INDIA, AS SURVEYS HAVE shown, is overwhelmingly non-vegetarian. This is because it is overwhelmingly made up of what used to be termed ‘lower castes’ who eat meat and that also paradoxically explains the disproportionate priority to vegetarianism here. If the caste at the very top— the Brahmins—who have monopoly over literacy, knowledge and mediation with gods, are vegetarians, naturally it becomes the ideal. The correlation between vegetarianism and caste is also tied up with ideas of purity and pollution which is at the core of the institution. Adding an additional layer to this dominance is some of the wealthiest communities in India, like Jains, also being vegetarian and putting their heft behind it in Indian society.
Therefore, when students of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay find six tables in their canteen reserved for vegetarians, there is merit to why a Dalit students’ group criticises and protests it. This is the second such controversy over there. A Hindustan Times article said: “After the controversy in July this year over the marking of a part of the mess as ‘Vegetarian Only’, the general secretary of the hostel mess had put out an email blast notifying that no space in the mess could be reserved for anyone or seek to exclude anyone.” But evidently counter protests have now won the day.
Creating an exclusive space for vegetarians might seem like giving everyone their space but there are lakhs of student canteens where vegetarians co-exist with non-vegetarians without such privileges. Marking out territory turns what ought to be a convenience into a right and in this case a new one since in its long history IIT Bombay itself has managed to live without such exclusivity. It is not even needed. Usually, when they have nothing to lose people are considerate about the feelings of others, and there is no reason for non-vegetarians to force themselves onto a table where vegetarians are eating.
Also consider that a large number of IIT students after they pass out go abroad to Western universities to study, and a majority of those then settle down there. Will they get such exclusive rights there? And will they then give up on their careers and education because their vegetarianism is not catered to in those shores? They adjust to the circumstances because that is what livelihood demands of them. It is not necessary for students to be made comfortable in all aspects of life. It is even good to have situations that test them and let them work out solutions on their own in that space. Vegetarianism is ingrained in the mentality of Indians, even those who eat meat, because of how much we have been conditioned to associate it with purity. But that doesn’t mean it is such an overarchingly correct and healthy way to exist that everyone else’s rights must be subsumed. That was the story of a world that has long passed away even if its remnants hang on.