IIT Bombay Approves ‘Vegetarian Food Only’ Space
Caste-based “pure veg” culture brought us here.
In July, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B) was mired in controversy around food segregation when students alleged that posters stating “vegetarians only are allowed to sit here” appeared in the canteen. Months later, the issue has resurfaced. Except this time, the campus hostel and mess administration have officially reserved six tables in the canteen for vegetarian students, according to reports. The issue has reignited the longstanding debate around practices of food segregation in institutions and the casteist notion of purity ingrained in the “pure veg” culture in India.
Students residing in hostels 12, 13 and 14 received an email from the mess council regarding the update, which stated that the goal of this move was to ensure a comfortable and pleasant dining experience for all. “The mess is for all, and everyone’s comfortable dining is our responsibility. There is no doubt that there are some people who can’t resist the view and smell of non-veg food during their dining; this may create health issues as well. Hence, it is necessary to designate six tables where only vegetarian food will be taken by anyone,” the email – which was shared on X by the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) – read. In case of any violations, the mess council can take action and impose penalties, it continues.
The six tables in question are to be marked with signage that reads “This place is designated for vegetarian food ONLY.” When a similar signage – reportedly put up by students – had appeared earlier this year, the hostel general secretary had clarified that there were no officially designated spaces for vegetarian students. The email at the time had also addressed reports of students removing those who brought non-vegetarian food to these areas, stating: “Such behaviour is unacceptable and goes against the values of mutual respect and tolerance that we strive to uphold in our community. No student has the right to remove another student from any area of the mess on the grounds that it is reserved for a particular community.”
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Cultural and social anxieties around non-vegetarianism in India also emerge in the resistance to serving eggs to students in mid-day meals, or when Sudha Murthy recently stated 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. Support for food segregation – such as in the aftermath of Murthy’s statement – often argues for the freedom of choice and the right to practice one’s faith. However, it fails to acknowledge how caste hierarchies influence dietary preferences and the notions of purity and pollution – that call for social and physical distancing from non-vegetarians – inherent in Indian vegetarianism.
IIT-B is not the only institution where food segregation comes into play. Earlier this year, Ravikant Kisana wrote, “…canteens and dining spaces across educational and professional institutions in India routinely maintain such divides.” Suryakant Waghmore further highlighted how it is common for urban schools in Northwest India to ask parents of non-vegetarian children to pack vegetarian food for them.
Neither is this an isolated incident at IIT-B. In 2018, a similar controversy had erupted when an official communication had asked non-vegetarian students to use separate plates. Parth Shrimali, an alumnus of IIT-B, wrote, “In my personal experience at IIT Bombay, hostels where the mess counter wasn’t big enough to have separate slabs for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food in the open, we had to go to a separate window behind the counter.” Meanwhile, the housekeeping staff would dine separately in a corner, Shrimali continued, adding that it was a similar experience at Ashoka University. As many have noted over the years, there’s a silent, imperceptible coding of caste in institutions and everyday practices – food being one of them.
This casteism inherent in food-based practices is particularly evident in the instances of violence linked to meat-eating, specifically the consumption of beef, which is stigmatized and mired in identity politics. Waghmore highlighted how the ideology of caste influences food preferences in India, noting that the “percentage of non-vegetarians among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, both for men and women, is much higher than among those who are not from these communities.” He added, “The higher the caste, the greater the possibility of them being pure vegetarians,” further noting that it is through changes in dietary and ritual practices that the mobility of caste becomes possible.
IIT-B’s official designation of a separate place for vegetarian students, then, has been criticized for being a “regressive” step that promotes exclusionary practices, despite the council’s email claiming to create an “inclusive environment.” “The problem is that this whole attitude that non-vegetarians and vegetarians need to be segregated comes from the idea that non-vegetarian food is contaminated,” an APPSC told Hindustan Times. “We understand it is totally normal to feel uncomfortable, and any student who feels that way can ask their fellow students to move to another table, and I am sure everyone has the basic civic sense to understand that. But turning it into segregation is very problematic. We believe it is a casteist practice.”
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.