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Hyderabad law varsity 'enforcing' caste-class segregation in serving meals to workers

By Ajay Kranthi, Sandeep Pandey* 

Students coming together for a progressive cause is nothing unusual. Most students are inspired by some idealism, and at times, putting their careers at risk, they take up social issues. Sometimes they coalesce as part of formal organisations; at other times, they may assemble as a loose coalition. Most political parties have their student wings which exist on major academic campuses.
At NALSAR (National Academy of Legal Studies and Research) University of Law, Hyderabad, the Workers’ Welfare Society (WWS), a body comprising students alone, has taken up the cause of contract workers on their campus. Their logic is very simple. They say if a law university will not agree to abide by labour laws, which they study in classrooms as part of their academic training, what hope is there for workers to get justice in other settings?
Those who perform housekeeping, mess, gardening and security services on the NALSAR campus have been consistently paid below the statutory minimum wages and denied statutory entitlements and benefits like Employees’ State Insurance (ESI), Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), weekly offs, national holidays, earned and sick leaves, overtime wages, workplace accident compensation, statutory bonus, and maternity benefit.
Nobody bothered about all these until the WWS brought them to the limelight in 2019. Since then, this body of students has been continuously raising the issues of contract workers with the university administration.
As part of WWS’s efforts to get justice for workers, an important initiative is to collect money among themselves and sponsor meals for workers in their mess. This initiative, called Workers Meal Scheme, had many iterations before taking its current form. Initially, one could contribute according to one’s capacity, but later it was decided that every student could make a fixed contribution of Rs 200 per month.
However, the amount from each student’s mess deposit would be deducted proportionately (Rs. 200 as an upper limit) based on the consumption bill for each month. Instead of applauding this charitable act of students, the administration tried to put a spanner in the effort by asking them to get the consent of their parents even for this modest contribution.
Unable to dismantle this popular initiative, now NALSAR has offered to take it over but may run it as a subsidised scheme implying that workers will have to bear a part of the cost (yet to be finalized). However, the objectionable part is that the workers, all of whom are from SC, ST and OBC castes, will be offered meals not in the mess where students, teaching and non-teaching staff eat but away from the mess, at the Auditorium, which is near the main gate.
The original idea of eating together was to build students-workers solidarity and feel part of the same NALSAR family while striving to give back respect and dignity to workers the university has long denied them. But the administration, possibly on the excuse of complaints from some students and their parents, wants to impose caste-class segregation in serving meals resembling separate lunch counters for blacks and whites in the Jim Crow-infested United States.
Like the segregated public institutions in the United States were then told by courts, perhaps NALSAR also needs to be reminded that separate is not equal - serving the same meals at two different counters, one for its employees and students and the other for only the contract workers, is a textbook case of discrimination. Upon confrontation by students, the administration justified the segregated meal counter as a welfare measure for workers. Since the Auditorium has a large unused space, it can be used as a rest area for workers, which until now was not provided to them.
It sounds all well and good until one wonders why workers also have to eat in the same place for them to use it as a rest area (the auditorium is not a light-year away from mess anyway), especially when workers have had no issue eating in the mess alongside others; to the contrary, they have in fact felt included and respected dining with everyone else.
The only ones to have a problem with that are some individuals in the administration who still believe they are feudal lords and the contract workers their serfs and servants. Similar to what the lone dissenting US Judge Harlan said while denouncing the majority opinion upholding a segregation statute in Plessey v Ferguson (1896), the thin disguise of 'welfare' will not mislead anyone into thinking this is not discrimination nor atone for the wrong this decision will do to workers.
As the public correspondence of the WWS shows, this is not the first time the administration has set out to do something so morally repugnant. A couple of months before, in February, the administration instructed the mess contractor that the workers should be served meals in a separate mess hall and that he must ensure that the workers are not seen sitting with students or other staff members.
On 8th March 2023, the WWS wrote in its public communication to the university that at least a few times, the administration took issue with contract workers eating in the same mess as students, teachers and other office staff. The WWS said:
“We were asked questions like ‘How would you feel if your father and worker were eating together’ and ‘What will be the image of NALSAR when guests see workers eating in our mess’ etc. It became abundantly clear to us that at least some in the administration want us to accept a segregated mess area for workers or risk stalling or ending the meal scheme on account of invented technicalities like the requirement of parental consent to contribute a modest amount of around 200 rupees each month to the meal scheme.”
Condemning this deplorable attempt by the administration, the WWS wrote:
“Arranging any segregated space exclusively for workers would amount to nothing but legitimating and institutionalising untouchability, and therefore, we made it clear to the administration that the student body will not accept such a practice on any given day. It is quite unfortunate that workers eating in the same mess as students and teachers is even an issue in the university that has been imparting law and justice education for the past 25 years.”
After the move failed as a result of student protests, a top office-bearer in the administration resorted to underhanded tactics of pressuring the mess contractor into giving a letter indicating his unwillingness to provide meals to contract workers in the mess, which eventually failed too.
The administration instructed the workers should not seen sitting with students or other staff members
Since none of its administrative callisthenics has worked out, the administration must have thought it could finally enforce segregation by taking over the meal scheme from students and administering itself. Hence, it is not a coincidence that after briefing the workers on their daily duties, the new contractor for housekeeping staff emphatically warns them against eating in the mess or, as a housekeeping worker put it, “going anywhere near the mess where students and teachers eat.”
It indeed is unfortunate that the students who are taught to uphold liberty, justice, equality and fraternity in the classroom are being served the exact opposite message by the university administration. When workers were informed about the segregated counters for meals, some of them immediately registered their protest and vowed to rather not eat meals at all on campus than let the university humiliate them by providing meals at the segregated counter because they knew very well that segregation, as Martin Luther King Jr. says, not only harms one physically but injures one spiritually. It scars the soul. It is a system which forever stares the segregated in the face, saying, ‘You are less than..and you are not equal to.’ It is time everyone else in the university knew and understood that.
NALSAR could have highlighted the student-run meal scheme as an exemplary congenial relationship with workers which will definitely have a sobering effect in making the campus environment more just and equitable. Such idealism on campus should be encouraged as what could be the larger objective of education if not to develop such humane values?
The skills can be imparted even in an impersonal manner, as in online education, but what one learns in physical interaction on a university campus is the manner of dealing with human beings in the best possible manner so that the result is a better world. We should encourage students to take up more such initiatives so that the best in them comes out rather than teaching them discrimination, as NALSAR is clearly doing.
NALSAR’s interference in the beautiful student-run programme to provide free meals to their worker colleagues is deplorable and goes against the very purpose of education. The university’s vision, as per its website, is “to provide quality legal education that underlines constitutionalism, the rule of law and justice, with a particular focus on social justice to the marginalized communities.”
In its latest self-study report submitted to NAAC, NALSAR claims it has designed all its activities keeping this vision in mind and has “adopted proactive measures wherever needed in the interests of the deprived sections of the society so that its commitment to social justice is not compromised.” One cannot help but ask if enforcing segregated meal counters for workers is how the university believes it shows its commitment to social justice for the marginalized communities.
For all its tall and lofty claims, the least NALSAR can do is not let their administrators run amok openly parading their caste and class prejudice and making discriminatory policies that harm the ones they claim to do good to. It is now incumbent on the students and employees alike to fight against turning their university into a modern agraharam, reviving caste segregation in its ugliest form: To fight against Manu dharma rearing its ugly head in a university where Ambedkar’s constitution is taught and read.
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Ajay Kranthi graduated with a BA LLB from NALSAR in 2023. Magsaysay award winning social activist-academic, Sandeep Pandey is the General Secretary of the Socialist Party (India) and taught as a guest faculty at NALSAR in 2018 and 2023

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