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IIT Bombay food row: How fringe elements set narrative inside India’s higher institutions

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A recent controversy has arisen at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, with members of the Ambedakar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), a left-leaning group, accusing the IIT administration of promoting untouchability and caste-based discrimination. The heart of the dispute revolves around the food service arrangement in a hostel mess on campus.

The Incident

In one of the postgraduate hostels, a small section of the mess area, comprising merely 3% of the total space, is used for vegetarian food by some students, their visiting parents, and sometimes, faculties. This area includes a six dining tables and a Jain food counter offering dishes devoid of any meat products.

Over time, a tradition emerged where non-vegetarian students chose not to dine at these tables out of respect for the sentiments of minority groups like Jains and vegetarians, who may be uncomfortable around meat products.

This arrangement aimed to foster diversity and inclusivity among hostel residents. It’s important to note that individuals from all backgrounds, regardless of their religion, caste, or identity, are welcome to sit in this area if they opt for vegetarian meals.

Further, some Jain and vegetarian students have deep religious convictions, and ethical and moral concerns related with meat products. To practice their faith and values, they prefer to avoid any contact with meat products. This has led them eating in a round plate, a plate different than the usual rectangular plate.

These round plates constitute just 2% of all all plates used for student dining. The rectangular plates are used for both veg and non-veg food.

Allegations of Discrimination

It is this arrangement of separate sitting space and round plates which the APPSC members accused of promoting caste-based discrimination, especially against SC/ST students. They alleged that this practice fosters division and symbolizes Brahmanism.

Moreover, they propagated false information to outside media, wrongly suggesting that only vegetarian students occupy this section and that non-vegetarian students are barred from it. Additionally, they demand the removal of the round plates, arguing that separate plates promote Brahminical supremacy.

These allegations have been debunked by the institute and hostel administration. The contentious area constitutes a tiny portion of the overall mess area and is open to anyone consuming vegetarian food, irrespective of their background.

A survey of fifty students, mostly non-vegetarian, showed that the almost everyone had no issue with this setup, as they understand and respect the concerns of Jains and vegetarians. These students also noted that they can freely choose to dine in the vegetarian section when consuming vegetarian meals.

There are also several students from SC/ST category with vegetarian dietary habits. It appears that the APPSC tried to malign the esteemed image of IIT Bombay.

Institute Committee

In July of this year, the institute, in response to allegations, imposed a moratorium on the existing vegetarian food section and established a committee to thoroughly investigate the matter and make a definitive ruling.

Following extensive deliberations and soliciting input from students, mess staff, and hostel wardens, the committee acknowledged the legitimate request for a limited number of dining tables exclusively reserved for vegetarian food options.

Towards the end of September, the institute officially communicated its decision to the student body via email, confirming the allocation of six tables exclusively for vegetarian food. However, this move quickly reignited a debate when the APPSC once again raised allegations, asserting that the institute’s decision amounted to endorsing discrimination.

Previous Controversies

This isn’t the first instance of the APPSC spreading misinformation and divisive narratives to tarnish the reputation of IIT Bombay. Five months back, when an undergraduate student Darshan Solanki died by suicide, they immediately picked up the issue and labelled the suicide as caused by caste-based discrimination.

However, they remained silent when the suicide of another student, Darshan Malviya, a PhD student, did not fit their narrative. While Solanki came from SC category, Malviya belonged to general category. Subsequent police investigations revealed that Solanki’s suicide resulted from threats and bigotry from a batch-mate of a different religion.

The APPSC and its members have consistently engaged in efforts to tarnish the reputation of India, its rich culture, and Hinduism. Be it propagating the false story of Lord Rama killing Shambuka or defaming Lord Rama by derogatory remarks, they leave left no inch to spread hate and malign Hinduism.

During a march organized in memory of Darshan Solanki, a group member made a statement linking the chant “Jai Shree Ram” with supporting caste-based discrimination. Later, after much furore on this hate-filled remark, IITB suspended the student for six months.

Similar offensive comments have been directed at revered deities such as Lord Shiva, Lord Ganesh, and Goddess Durga. The group’s behavior is paradoxical; while they supported constructing a dog shelter on campus, they vehemently protested an existing Gaushala (cow shelter).

Moreover, during the Citizenship Amendment Act protests, they engaged in actions that seemed aimed at appeasing minorities, often employing anti-Hindu and anti-India slogans under the guise of upholding secularism.

Divisive Tactics and Implications

While these incidents underscore the divisive strategies employed by these groups, their modus operandi is more intricate. In the aftermath of any incidence, they seize upon opportunities to propagate animosity among communities and undermine institutional authority.

In cases where their desired outcomes aren’t met, they resort to blaming the entire democratic system, including the institution, government and the nation-state. This trend extends beyond IIT Bombay and is observed at esteemed institutes like IIT Kanpur and IIT Madras; the later is place where they have already been banned due to their divisive hate politics.

These actions appear to be orchestrated, almost as if dormant agendas are activated upon direction from higher-ups within certain political circles form within and outside India. In this context, these groups can be seen as components of a larger network working to disrupt the harmony, progress, and unity of the Indian populace.

Conclusion

Ironically, the APPSC, despite claiming allegiance to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s ideals, appear to have overlooked his message. As Dr. Ambedakar said, “I want all people to be Indians first, Indian last and nothing else but Indians,” these groups must realize that in today’s time, the group’s divisive tactics and dissemination of false information are likely to prove futile. India’s identity is deeply rooted in its civilization, characterized by principles of respecting diversity and the freedom to embrace individual faiths. The existence of a designated space where individuals can enjoy meals without compromising their faith and values is a manifestation of these principles.

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