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Rs 10,000 Fine for Protesting 'Veg-Only' Tables: How IIT-Bombay Row Escalated

IIT-Bombay students told The Quint that the move to single out and fine one student was a means to 'crush dissent'.

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"The authorities are using a sledgehammer to suppress dissent on campus. Rs 10,000 fine has been imposed on a single student who protested peacefully against the demarcation of vegetarian-only tables through civil disobedience," a student at IIT-Bombay told The Quint, on the condition of anonymity.  

Earlier this week, the Mess Council of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 on a student for allegedly eating non-vegetarian food at one of the six tables that were recently designated as 'vegetarian only'. The Mess Council comprises hostel wardens, the mess management, as well as elected student representatives.  

According to the minutes of the council's meeting held on 1 October, the said student – a resident of Hostel 12 – "deliberately instigated the incident" during dinner on 28 September, adding that his act was "a premeditated attempt to disrupt the peace and harmony within the mess."

IIT-Bombay students told The Quint that the move to single out and fine one student was a means to 'crush dissent'.

A screenshot of the minutes of the meeting held by the Mess Council on 1 October.

(Image: X/APPSC)

Then, on 5 October, the Dean and the Associate Dean of Student Affairs sent out an email to students, stating that "such provocative and insensitive actions will not be tolerated."

Condemning the move to designate vegetarian-only spaces in the mess, former University Grants Commission (UGC) chairman Sukhdeo Thorat told The Quint that it "gives the message that eating non-vegetarian food is impure."

As the row over separate tables escalates at one of India's premier institutes, students alleged that the penalty is not only "arbitrary and discriminatory," but also in ultra vires with the Constitution of India, the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1976.

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'Singled-Out Student Wasn't Even Called for a Discussion'

"The decision to penalise one student was taken unilaterally after an online meeting [of the Mess Council] on Sunday, which is an off day. The said student was not even called for a discussion," an IIT-Bombay student claimed.

On being asked why this student was singled out, another student, requesting anonymity, alleged to The Quint that the said student had been vocal about the Mess Council's "discriminatory" policy of separate tables since 'vegetarian-only' posters emerged in the hostel mess in July this year.

Here's a timeline of the recent events:

  • On 27 September, the Mess Council sent an email to students saying it had designated six tables in the mess of Hostel 12, 13, and 14 as 'vegetarian-only'.

  • Irked by the move, some students – including the one who has been penalised – decided to peacefully protest against it. They wrote to Dean (Student Affairs) Surya Doolla, informing him about the scheduled protest at the mess the next day. The Quint has reached out to the Dean and the Associate Dean of Student Affairs, but they are yet to respond.

  • In response, Doolla asked the students to hold off the protest, saying a final decision is yet to be made "based on recommendations of a committee," the students alleged.

  • On 28 September, however, the students protested in the mess by having non-vegetarian food on the designated tables in an act of civil disobedience.

  • On 1 October, one student was penalised Rs 10,000.

  • On 5 October, the Dean (Student Affairs) wrote to students saying the act of civil disobedience by the said student led to a "conflict" and that "indiscipline in any form leading to disruption of harmony in hostels will not be tolerated."

  • However, the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), a student group at IIT-Bombay, in response to the email on the same day, maintained that the act of civil disobedience was peaceful.

The Quint has learnt that the penalised student has now sought time to respond to the administration and demanded a chance to present his case.

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'No Info About the Committee'

"How is it then the Mess Council has gone ahead and slapped a fine of Rs 10,000 on one student when the final decision is yet to be taken by the Dean?" an APPSC member asked.

Students further alleged that the constitution of the committee and its recommendations have never been communicated to them, and labelled the entire process as "opaque."

"This is like an ambiguous power centre. No one is accountable, yet the segregation in a public space is being reinforced as a norm," the APPSC member added. 

While the Mess Council, in its meeting on 1 October, observed that the identities of the others who partook in the civil disobedience will be ascertained and "appropriate disciplinary action will be taken against them as well," Dean Doolla on 5 October asked the hostel wardens to "resolve the conflict."

"This is absolutely wrong! Everyone has the right to eat the food of their choice," ex-UGC Chairman Thorat told The Quint over a phone call. He added that "to segregate in a public place amounts to discrimination." 

Members of the student body told The Quint that they are planning to escalate the matter to higher authorities through a signature petition. They also demanded that the Dean (Student Affairs) share the recommendations of the "committee" with them.

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'Personal Prejudices Can't Be Exhibited in Public Spaces' 

Several students and the APPSC have reiterated their demand to withdraw vegetarian-only spaces in the hostel mess, and further demanded that the "illogical" penalty of Rs 10,000 on the said student be revoked.

"It's not a personal issue. He is fighting against a discriminatory practice," a student said. He added the student who is penalised is under "a lot of mental pressure" and that Rs 10,000 is "not a small amount." 

Meanwhile, Thorat asserted that it was "absolutely wrong" to bring in an order which goes against the tenets of the Indian Constitution as well as ultra vires with the Untouchability Act, 1955 (renamed as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1976) as well SC/ST Act, 1989.

He explained that while the SC/ST Act prohibits discriminatory behaviour in a public domain, both laws ensure equal access to everyone, including Dalits and Adivasis, to avail services provided in a public place.

"To sit in the company of those eating non-vegetarian food is a personal choice. But these prejudices cannot be exhibited in public domain as they perpetuate social exclusion," he said. 

He added that though everyone has the right to sit anywhere and eat food of their choice under Article 21 (Fundamental Right to Life) of the Indian Constitution, it cannot be ultra vires with Article 15, which forbids discrimination.  

"It is not about space or the number of tables that have been designated as vegetarian-only. It is about how it creates social exclusion, hampers the very idea of a public space, and how humiliating it is for a student when their food choice is compared with human waste or labelled impure," the APPSC member lamented.

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'IIT Administration Doing What Ruling Dispensation Expects It To Do' 

A student whom The Quint spoke to claimed that there was "no such space in IITs before 2015, when the government had asked IITs to examine a demand for a separate canteen for vegetarian students." 

According to a report by Deccan Herald, a group of people associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had in October 2014 written to the then Union Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani demanding a separate canteen for vegetarian students at IITs and IIMs.

Acknowledging the letter, the HRD had, the same month, sought a response from the premier educational institutes regarding the same. 

"The administration is doing what the ruling dispensation expects it to do. It is ironic that a student was penalised for civil disobedience on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti," the APPSC member said.

Another student questioned the administration's inaction against those who had put up the 'vegetarian-only' posters in the mess in July. He claimed that though the posters were taken down, the administration was not able to ascertain who put up the posters.  

The APPSC member added that although the administration is trying to portray this as "student vs student" issue, it is actually a "progressive student vs regressive practice" issue. 

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'Shocked, Appalled That IIT Doesn't Comply With UGC': Ex-UGC Chairman

On being asked about the role of SC/ST Cell and if it should've intervened as students have alleged that the move is casteist and discriminatory, Prof Thorat said, "This is not the function of the SC/ST Cell." 

The UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012, mandates the appointment of an anti-discrimination officer and setting up of Equal Opportunity Cell to identify and check discriminatory behavior.  

Students that The Quint spoke to alleged that IIT-Bombay does not have a functioning anti-discrimination officer or Equal Opportunity Cell as mandated by UGC but does have an 'OBC and SC/ ST/ PWD Liaison Cell' with liaison officers "who can be contacted in the event of any incident of discrimination," according to the institute's website.

"I am shocked and appalled that IIT-Bombay has still not abided by these mandates. All higher educational institutions are to mandatorily comply with these guidelines. They can be penalised for violations," Prof Thorat explained. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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