Mumbai- A few months after "Vegetarians Only" posters surfaced at the canteen of the IIT Bombay campus, an official email from the Mess Council has reserved some seats for the vegetarian sections in the mess, which serves hostels 12, 13, and 14. The email addressed to students designates six tables where only vegetarian food will be served to anyone. The email reads, "Our primary goal is to ensure that every resident enjoys a comfortable and pleasant dining experience." The email cites that there are some people who can't resist the view and smell of non-vegetarian food during their dining and goes on to warn of proper action and appropriate penalties for violators of this rule.
Reacting to the directive of the mess, Ambedkar Phule Periyar Study Circle at IIT Bombay posted on X (formerly Twitter), "After weeks of ambiguous and awkward back-and-forth on the food segregation policy, the administration has finally revealed where they stand. We condemn this regressive policy."
The Mooknayak spoke to a member of APPSC, enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the campus. Reading the underpinnings of untouchability in this directive of the mess council, the student said, "There is a discourse that is formulated and shared among others that non-veg is not good, etc." He says it is like intervening in the food habits of others. The biggest demand of the anti-caste movement is to dine together, but this system of segregation goes against that.
He reveals that already there are separate utensils for veg and non-veg food in the hostel of IIT Bombay, while the vegetarian food is served in round thalis; there is a rectangular plate for non-vegetarian food. Drawing parallels to the caste system, he says that the thinking that some kind of food is pure and some impure emanates from the caste system of our country and brings a kind of hierarchy. This practice of segregation goes beyond untouchability and involves unsee-ability, i.e., prohibition from seeing someone, as was prevalent in some parts of Kerala and Maharashtra. Some people don't like brinjal, potato, etc. Does this mean that they can't see it? He asks.
It is to be noted that the Mess Council is composed of representatives of students.
This new rule comes less than two months after a controversy hit the campus when a few students had put up 'vegetarian only' posters on the canteen walls. The students had reportedly forced the students eating non-vegetarian foods to vacate the table. Ambedkar Phule Periyar Study Circle had retaliated by putting up a poster which read, "Enabling inter-dining practices has been a major force of the anti-caste movement to foster communal harmony. Self-seclusion and ostracization of others on dietary preferences is a way to maintain caste supremacy."
The IIT administration had responded by removing the posters after Ambedkar Phule Periyar Study Circle pointed out that the institute did not have an official food segregation policy.
In 2018, IIT Madras faced flak when it introduced separate entry, utensils, washbasins for non-vegetarians. This segregation was reported by Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras on Facebook in the post which read, "Upper-caste households in India would usually have two entrances - one for the upper castes and the other one in the back for the 'impure' lower castes. A mess in IIT Madras is now having the same system." The post also shared images that marked the entrance and handwash for vegetarians only and was reminiscent of the apartheid era in South Africa when public utilities were marked for colour and whites.
According to some media reports during that period, this new system was implemented on the second floor of the RR North Indian mess, which serves egg and chicken on its menu. The Mooknayak came to know that this segregation was revoked after facing vehement opposition from the students.
While this practice of separation might sound weird to some people, it is a reality that is in practice among a large section of society. In July this year, Sudha Murthy, a philanthropist and wife of Infosys founder Narayan Murthy, revealed that, being a "pure vegetarian," she carries her own utensils when she travels abroad as the possibility of the same spoon being used for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food weighs on her mind. This revelation by Murthy, who also happens to be the mother-in-law of the UK Prime Minister, had shocked many people in the country. Some users had expressed their disapproval of Murthy on social media.
"Vegetarianism as practiced in India is imbricated in the caste order. As a personal choice, it has only one line of defence - it is a matter of habit, which is tough to break even while acknowledging its caste foundation," posted social scientist Janaki Srinivasan.
"Do vegetarians not understand the concept of soap? This level of paranoia and focus on 'purity' and 'contamination' is 100% a product of Brahminism," another comment read.