Shuddh vegetarian in IIT Delhi: RSS activists spur Smriti Irani to dictate hostel food

Rewriting school textbooks is one thing—it is a hoary tradition in the Left-Right culture wars—but advising universities on what constitutes culturally kosher food is quite another. What next? Scrap co-education and go back to segregated classes just because a clutch of RSS sevaks believe that mixing of sexes is against Indian culture?

Hasan Suroor November 28, 2014 12:40:23 IST
Shuddh vegetarian in IIT Delhi: RSS activists spur Smriti Irani to dictate hostel food

The HRD ministry, it seems, can’t bring itself to say “no’’ to the RSS even at the risk of looking downright ridiculous.

So, acting on representations from a group of RSS activists, it has taken to policing university campuses to find out—hold your breath—what is cooking in their kitchen. Literally.

Believe it or not, directors of all IITs and IIMs have been sent letters seeking details of cooking and catering arrangements in their institutions, and directing them to send “action taken’’ report on RSS swayamsevaks’ demand for separate dining halls for vegetarian and non-vegetarian students on grounds that “these institutes are spreading bad culture from the West (“kusanskar”) and causing grief to the parents’’.

Sensing the mood, at least one IIT—IIT Delhi—has decided to play safe and has promptly withdrawn all non-veg food from its menu giving over the entire kitchen and dining hall to vegetarians. Non-veg students have been told to either take it or leave it: if they wish to eat in the hostel mess, they must make do with vegetarian food, or fend for themselves.

The reason they have been given is that the university could not find a “ suitable supplier” for non-veg food. But nobody, of course, is buying this line. Students are angry and questioning the legitimacy of the ministry’s “food diktat’’. Is it any of the government’s business to decide what and how students should eat?

Shuddh vegetarian in IIT Delhi RSS activists spur Smriti Irani to dictate hostel food

Representational image of IIT Bombay. AFP image

"There has never been any complaint from vegetarian students. And if there’s any problem it is for us to resolve it—not for babus sitting in Shastri Bhavan,’’ said one student.

Surprisingly, even the BJP’s own student wing ABVP has never seriously raised the issue except in the din of union elections. There is a sense among students and faculty that the real “culprit’’ is the university which simply caved in for political reasons. In contrast, the IIMs haven’t even bothered to respond to the ministry’s directive.

IIT authorities declined to comment officially but, speaking anonymously, faculty members expressed their disappointment. A widespread view is that an institution that takes such pride in its autonomy should have displayed more spine.

Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M)’s Rajya Sabha member, has written to the HRD minister Smriti Irani seeking her intervention.

"The government has no business to police the food habits of IIT students. If there is a need for a separate facility for vegetarian students, that can be understood, but it cannot be at the expense of depriving non-vegetarians of their choice. This is against the students’ rights,’’ he wrote.

Over the past six months, the HRD ministry under Ms Irani has been lurching from one controversy to another. But even by its own standards, the “food diktat’’ takes the cake.

Rewriting school textbooks is one thing—it is a hoary tradition in the Left-Right culture wars—but advising universities on what constitutes culturally kosher food is quite another. What next? Scrap co-education and go back to segregated classes just because a clutch of RSS sevaks believe that mixing of sexes is against Indian culture? HRD ministry says that it was not a directive and the letter was sent in a “routine’’ manner upon receipt of “so many” representations. Really?

The sequence of events tells quite a different story. The ministry leapt to action the moment it received the first representation from a gentleman called SSK Jain, a Madhya Pradesh grain trader and an influential RSS swayamsevak. He sent it to  Irani, with copies to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

Immediately, an under-secretary in the ministry, AK Singh, allegedly acting under instructions from above, forwarded Jain’s missive to directors of all IITs with a covering letter demanding an “action taken’’ report. Which meant that the ministry was not simply drawing the IITs’ attention to Jain’s complaint but demanding action on it as well.

Is it “routine’’ in the HRD ministry to take so seriously every letter that pops up in its offices?

The fact is that Jain is not an ordinary man but an important RSS footsoldier (yes, there are footsoldiers, and footsoldiers) with access to its top echelons, and he knows he can pull ranks with  Irani. Other representations were also from RSS-affiliated organisations whose busybodies have had several meetings with  Irani to discuss education “reforms”.

Jain’s letter --and others that followed-- reveal a mindset which, if encouraged, can only lead to Talibanisation of our cultural sphere.

Jain accuses IITs of feeding “kusanskar” (bad culture of the West) to students by serving non-veg food.

“The children who have started practicing non- ‘tamsic’ behaviour have saddened their parents… It is the call of the parents of India that IITs and other institutions segregate their dining halls for vegetarians.’’

“Tamsic” refers to foods like meat, onion and garlic apparently frowned upon in Hindu scriptures. “Saatvic” means kosher food.

Here’s some more on the supposedly baleful effect of “tasmic’’ or non-veg diet: “We see many families which are all mixed up. There are Sindhi fathers and Punjabi mothers in the same family and their children get married to Muslims. It all starts when you mix up food. Wrong food spoils one's mind. That’s why I made this request as I am a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and a supporter of the BJP. I knew that this government would understand,’’ he told The Hindu.

Thankfully, ordinary Indians are more enlightened. Online chatrooms are buzzing with mocking comments.

Referring to the number of veg students at IIT Madras, one noted: “Totally convoluted…. 400 vegetarians out of 8000 students show that vegetarianism is merely 5%. They are trying to dictate the agenda for 95%’’

It is obvious that the HRD ministry has become a soft touch for the Hindu Right. I know, I know the “Marxists’’ also used it. But here we are talking about a worldview reduced to vegetarianism (Hindustani, good) and non-vegetarianism (western, bad).

That apart, the Modi came power to promising “minimum government’’ and “maximum governance’’ but clearly  Irani has missed the message. For under her tutelage, her ministry is increasingly constantly micro-managing-- and interfering in areas that lie beyond its jurisdiction. The “food diktat’’ is a glaring example of it.

Welcome to  Irani’s nanny state.

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