarrel on Holi.
Guess which one the media chose to highlight.
These two cases of ‘Holi hooliganism’, among others, were reported from New Delhi this year. In the first, a woman college student made the sensational claim in an Instagram post that she was hit by a balloon containing semen. But even as people were already questioning the veracity of the presence of semen and doctors were dismissing its possibility citing science, the police found out in their probe that the liquid was no semen, and the ones throwing the balloon no perverts but teenage girls.
In the second case, a college student was attacked with rods and stabbed with knife for rescuing a child from the wrath of two bike-borne commuters who had gotten so enraged at being hit with a water balloon on the day of Holi that they thrashed the little boy.
Guess which incident was picked up by the mainstream media. Of course, the first one. Several pages dedicated to it, no less.
But before we elaborate on the media frenzy in the first case and the near-indifference to the other, here are the details of the second case, which this correspondent discovered after visiting the site of the crime and by talking to the victim and the police.
Ashish Chowdhary, a 21-year-old law student who lives in Duggal Colony of Khanpur area in South Delhi, was walking near his house at noon on 1 March when he saw a child being beaten up by two youths. He soon learnt that the child had hurled a water balloon at them. “I stopped the two from thrashing the child. I was angry and might have used cuss words. But they shouldn't have beaten up the poor child. Also, it’s Holi, this is what children do on Holi,” says Chowdhary, his arms in plaster cast.
Chowdhary says the youths threatened him with dire consequences, promising to return, but he paid little heed and went about his business. At 4pm, he left for his gym and, as is his daily routine, stopped at a grocery store a few metres near the gym to buy an energy bar. That’s when a number of bikes zoomed in into the narrow residential lane and surrounded him. Next, the group comprising minor boys and adult men launched a merciless attack on Chowdhary with lathis and knives. “One of them even had a pistol and kept threatening the boy [Chowdhary] by pointing at him,” recalls grocery store owner Amar Gupta, who witnessed the crime.
According to Chowdhary, the country-made pistol failed to work, otherwise he would have been shot.
Chowdhary, a tall, burly man, says a weaker person would have probably died of the blows. The attackers left after residents raised an alarm; he was soon admitted to a private hospital. He sustained grievous wounds on his wrist from the knife, suffered two broken fingers, and carried grave injury marks on his neck, shoulder, and back. He is traumatised, and is most worried about his college exams that are only a month away. Chowdhary’s father, on the other hand, is attending to more immediate concerns and mobilising neighbours to pool in money for installing a gate at the entrance of the colony so that “outsiders” cannot enter. Asked if he regrets coming to the rescue of the child, Chowdhary vehemently denies. “I would do it again,” he says.
Footage captured in the CCTV cameras installed in the lane later helped the police identify the accused, four of whom have been apprehended. “There were six bikes in total,” says Kuldeep Singh, Station House Officer of Neb Sarai police station, where a first information report (FIR) was registered. The police have arrested the key accused, Waseem and Rohil, along with two juveniles, and are on the lookout for the rest. As per the FIR, it was Waseem who had called his friends for the attack on Chowdhary. They have all been booked for culpable homicide and grievous hurt, among other sections in the penal code.
“Most of the attackers are residents of nearby slums,” Singh said.
At the site of the crime, residents say they are shaken. “I was so scared that I could not even record it on my phone,” says eye-witness Anuradha, wife of store owner Gupta. Stopping the men from attacking Chowdhary, she says, was something she and her neighbours could not summon the courage to do.
The residents are also baffled that the trigger of the gruesome episode was a mere water balloon.
Such a violent reaction to colours or balloons hurled on Holi, however, isn’t a stray case. In several parts of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, non-Hindus who do not celebrate Holi, have even resorted to stone-pelting after colour was accidentally sprayed on them. Such incidents were reported from Gonda and Sitapur, among others, this time too. On the other hand, reports of balloons containing semen emerged for the first time this Holi. Yet, the coverage of the latter in the mainstream media was disproportional, making it appear like a frequent occurrence. This was also echoed by Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Makarand R Paranjape in a recent column where he wondered if the claims were “enough to make national headlines, launch debates and protests against the festival?”
The mainstream media’s approach to stories about Holi is evident from how the largest-selling daily in New Delhi, the Times of India, treated the two cases. It dedicated several pages to heated protests over the questionable semen-filled balloons in its edition on Dulhendi (when people play with colours) that fell on 2 March. This was despite one of its own reports carrying a police rebuttal to the allegation. “...Police found, after apprehending two teenaged girls for the prank, that they were harmless water projectiles,” said a report published on the second page in the paper that same day. In sharp contrast, Chowdhary’s tragic story was ignored in its print edition. Like the Times of India, several publications carried it in their web edition. But it has evidently generated no outrage.
Stories of the “victims” of Holi revellers were played up, while stories of revellers were largely ignored.
The purpose of drawing this comparison is not to belittle the real concerns about hooliganism and molestation that happen on Holi. The issues need to be raised rather than swept under the carpet in the name of tradition. The debate around semen-filled balloons, in fact, prompted the Delhi police to rule this time that parents would be booked if their children are found hurling water balloons at passersby without their consent. This surely must have come as a much-needed relief for many.
However, one can’t help but wonder why unverified claims of hooliganism were given precedence over obvious cases of intolerance to festivities exhibited as violence. Just like no person should be harassed with water balloons without their consent – and certainly not filled with, even if possible, semen – no person deserves to be beaten to near-death over water balloons either.