The dispute revolves around the institution’s decision to allocate separate tables for vegetarian students in its mess, leading to the imposition of a fine on a student who protested against this policy. In recent months, IIT Bombay has faced adverse publicity due to unfortunate incidents, including student suicides. Now, the institution faces scrutiny for its dining arrangements. The controversy was ignited when a humanities student, Abhishek Mali, reportedly attempted to expose strict vegetarian students, primarily from the Jain community, to the sight and smell of meat dishes during dinner. As a consequence, IIT Mumbai fined Mali with Rs 10,000 for his actions.
In a recent development at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), controversy has erupted surrounding the allocation of dining space for vegetarian meals at Hostels 12, 13, and 14. These hostels primarily accommodate PhD scholars and share a common mess area. Reports from leading dailies, including The Indian Express, Times of India, and Swarajya, shed light on the ongoing dispute.
The issue originally came to the forefront in 2020 during ideological confrontations related to the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). Tensions resurfaced when a professor dined in the vegetarian section while consuming a meat dish, leading to further confrontations.
In July of this year, the issue escalated when a student email suggested that opposition to eating meat in the vegetarian section could result in disciplinary actions. A controversial poster emerged, stating “Vegetarians only are allowed to sit here,” igniting heated debates and accusations of food discrimination.
Responding to the situation, the IIT management promptly removed the controversial poster and initiated discussions to allocate an exclusive area for vegetarian meals. Additionally, arrangements were made for students observing Paryushan, a Jain festival.
However, despite these measures, students reported instances of harassment, such as leaving eggshells on vegetarian-only tables and smearing food ladles at the Jain food counter with meat. On September 27, the Mess Council officially designated six tables in the canteen for vegetarian meals, emphasizing that these tables were accessible to any student choosing to consume vegetarian food.
In a response that further escalated tensions, Abhishek Mali and other students staged a protest by deliberately eating meat at one of the designated vegetarian tables. As a result, Mali received a fine, and others involved may face disciplinary action.
The controversy has spurred discussions and debate among a large number of alumni and concerned individuals, some of whom are now calling for the shutdown of the Humanities and Social Sciences departments due to the perceived unnecessary politicization of what many consider a trivial issue.
Suryakant Waghmore, Professor of Sociology at IIT Bombay, tweeted, “Bhartiya vegetarianism of purity and segregation is a social illness.. it needs to be cured, not institutionalized!”. Some of the faculty members termed the designated ‘veg-only’ space “disgraceful”, while another professor has called the segregation “social illness”.
Swati Goel Sharma of the Swarajya had shared an email in which a student alleges that on 5 October 2023, a student after using a spoon to take omelet used the very same spoon to take food from the Jain/Vegetarian counter. When questioned, the student apparently gave a very rude response and asserted that he would continue with his behaviour.
You can’t make this stuff up
After IIT-Bombay fined a Social Science PhD student Rs 10000 for deliberately taking his meat dish to Jains and other vegetarian students seated in their corner tables, @IndianExpress has come up with a ‘dar ka mahaul’ story. On how students eating… pic.twitter.com/y1wooieMrq
— Swati Goel Sharma (@swati_gs) October 10, 2023
Academic Outcry and Agitations
The imposition of this fine has drawn strong reactions both within and outside the IIT Bombay campus. Assistant Professor Anupam Guha from the Centre for Policy Studies at IIT Bombay took to social media to express his disapproval of the fine, stating that academics who care about their institutions should resist such actions. Additionally, the Students’ wing of the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Sharad Pawar group has warned of an agitation against the authorities if the fine is not withdrawn.
Food choices at IIT Bombay, as with many educational institutions in India, are generally a matter of personal preference. The campus typically offers a variety of dining options, including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods. While many students, staff, and faculty members at IIT Bombay follow a vegetarian diet for personal, cultural, or religious reasons, there is no official requirement for students to be vegetarians.
The Narrative of Intimidation
The Indian Express has reported on the incident, claiming that non-vegetarian students are being intimidated. Quoting one student, they highlighted that even though there was always informal segregation of veg and non-veg food eaters in the mess out of mutual respect, the formal rule and subsequent action against protesters have created a certain amount of fear among students.
Imposition of Fine and Campus-Wide Reactions
A fine was imposed after an online meeting of the mess council for hostels 12, 13, and 14 on October1, 2023 and in that meeting, the council asserted that the protest was a deliberate effort to disturb the tranquillity and unity in the mess, despite the advice provided by the Associate Dean of Students’ Affairs. Following the announcement of the decision to allocate six distinct tables for vegetarian meals in the final week of September, a small group of students expressed their dissent by consuming non-vegetarian dishes at these designated tables.
Unmindful of this arrangement, some ate non-vegetarian food at one of the six tables designated for vegetarian-only dining, resulting in ruckus in the dining area. In response, the mess council imposed a substantial fine of Rs 10,000 on one of the protesting students. This decision prompted strong reactions from both within and outside the campus. Some professors expressed their disapproval on social media, while the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle cautioned that they would initiate protests unless the fine was rescinded.
Recently, IIT Delhi professor of philosophy Divya Dwived, in an interview to French media said, “There are two Indias. The past India of racialized caste order oppressing the majority population, and then there is the India of the future that is an egalitarian India without caste oppression and Hinduism. That is the India which is not yet represented but is waiting, longing to show its visage to the world.“
Unveiling a Confidential Document
According to a confidential document with your correspondent , “ IIT is being dragged into unnecessary controversy for an imaginary discrimination/harassment against Dalits/ minorities by Zombie like personalities and D-Stock online monikers who stoop to the despicable level to abuse upper caste pedagogue in the institute and charging them with adopting caste-based discrimination against Dalits/oppressed, particularly when incidents of suicide of students take place in IIT Madras or when they are questioned by IIT-M academicians on their qualifications etc” it also says “The statistics on suicide by students in premier educational institutions like IITs, IIMs in the last 8 years show a total of 122 incidents in IITs/IIMs in the country,but none of such incidents point to the reason of caste-discrimination and repression against oppressed people by upper caste/Brahmin faculty”
The confidential report said “Now, especially in Tamil Nadu, whatever be the issue being faced by the Dalit/reserved category students in IIT Madras or other institutions or whenever they are questioned by educators on some issues, a vilification propaganda is being hurled by the filthy rich and D-Stock persons who, with vested interests, play the trump card of oppression against under-privileged to exploit Dalits/minorities in lower strata and also resort to malicious campaign that such issues are taking place because of Brahmin domination” .
In 2015 The ban on the student group, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) by the Dean of Students of IIT Madras, M S Sivakumar has sparked protests across other IITs and educational institutes who have started their own versions of APSC as a mark of solidarity. IIT Bombay students have floated a group in the name of Ambedkar-Periyar-Phule Circle (APPC) and IIT Delhi has retained the original name of APCS. Kolkata’s Jadhavpur University and New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University have too floated APSC in their campuses. APSC, which led an anti-Modi campaign in IIT Madras campus, came after a humanities department was established at the institute. Card-holding members of the CPI(M) signed in without much delay.