From behind a formidable steel gate at the Saint Stephens College women's hostel at Delhi University, three students spoke hesitantly to a visitor today, refusing to open more than a small peephole and admitting, finally, that they were virtual captives for the day in their dormitory compound.

In the street outside, bands of young men raced by on motorcycles, emitting raucous whoops and wolf whistles, and occasionally making lewd comments before roaring away in pursuit of girls bold enough to venture outside. The young men's faces and clothes were garishly streaked with chartreuse, red and green dye, and some of them were obviously drunk or high on bhang, an opium derivative.

Asked if she felt in danger, one of the young women replied, "I guess that's why we're locked in here. Most people are staying inside today."

The anxiety was caused by the festival of Holi, an annual rite of spring in India, the origins of which are symbolic of fertility and defloration, and are steeped in Hindu mythology. In its most innocent form, Holi (pronounced holy) is an occasion when families, friends and neighbors smear brightly colored liquid dye on each other, gaily sing and dance and celebrate the onset of summer and the harvest season.

At its worst, Holi is a terrifying day for millions of Indian women, one in which the ugliest manifestations of sexual repression in tradition-bound Indian society are released. It is a day when law enforcement authorities often wink at verbal sexual abuse and even physical molestation with a casual "Boys will be boys."

This year, however, the police finally responded to pressure from women's rights groups and student organizations and launched a "curb Holi hooliganism" campaign that appeared to be at least partially effective in many parts of the capital.

The deputy chief of the Delhi police, Ahmed Qumar, said that complaints of sexual harassment and violence declined partly because of the new crackdown, but also because thousands of young rank-and-file workers of India's dominant political party, the Congress (I), were not observing the holiday because of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi Oct. 31. Sikh youths, Qumar noted, also were foregoing the celebration because of the Hindu-mob massacre of more than 2,000 Sikhs that followed the assassination.

Women's colleges throughout the capital were heavily patrolled today, and plainclothes policemen and decoy policewomen were posted on public buses in an attempt to curtail molesting of young women. The city government banned the sale of water balloons, which traditionally are thrown at women on Holi, and the authorities warned that anyone who "played Holi" by smearing red dye on unwilling persons would be arrested. Nearly 100 young men identified as "miscreants" were arrested under preventive detention orders in an attempt to combat Holi hooliganism.

However, for several days before today's festival, there were numerous reports of pre-Holi "Eve teasing" -- a popular Indian euphemism for sexual harassment of women -- particularly on buses near women's colleges.

By legal definition under the penal code, an offense is committed "when a man by words either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or by gestures does at any public place sing, recite or utter indecent words or song or ballad to the annoyance of any woman."

In practice, Eve-teasing has a wider definition that includes fondling and pinching women on crowded buses, often by groups of several young men; lewd taunting and jeering at women by roving gangs of youths, who sometimes tear the clothes off their victims or spit on them, and, occasionally, beating women who attempt to summon help.

Women's rights activists frequently have complained that other passengers and even policemen and bus conductors riding on public buses routinely turn a blind eye when women are assaulted or verbally abused during the Holi season, either because they do not not take the offense seriously or because they are intimidated by the young goondas (street toughs).

"In the past few years society has begun to respond to this unkind view of women. The girls are beginning to articulate their protest. They want to be treated as human beings rather than as women, so naturally there has been some resistance from the other sex," said S.C. Bhatiya, a professor at Saint Stephen's college who was manning a special anti-hooliganism control room on the campus today. Bhatiya said college rules provide for the expulsion of Eve-teasers, but he said he could think of "no substantial cases" that had been pressed in the last three years.

The principal of Daulat Ram Women's College, Deepali Chandra, said the often vicious harassment of women at Holi may stem from the frustration young Indian men experience because of the vast gulf between the fantasy of the movies they watch and the reality of a sexually repressed society.

"The media presents a picture they do not not see in real life. In actual practice, there is no ground where boy meets girl in such a romantic way. So when it actually happens, they don't know how to respond to a situation. At Holi, you are allowed certain liberties. It provides an occasion once a year when one has an outlet for his frustration," Chandra said in an interview.

Moreover, she added, the practice of disguising faces on Holi with thick colored dye provides "a cloak behind which they can let out their frustrations against girls."

The origins of Holi have been obscured by time, but the festival has been associated with several gods of Hindu mythology, including Kama, the god of pleasure.