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Vegetarians Only: Food Segregation At IIT And Majoritarian Hegemony

IIT-Bombay has reserved six tables for 'vegetarian food' in the common canteen amid debates about food segregation and casteism on campus.

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Rajyashri Goody's installation, Picnic.
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A couple of months ago, a video clip of entrepreneur Sudha Murthy declaring herself a “pure vegetarian” and sharing her anxieties about sharing spoons with non-vegetarians when travelling abroad, went viral. Appearing in an episode of Khaane Mein Kaun Hai? in July, Murthy said that she carries her own food and spoon from India. ‘I’m pure vegetarian, what if the same spoon is used for non-veg?’

The comments led to outrage about ‘Brahmanical’ food segregation practices that have historically been used by upper caste communities to discriminate against oppressed sections of the population. At around the same time, another incident of food segregationism led to protests in the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, where posters declaring “vegetarians only allowed to sit here” sprang up in a section of the canteen.

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Nearly two months after the controversy, the institution’s administration has now officially restricted some areas in the mess to “vegetarians only”. According to new rules issued by IIT-B’s mess council, six tables at a common canteen for hostels 12,13, and 14 will now be received for vegetarians. Among the reasons cited for the segregation by the administration include feelings of sickness felt by non-meat eaters who feel ‘nausea’ and may have to endure ‘vomiting’ at just the sight and smell of non-vegetarian food. 

In an email, the council informed students that the segregation was in the spirit of inclusivity. “There is no doubt that there are some people who can’t resist the view and smell of non-vegetarian food during their dining, this may create health issues as well,” the email said, while adding that separate eating spaces would help create an “inclusive environment”.  The common canteen consists of 80-100 tables, with each accommodating a maximum of 8 students. Of these, six will not be reserved for vegetarian food. 

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The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle student body in IIT-B which had been protesting against the notice at the time stated that the administration had called the posters “unauthorised” when they were first reported by students following protests by some students. 

“After weeks of an ambiguous and awkward back and forth on the food segregation policy, the admin has finally revealed where they stand. We condemn this regressive policy,” the student body said in a post on Twitter. 

Food politics

Vegetarianism has been gaining currency under the current BJP-led government as it falls in line with certain Hindutva narratives that see vegetarianism as a prerequisite for being Hindu. In a recent official dinner organised for international heads of state during the G-20 session in Delhi, the government of India served guests strictly vegetarian fare. The purely vegetarian and “simple” diet of India’s first tribal woman President Droupadi Murmu has been a well-documented TV news story. Meanwhile, several persons in the past few years have been lynched or attacked on suspicion of eating or storing meat, starting with Mohammad Aqlaq in 2015 who was killed by cow vigilantes in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri. 

The issue of vegetarian/meat segregation is not new in India and has widespread religious as well as political connotations. Food is deeply personal but also deeply cultural. In India, it is a marker of class, caste, religion, and even region. Outlook’s 2022 issue on food politics titled ‘Our Food Their Food’ looked at the contradictions that make food both an agent of polarization as well as integration.

An edible item like salt can in the hands of a leader like Mahatma Gandhi, become the symbol of a nation uniting against a common oppressor. Rumours of pork fat being used to grease cartridges can unite both Hindu and Muslim soldiers to mutiny against colonisers. Today, Champaran mutton has also become a political symbol, endorsed by INDIA Alliance partners, Congress and RJD leaders, Rahul Gandhi and Lalu Prasad Yadav. 

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Its unifying potential also makes it an effective tool of oppression and hegemonic control. The history of Dalit and Adivasi culinary practices and habits reveals a tale of historic discrimination. 

Food cultures in India reiterate “social hierarchies and caste logics of cleanliness and purity,” writes academic Dolly Kikon in her paper ‘Dirty food: racism and casteism in India’. Dalit and tribal writers have in recent years reclaimed the food segregation against them bringing their own recipes - often shaped by historical hardships and limited choices - into pedagogical discourse about food. There has been a growing body of work by Dalit and tribal authors on how food has shaped their caste identity. 

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The new laws at IIT-B may not be surprising when seen in context with the changing nature of Mumbai where culinary cosmopolitanism is slowly giving way to food apartheid. Across neighbourhoods, Outlook reported how residents militantly police consumption of meat in their housing societies. And the hate is fast spreading across Maharashtra. 

Incidentally, the new rules come amid protests across IITs following deaths by suicide of SC/ST students on campus with bodies like AAPSC claiming caste discrimination as one of the reasons. In a survey conducted by APPSC (IIT-B) in 2022, over 41 per cent of general students voted for segregation of eating spaces and 56.4 per cent stated they were vegetarian. Meanwhile, over 60 per cent of the Reserved Category respondents were non-vegetarian and 74.6 per cent did not want segregation.

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