Segregation of Eating Spaces: Modern Untouchability in IITs

IITs have been following food segregation by demarcating a space where students who eat egg or meat are not allowed to enter, both officially and unofficially for years. APPSC (Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle) IIT Bombay had filed an RTI on November 2022 asking the IIT Bombay administration for the details of this segregation in hostel messes. In the reply to the RTI, IIT Bombay declared that there is no such segregation permitted or endorsed by the administration. On July 2022, a mail was sent to the students of Hostel 12 of IIT Bombay by their General Secretary reiterating the institute position that there are no separate eating spaces designated for vegetarians. He also mentioned about ‘reports of individuals forcefully designating certain areas in mess as “Jain sitting space” and removing individuals who bring non-vegetarian food to sit in those areas’. From the next day onwards, “Vegetarian only” posters came up in the combined mess of Hostels 12, 13 and 14 demarcating an area of mess as exclusive to them and where meat/egg eating students were denied entry. When the administration was asked to remove the ‘unauthorised posters’ and uphold the non-segregation policy which they have been claiming on paper, they removed the posters only after weeks of complaints. But two months later, a mail was sent to students of Hostel 12, 13 and 14 where they officially sanctioned food segregation by demarcating an area of mess not to be crossed by students eating egg/meat, because sight of meat caused ‘nausea’ and ‘vomiting’ among some students. The mail warned strict punishment for meat eating students who would violate this food segregation rule.

IITs have been infamous for trying to ensure ‘purity’ of vegetarian spaces by forced segregation and penalizing ‘contamination’ by meat eaters for years. In 2018, IIT Madras had designated separate entrances, utensils and even wash basins for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students. In the same year, IIT Bombay also tried to enforce segregation by separation of plates for vegetarian and non-vegetarians, where non-vegetarians are not allowed to use the circular plates. In September 2022, mess caterers of Hostel 10 in IIT Bombay were fined Rs.50,000 for cooking vegetarian food in the stove designated for non-vegetarian food. In 2014, the HRD ministry  had asked the IITs and IIMs to examine demand for a separate canteen for vegetarian students on their campuses, as a response to a letter that claimed “non-vegetarian food leaves an adverse impact on person consuming it” and “leads the development of ‘Tamas’ (dark and unrighteous) nature”. Even before the ministry directed the IITs, IIT Delhi decided to go full vegetarian, where students claimed the prime reason was that many vegetarian students had expressed their displeasure at eating on the same table with non-vegetarians. Recently, Laxmidhar Behera, the director of IIT Mandi, had sparked controversy by urging students to pledge not to eat meat, claiming that non-stop butchering of animals is causing landslides and cloudbursts and this will lead to a “significant downfall” of Himachal Pradesh. In IIT Hyderabad too, the segregation of eating spaces was formalized this year.

In India, the relationship between people and their food habits is majorly determined by the hierarchical caste system. Historically, caste has played an important role in determining who gets access to ‘pure’ food and who are to consume ‘impure’ food. Members of the highest caste are said to be mostly vegetarians and does not eat meat which is considered impure (though there are numerous exceptions within the communities). If they were to eat or even touch meat, they would be declared to be corrupted and would have to go through numerous purifying rituals. Thus, associating meat as ‘impure’ and ‘polluting’ and those who does not eat meat as ‘pure’ becomes a symbolic way of reinforcing the superiority of savarnas over the others in the caste hierarchy. These concepts of ‘purity and pollution’ have influenced practices of food cooking, serving, eating and even of cleaning utensils.

Food has always been used by savarnas as a tool to show the marginalised their inferior place in the social hierarchy. Cultural hegemony using food has become more aggressive in schools, colleges, and offices in recent years. IITs have been historically dominated by savarnas, even now more than 95 % of faculties in IITs are savarnas, demonstrating their impunity in the brutal violation of reservation. But due to implementation of reservation, especially after OBC reservations in the past decade, the caste demography of a once majorly savarna student population of IITs started changing and is becoming more diverse. The demand for segregation and militant vegetarianism that we see emerging in the past decade is a way to protect and reinforce the cultural superiority of savarnas over the others. The savarnas (privileged castes) see the influx of Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi (DBA) students into these spaces which they had been dominating for decades as a threat to their power. The administration of IITs, which are completely dominated by savarnas, fulfils this demand, and enforces this segregation with stringent penalties on the meat eaters, as seen from the imposition of Rs. 10,000 on the student protesting the segregation in IIT Bombay. Such a hefty fine for violating the rules of segregation is a modern form of untouchability, where mere presence of the Dalit Bahujans could ‘contaminate’ the ‘purity’ of savarna spaces. The food apartheid imposed on these campuses is a means to remind the DBA students that these academic spaces does not belong to them, that they are ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’, and they will be punished if they violate the rules of savarnas or question their casteist superiority.

In India, food is a marker of class, caste, religion, and even region. The hefty fine for a petty violation points the deep rooted casteism that is being enforced by the administration of these institutes as food apartheid. This strict segregation demanded by savarna students and enforced by the savarna administration seeks to reinforce prejudice against marginalized groups, by formally recognizing certain food as ‘pure’ and other ‘impure’.It is the casteist politics of pollution that seeks this institutionalization of untouchability.

In IIT Bombay messes, meat is not served as a part of regular mess food and students who want to eat meat must pay extra for it. In a country with more than 70% meat eaters, it is outrageous that the regular mess menu is fully devoid of meat. This is done to normalize the cultural dominance of vegetarians, despite them being a numerical minority. Special Jain counters are available in IIT messes to cater to their specific dietary requirements without any additional costs, but students who regularly eat meat, who comprises majority of the DBA students, do not get meat in their regular diet and are required to pay more. The savarna vegetarian food has become the norm even in canteens across institutes of higher learning and university dining spaces across the country. DBA students are sometimes forced to cook their food inside their room, away from the dining spaces out of fear of humiliation and abuse.

During a recent talk in IIT Bombay, Dr Sukhdeo Thorat, former chairman of UGC, clearly opined that educational institutions should not devise policy for segregation of eating spaces. Students can sit separately on their own, but institutions enforcing such segregation is promoting the casteist ideas of purity and pollution. Prof. Thorat emphasises that the decision of IIT Bombay to segregate eating spaces will further strengthen the idea of caste and pollution with food habits. “It must be recognized that what food to eat is the individual right of a person, but to treat vegetarians as pure and good and non-vegetarians as bad and impure and therefore both should be segregated from each other while sitting, is a wrong practice.”

The demand for segregation has not been raised by all vegetarians. They do not seek separate utensils, separate dining spaces and living spaces. Not all express disgust at the sight and smell of meat. Mixed dining is changing the ethics and aesthetics of food consumption in urban spaces. The caste-based superiority of Indian vegetarianism is facing a crisis and the rise of militant vegetarianism which feels disgust and anger at the very sight of meat shows this insecurity. Militant vegetarians seek to continually sustain this traditional (exclusivist) ethics and aesthetics of segregation and hierarchy in food consumption. There is also hidden anxiety among many vegetarian parents that their children might be attracted to meat, which leads to aggressive demands for the abolition of meat from all public and even private spaces. Casteist vegetarianism where savarna children are indoctrinated to hate the sight and smell of meat can be a subtle way of ensuring endogamy.

In an IIT Bombay survey conducted in 2021, even though more than half of savarna students responded that they do not want separate eating spaces or utensils, almost half (41%) demanded that they be provided separate spaces away from people who consume meat.

There is no end to this absurd segregation once sub-categorization begins where students are separated for eating garlic or no-garlic, sattvic, or egg-vegetarian. Such distinctions can multiply endlessly, fragmenting the community and undermining the very essence of unity and diversity. It can also extend to separate hostel rooms and other separation of spaces within educational institutes, which is not conducive to the inclusive ethos of an educational institution.

Dr Veena Shatrugna, former Deputy Director at the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad, also questioned why people consuming milk, which is also derived from animals, has never been a source of contention. This reinforces the fact that the issue extends beyond the simple matter of dietary impositions but has to do with the larger context of caste prejudice. Such policies based on the casteist notions of purity is incompatible with the core values of scientific education. Segregation based on dietary choices sends a disturbing message to students that their food preferences define their purity and worth. This notion contradicts the essence of scientific inquiry and rational thinking, which should be central to any academic institution, particularly one that is supposed to teach science and technology like IITs.

Educational institutions should be transformative multi-cultural spaces where students have an opportunity to interact with peers from diverse backgrounds. These interactions lead to personal growth and intellectual expansion, recognizing personal privileges and unlearning prejudices. Food can be a unifying factor that fosters cultural appreciation and help people come together. Imposing segregation would impede this process of cultural exploration and hinder opportunities to utilize the diversity and unlearn biases. Instead, these practices contribute to further dehumanization and harassment of marginalized communities. Students belonging to DBA communities have been facing abuses and discrimination based on their food choices in these institutes.

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. Her comments led to outrage about ‘Brahmanical’ food segregation practices that have historically been used by savarnas to discriminate against oppressed sections of the population. Prof Ravikant Kisana, a professor of Cultural Studies, points out that her anxiety is not merely a food issue but a symptom of casteist prejudice and this mindset is not restricted to her alone.

In September 2017, a scientist from Indian Meteorological Department in Pune, filed a police complaint against her cook for violating her ritual purity because the cook did not ‘declare’ her ‘true’ caste at the time of appointment. She vehemently accused the cook of violating her hygiene standards and filling her kitchen with filth. This preference for savarna cooks and perception of brahmin or upper caste food as clean and edible is the manifestation of a deeply engrained hatred towards DBA and the persistence of untouchability.

Power dynamics of caste creates and perpetuates the belief of superior and inferior food cultures. Smell is used a means to ostracize and demonize DBA communities as causing a civic nuisance. The food consumed by DBA communities is portrayed as ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ to reinforce the dominant narrative of ‘pure’ vegetarian food.

This is visible in exclusive housing associations restricted strictly to vegetarians and the savarnas. Here, cooking and eating meat are presented as a civic nuisance that disturbs the peace and aesthetics of the place. This justifies the exclusion of people who cook and eat meat to maintain the savarna status quo and food culture.

Food intolerance is prevalent when searching for places to live. For instance, even landlords, neighbors and housing associations find the food cooked by DBA and religious minorities in the privacy of their homes, “stinky and revolting”. Savarna landlords uses the dietary habits to turn down residence to people belonging to DBA communities. Neighbors often raise complaints about cooking meat and such fights often become regional.

Three Jain trusts and one individual moved the Bombay High Court to demand a ban on meat advertisements, on the grounds that such advertising was a violation of their right to life, to live in peace, and to their privacy. In the earlier case, the high court had stated that being vegetarian or non-vegetarian was a personal choice and no meat shop could be ordered to close for the comfort of vegetarians. In this instance, the high court stated to the petitioner, religious trusts that there was no law in the land that could be evoked to ban meat ads.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health doctor and researcher, talks about Exaggerated Vegetarian Fragility Syndrome becoming associated with the constant promotion of vegetarianism in India, which reinforces the perceived superiority of those who consume vegetarian food. It also has long reaching impact in public health policies in a country like India, which has a high malnourished population. The demand for removal of meat and egg from noon meal programmes of government schools can adversely impact the lives of millions of children, especially those belonging to DBA communities and stunt their physical and intellectual growth.

Demonising meat and meat eaters plays an important role in maintaining the savarna hegemony in these institutional spaces. Assertions from DBA communities are necessary to challenge this dominant narrative of savarna superiority. Academic spaces should not succumb to militant vegetarianism and try reinforcing caste superiority. These spaces should instead encourage mixed dining where people can come together shedding their prejudices and learn about different cultures. These educational spaces should invest in scientific temper and higher learning that celebrates diversity, not hierarchy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabranginia

Also Read

Indian Institutes of Savarnas: Graveyards for Marginalised Students


Another student, belonging to the Scheduled Caste community, dies by suicide in IIT

Even after paying, no provision stands for providing health insurance to IIT Bombay students: APPSC

Systematic Entrenched Caste Discrimination in IITs is depriving young students right to dignity and life: PUCL



Related Articles