At IIT Bombay recently, some students tried to create an unofficial "vegetarian only" eating space. They forcibly removed individuals bringing non-vegetarian food to its hostel mess. While the hostel has no such food-segregation policy, canteens and dining spaces across educational and professional institutions in India routinely maintain such divides.
In related news, Chairperson of Infosys Foundation and Brahmin-writer, Sudha Murthy, also went viral on social media recently for her comments on a talk show.
She claimed that being a "pure" vegetarian, she preferred to carry her own food overseas to avoid eating in spaces where she could not be certain if the same spoon was not being used for cooking vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods.
Commentaries on social media were split down the middle with people either making fun of her or defending her right to have food anxieties.
Meanwhile, organisations with Jain Bania and Marwari, as well as Brahmin roots, often impose such diktats on their students or workers. The "liberal" newspaper, The Hindu once infamously asked its employees to not bring non-vegetarian food to work. Many other organisations simply decide to avoid controversy by serving only vegetarian food.
The issue goes beyond a simple ‘respect’ for the diet preferences of vegetarians. Many critics have rightly connected it to be symptomatic of deep-rooted casteist prejudices.
It is About Pollution, Not Food
It's no surprise that IIT-Bombay has also been in the news for structural casteism which contributed to the recent tragic suicide of student Darshan Solanki. Organisations such as The Hindu and others that maintain such food divides have also been long identified as deeply Brahminical in their ethos.
One of the important things that need to be understood is that dietary habits in every society have been fluid as food discoveries have changed cultures through the ages. The "pure vegetarian" diet of Brahmins such as Sudha Murthy in India today may consist of items such as potatoes which were discovered in South America.
Cabbages most likely originated in the Middle East, cauliflowers in the Mediterranean and the ubiquitous tomato comes from Central America. So do chillis, and fruits such as papaya and chikoo, and dry fruits such as cashew and the humble groundnut. The "samosa" was a meat pastry imported by Persians.
In fact, so much of savarna "vegetarian" palate is borrowed from ancient and medieval globalisation that any food nativist argument feels untenable.
The Mānasollāsa, a 12th century text from the Kalyani Chalukya dynasty which ruled the area Murthy is native from, has recipes for fried black rats.
It is therefore important to understand that these issues are not about any simple dietary preferences. It is not even about food. It is about pollution. It is about revulsion and disgust. Interview any "pure vegetarian" and they will narrate encounters with non-vegetarian foods with descriptions of sickening grotesquery. They will describe nauseating smells and retching at the very sight of food, which a meat-eater may salivate over.
The repulsion is coded deep into the behaviour -- so much so that even the sight of meat makes many Savarnas want to vomit instantly. This anthropology of this disgust is rooted in caste politics of purity and pollution, and the separation between the two.
Ambedkarite scholar Rahul Sonpimple points out that Brahminism operates on divine authority while "untouchables" have "polluting authority" within its framework. The habits of the latter are infused with the agency of polluting and degrading the "divine." It is this authority that the debate about vegetarianism must center upon.
Savarna Vegetarianism's Clout
The horror of pollution, the grotesque thought of it, the disgust — all of this needs to be analysed.
What are the boundaries of this disgusting fear?
How many times does a spoon need to be washed before it loses its "non-veg" stigma?
What about the table and the chair that the meat-eater sat on? Can a "pure vegetarian" sit on them?
What about the air?
Can Murthy breathe in the same molecules of oxygen that may have been contaminated by the proximity to cooked meat?
These are not factitious queries in a country where people are lynched to death on mere suspicion of eating beef. Several Savarna media personalities like Vir Sanghvi and Padmaja Joshi among others come out in defence of Murthy, ridiculing a caste "angle" in this equation.
This is a strange defence since it is well known historically and sociologically that prohibition on inter-dining between communities is one of the core tenets of maintaining untouchability.
In spaces where that is unavoidable, it is maintained by separation of utensils. It is very common even today to observe in chai stalls across India, especially in the North, to have separate glasses for "untouchables." In most Savarna homes, the domestic help is given water in a separate glass kept especially for him or her. This segregation of utensils has nothing to do with the question of meat. It is a practice of caste and extension of untouchability.
If we look at Murthy’s comments -- which are routinely made by Savarna folks around us every day -- from the lens of disgust rather than simply fixating on the question of meat, it makes far more sociological sense to see it as an extension of caste prejudice.
Pollution is a spectrum within the caste praxis. Most Savarnas have complex inter-community and personal negotiations of defining what is polluting and what levels of pollution are acceptable, and what is utterly reprehensible.
For some Brahmins, culturally and ideologically eating meat is not a question of pollution but someone from the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) entering the inner sanctum of certain temples is completely unacceptable.
For other Brahmins, a mere spoon becomes an object of fear.
In the India of today, Savarna vegetarianism has immense agency and clout. It sets the rules of the market, housing, public discourse, and socio-cultural institutions and has come to define the face of Indian nationalism.
A healthy nation is built upon the fundamental principle of human equality and fraternity among its citizenry. Caste pollution politics and the tapestry of the ‘disgust’ it creates is fundamentally divides the citizens and rationalizes seperation. Thus it is essentially anti-national.
The powerful would do well to reflect on what sort of nation they want to create and live in, and hopefully, it is not one where they are scared and repulsed by otherwise sanitised cutlery.
(Ravikant Kisana is a professor of Cultural Studies and his research looks at the intersections of caste with structures of privilege and popular culture. He is available on Twitter/Instagram as 'Buffalo Intellectual'. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)