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Diwali Ball’s alcohol ban sparks controversy

Oxford University Hindu Society (HUMSoc) recently announced the decision to make Diwali Ball alcohol free. This news has been received with mixed reactions across the university. Some feel the society has been “exclusive”, only catering events towards Hindus following certain beliefs and not opening themselves up to more secular or cultural Hindus.

Diwali is part of South Asian culture more generally. The festival is not exclusively celebrated by Hindus, also being one of the major religious festivals in Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, and also being celebrated by some Buddhists. Diwali is the biggest holiday of the year in India, celebrated across the country. The festival holds different meanings, and is celebrated differently, across religions. 

HUMSoc writes on its Student Union page that it “is a space that aims to provide a home away from home for Hindus at Oxford”. They form an image of themselves as inclusive of all Hindus, including those who want to simply learn about the religion or partake in events. The Society encourages many to attend their events, “if you want to learn more about the faith, meet fellow Hindus, or more simply to eat delicious food!” 

They hold “weekly aartis, functions to celebrate festivals like Holi and Diwali and termly dinners and social events for drinkers and non-drinkers alike”. 

One student, who was raised Sikh, also celebrates Diwali. For her it “serves as a memory of the ‘Day of Liberation’ as well as being a ‘Festival of Lights’”. 

She feels that without alcohol the “atmosphere will be more tense, for sure”, and said it “seems pointless to ban alcohol at the ball when your target audience is university students”. 

She is uncertain whether the alcohol ban would stop her attending. Diwali Ball gives her “the rare opportunity to reconnect with [her] culture when [she’s] away from home. However, it is organised here by [HUMSoc] despite the festival’s importance to Sikhs and Jains too.”

She “feels at times the committee cares more about imposing personal beliefs rather than catering to the desires of their potential guests”. Hinduism does not forbid alcohol consumption.

She feels “unsettled financially contributing to an organisation that overlooks people from [her] religious background. This exposes the exclusionary nature of HUMSoc’s ball committee”.

A second student, though agnostic, enjoys “actively investigating and learning about different faiths and their customs”.

She does not feel the alcohol ban is a problem as “99% of all social events cater to people who drink alcohol anyway”, and “wouldn’t have thought that one single event out of the hundreds that happen in a year not serving alcohol would be such a big deal. […] It’s not an ordinary ball or club night that you could attend any day; it’s a special festivity that I find would be nicer to observe without alcohol”.

As a non-drinker she “prefer[s] attending social events with other non-drinkers”. She finds these “a safer, more pleasant and less stressful environment”.

However, she feels “maybe it would’ve been better to just set a limit on how much alcohol everyone can have”. A blanket ban is “a little harsh”.

HUMSoc told Cherwell: “HumSoc accepts and respects diverse cultures, traditions, and faiths. HumSoc is a proud member of the National Hindu Students Forum (NHSF), U.K. We have joined the cohort of over 4,000 active members at Universities across the country that includes Hindu Societies from Cambridge, Imperial, LSE, Manchester, and many others. Over the years, all these societies have hosted non-alcoholic events. Non-alcoholic events are also organized by societies of different faiths. To ensure the inclusivity of all the practitioners and faiths, HumSoc is organizing a non-alcoholic Ball.

“‘Acceptance of all’ and ‘openness’ are inherent to the Hindu Religion. No-Alcohol ball also makes the event accessible to those who would otherwise have been excluded. HumSoc has never advised or enforced any practice on individuals. The no-alcohol ball is a respect towards diverse participation and inclusivity of all faiths.”

Image credit: Cecilia Catmur

Editor’s note: this article was corrected on Saturday October 15th to remove an erroneous comment from a student which suggested that Hinduism prohibited alcohol consumption

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