Petitioner S.K. Jain, a self-confessed Sangh sympathiser who runs a food grain business and has no relations with any IIT student, told The Telegraph the UPA government had earlier rejected his appeal saying the IITs were not meant to promote religious ideologies.
But the NDA government swung into action after Jain resent his petition last month to the Union human resource development ministry, headed by Smriti Irani.
Jain’s plea claimed that the meat, fish and eggs served in IIT hostels was luring many vegetarian students towards non-vegetarian diets, which represent western culture. Therefore, there should be separate canteens and mess halls at the tech schools, it added.
Government sources said the ministry had forwarded the petition to all the IITs on October 15.
“Please take the trouble to inform the ministry about whatever actions you take,” said the letter, issued to the IIT directors by ministry undersecretary A.K. Singh.
This newspaper has copies of Jain’s petition and the ministry’s directive, both written in Hindi.
Some IIT students and teachers this newspaper spoke to disagreed with Jain’s contentions and expressed shock at the ministry’s action, but some others supported the idea of having separate dining rooms.
All central universities and medical, engineering and management institutes serve both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, and none has separate mess halls.
The fifty-something Jain told this newspaper that non-vegetarian food was responsible for the increased violence and “antisocial activities” in society, including inter-religious and inter-caste marriages. He admitted his association with the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
“I have a food grain business in Katni (Madhya Pradesh). I have been associated with the RSS and the BJP. I do not even eat onions,” he said.
“Non-vegetarian food is not part of Indian culture. It affects our value system and enhances aggression. The crime rate is increasing because of such tamasic food.”
Ayurvedic theory refers to a host of food and drinks —such as meat, fish, onions, garlic and alcohol — as tamasic (sleep or dullness-inducing) and claims that they harm the body and the mind.
Jain said that the parents of vegetarian students feel anguished when they discover that their children have turned non-vegetarian after spending a few years in a college hostel.
He explained that his petition had picked out the IITs because of their “brand” but his demand applied to all educational institutions.
“There’s no medical evidence that exposure or proximity to non-vegetarian food can influence vegetarians to turn non-vegetarian,” said Dorairaj Prabhakaran, a senior cardiologist and director of the Centre for Chronic Disease Control, New Delhi.
“However, there is evidence that a vegetarian diet has a protective effect on the heart.”
Prabhakaran dismissed the “tamasic” theory as “nonsense”.
Two IIT directors this newspaper contacted pleaded ignorance about the ministry letter. IIT Delhi registrar Rakesh Kumar too said: “I don’t know whether we have received any letter from the ministry. I cannot comment.”
An IIT Delhi teacher found it “shocking” that the ministry had acted on a petition based on “unscientific beliefs”.
“I’m surprised that the ministry has taken cognisance of the appeal. A separate mess will damage the opportunity for socialising and inter-personal relations between students,” he said.
“Further, it would lead to segregation of students, which is not a good idea.”
In many Hindu societies, people’s dietary habits are linked to their caste.
A vegetarian IIT Kanpur student, Gaurav Laddha, said he and his non-vegetarian roommate Subhrajeet Paul had meals together in the mess every day.
“I have never been attracted by the sight of non-vegetarian food or have had any problems eating my meals by the side of someone having meat or fish,” the third-year student said.
“Having a separate mess is not a good idea; it will curb socialising among the students.”
But Priya Singh, a second-year IIT Kharagpur student, supported the idea of separate canteens.
“I am a pure vegetarian; I don’t eat even eggs. I’m getting used to eating with my friends in the mess where fish and meat are served, but I shall be happy to have my meals in a separate vegetarian facility,” she said.
Priya said the utensils were often not cleaned properly and the people serving food did not always take enough care to wash their hands in recognition of the vegetarian students’ sentiments.
-The Telegraph, Calcutta