On Thursday, 28 September, a hostel mess at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, witnessed an act of civil disobedience. "We decided to sit at the six tables that have been designated as 'Vegetarian-Only' and eat non-vegetarian food," a student told The Quint, on the condition of anonymity.
"Some students called the security guards, who tried to remove us from the designated tables. But we sat still," the student added.
The students were protesting an alleged move by the institute to designate six tables at the mess of hostels 12, 13, and 14 for vegetarians alone – a violation of which could evoke disciplinary action.
The alleged move comes months after 'Vegetarian-Only' posters appeared at the said mess, causing a section of students to raise the matter with the Dean of Student Affairs. Though the posters were eventually taken down, the matter has frequently been taken up by the students with the elite institute's administration, The Quint has learnt.
"By sending an official email saying tables have been designated for vegetarians, the institute is enabling the orthodox idea of purity and practices of discrimination," said a student, who is also a member of the IIT-Bombay student body, Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC).
The Quint spoke to students at IIT-Bombay on the alleged move to designate tables for vegetarians and why they feel it is discriminatory. We also reached out to Dean and Associate Dean of Student Affairs, and this story would be updated as and when we receive a response.
But First, What Did the Email Say?
According to a screenshot shared by the APPSC on its official X (formerly Twitter) handle, the email said that six tables have been marked for people consuming vegetarian food only and appealed to the student community to comply with the order so as to create a "more inclusive and peaceful dining experience for everyone" in the mess.
"There is no doubt that some people can't resist the view and smell of non-veg food during their dining, this may create health issue as well (sic). Hence, this is necessary to designate six tables exclusively for vegetarian food (sic)," the email read, as per the screenshot shared on X.
The email was sent by the Mess Council, which comprises the hostel wardens, the mess management, as well as elected student representatives. The email also said that the Mess Council will take "proper action" – including "imposing penalties" – against students who don't comply with the order.
"Such violations will be considered in disciplinary action as they disrupt the harmony we aim to maintain in our dining facilities (sic)," the email read.
IIT-Bombay students that The Quint spoke to said that the elite institute allows no separate spaces for segregation on the basis of food, as per an RTI response. The institute, however, has provision for Jain food counters in the mess.
"The move is not only ultra vires with the principles of this institution but also with Articles 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution," a student of IIT-Bombay told The Quint on the condition of anonymity. They added that the institute should inculcate respecting people's food choices in a public place instead of "institutionalising segregation."
'Compared Non-Veg Food to Human Waste'
A student at IIT-Bombay told The Quint that segregation on the basis of food choices is not unheard of at the IIT-Bombay hostel mess – and that it has been happening covertly for a long time now.
But the students perpetuating it have not been identified.
"Whenever new students come on campus, they are usually unaware of such things. Once, an unsuspecting student took his non-vegetarian food to a table where most students were having vegetarian food. He was asked to leave immediately," the student said, requesting anonymity.
He added that such "openly discriminatory" practices were especially common during the COVID-19 pandemic and when the 'Vegetarian-Only' posters had emerged a couple of months ago.
One of the students The Quint spoke to said that if actions like these are institutionalised, it will create mistrust among fellow students and discourage open conversation.
"Our food is compared to human waste. This not only perpetuates the idea of pure spaces but also creates casteist segregation," he said, adding that the six tables are situated in such a way that they are away from the rest of the tables in the mess by virtue of its architectural design.
Students told The Quint that they were "frustrated" by a section of students "dehumanising their food choices" and infuriated by the social exclusion it would cause.
'Stigmatisation of Food Causes Social Exclusion'
The APPSC member told The Quint that upholding a vegetarian-only space will automatically lead to the social exclusion of Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasi communities.
"This is an extension of the larger practice of exercising majoritarian monopoly in public spaces – for instance, shutting down meat shops during Navratri and Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. It is a dangerous trend when such casteist prohibitions start permeating into public spaces," he said.
When asked if the SC/ST Cell of IIT-Bombay has addressed this apprehension among students, the APPSC member alleged that the Cell does not have a mandate that clearly defines its responsibilities on addressing grievances yet – and has not taken up this issue as a result.
A student also said that the issue did not require an intervention and saw it as something that can be resolved among students through open dialogue.
"I understand that some students feel uneasy at the sight/smell of non-vegetarian food, and this may be due to their social conditioning so far. But it is in public places where there is a chance to overcome that stigma. Tell us politely, and we will move."
The APPSC member said that students also fear that this move will be extended to all other messes on campus, thus legitimising discrimination.
"Why institutionalise segregation and perpetuate the idea of pure spaces? It is ridiculous to say that there is health risk involved. Those who feel uncomfortable can just sit on any of the many vacant tables in the mess," he said.
'IIT Bombay's Action Opaque': Students
On being asked if students took up the issue with the institute's administration, they said they had written to the Dean and Associate Dean of Student Affairs as well as the General Secretary of the hostel.
"We were asked not to hold the protest and assured that a committee is looking into the matter. However, the institute has been completely opaque on the constitution of the committee and its recommendations," a student said.
He added that no long-term action was taken earlier, too, when 'Vegetarian-Only' posters had emerged in the hostel mess in July this year.