Editor’s Note: This month, that is January 2021, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Work and The Workplace, where we invite various articles to highlight the profound changes that our workplaces may or may not have undergone and the effect that these changes have had on our personal and professional lives and ways of living in the time of the pandemic. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do meat-eaters feel safe in Indian non-manual/salaried workspace?
Starting from the food counter to the wash basin, there is a clear distinction between vegetarians and meat-eaters. In some places, “non-vegetarian” food is even forbidden inside premises. How does a comparatively smaller dietary population dictate what a larger population must eat?
An anecdote from my college: one of my teaching faculty was a vegetarian and many others were not. They had a common wash basin to wash their lunch boxes after eating. The vegetarian professor went to wash his box and to his horror, he saw bits of fishbone in the washing sink. He started yelling at everybody in the staff room and accused them of being inhumane to ‘kill’ another life. This incident led to having separate dining spaces for vegetarians and meat-eaters with different entry/exit.
His dietary practice and aversion towards meat can be empathised with, but what authority does an individual have, to vilify the rest? The entitlement he felt was constructed on three things. He was a male faculty, he was holding a higher position and he believed he was morally superior. This moral superiority one feels by being a vegetarian is the most dangerous factor in Indian workplaces, when mixed with caste and occupational superiority.
The idea of infrastructural discrimination happens when those vegetarians demand separate dining halls and even food queues, which are kept farther from the entrance and main area. Spatial marginalisation also occurs in the workspace based on diet. This is another invisible mode of casteism in white collared Indian offices, meticulously carried out by the privileged.
Vegetarianism turns into an effective discriminatory tool, as it helps in identifying one’s caste (if an individual’s caste marker such as surname isn’t visible). These dietary preferences do not affect non-Indians, even when all foods bear a cultural history. In a non-Indian space, people with different dietary practices can share a common microwave oven in canteens, but Indian workspace differs vastly from that.
Although it is well known for everyone that inside the microwave oven, food items don’t switch from vegetarian to non-vegetarian, people still demand a separate oven. This comes with the social stigma built on ‘purity’. If the workspace administration can’t afford two food heaters, they will go on to police the meat-eater to not bring meat or egg, rather than asking the vegetarians to bring food from home. This biased support towards vegetarians in the workspace comes with the idea of caste-based privilege.
The dietary practice affects Indians as the cultural history of vegetarianism is built on the conflict of Buddhism versus Brahmanism, as Dr. Ambedkar points out. Brahmins who actively consumed meat gave up that practice to claim superiority and social power over Buddhism. Vegetarianism is a way to disdain meat-eaters on moral grounds. Constant accusations and vilifying an individual leads to workspace marginalisation, creating a parallel hierarchy as opposed to organisational positions. It is just another way of segregating dining spaces.
Instead of requesting a separate wash basin for the vegetarians who are lesser in number, the system either forbids meat or creates alternative options for the meat-eaters who are more in number. Fearing these attacks, office goers often prefer a vegetarian diet; and therefore households which can’t afford different meals for lunch or dinner end up consuming vegetarian food most. Even if their children or partner require meat every day for food, the office politics slowly change their dietary practices or it adds extra burden on the person at home to cook different meals.
Therefore, the dynamics of food politics inside the workspace requires vast attention with intersectionality, as it impacts individuals from both social and domestic spheres. A safer and welcoming atmosphere in Indian offices towards all dietary practices is one of the needs of the hour for domestic, professional, personal well-being of the laborers and their families.
Arunesh X is a Dalit writer, Theatre Artist, Dalit studies/ Masculinities studies scholar, intersectional feminist and Dalit activist, who finished Masters in Pondicherry University. He worked as Editor at Oxford University Press, India. He writes his fiction and poetry under the pen name Hsenura. You can find him on Instagram.