It is this bigotry and prejudice which lies at the heart of many customs, mores and personal habits which are inherently discriminatory.
Shorn of all frills, there is one stark truth that leaps out of the ongoing controversy around Zomato, a company that delivers food through an app. The company is in the news because in India 2019, the religion of a food delivery man seems to matter, and an urban, educated Indian with a professional degree sees nothing wrong in arguing that in the month of Sawan, an auspicious month in the Hindu calendar, he doesn’t “need a delivery from a Muslim fellow”.
Amit Shukla from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, not only cancelled his order because the delivery person was from a different religion, but went on to tweet: “They said they can’t change the rider and can’t refund on cancellation. I said you can’t force me to take a delivery. I don’t want a refund, just cancel.”
The story about the absurd demand may have died a natural death had not Zomato’s boss Deepinder Goyal not taken a strong, unambiguous stand in favour of food delivery man Faiyaz. Mr Goyal countered with a tweet, which he said reiterated his company’s policy. “We are proud of the idea of India — and the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners… We aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values.”
At a time when corporate chieftains in the country overwhelmingly steer clear of verbalising their thoughts on anything that might appear to be contentious in the current polarised milieu, Mr Goyal’s willingness to speak up, stand by his man, won kudos, as it should.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Shukla’s position has also found many takers. The rest is history or a hashtag war, depending how you see it.
Everyone has had his/her say on the issue, including BJP MP Baijayant “Jay” Panda. In Mr Panda’s view, “Zomato is right to deny a customer’s request for a delivery person of a different religion. But wrong and hypocritical to claim it does not mix religion with food. It fusses over religious clients’ halal/Jain food. Curious, if it does for all — e.g. a religious Sikh wanting non-halal meat.”
What has followed and continues, at the time of writing, is a series of arguments premised on false equivalence. Many are framing Mr Shukla’s tweet as a matter of choice in a free country.
In which free country which is proud of its democracy, pluralism and non-discrimination, can you refuse to be served food by a person, citing his/her religion as a reason? As has been pointed out by many in the past few days, one is totally within one’s right to be vegetarian, non-vegetarian, prefer halal cuisine, jhatka cuisine or go vegan.
Most airlines, for example, ask a passenger his/her preferred choice of cuisine at the time of reservation of a ticket. But try demanding that the airhostess or flight steward be of a specific religion or caste because it is a holy month, or for any other reason. Which airline anywhere in the world would allow this?
That there is a huge difference between having the food of one’s choice and the food delivery man/woman of one’s choice is obvious to anyone, barring those who are wilfully blind.
A section of keyboard warriors have latched on to a tweet from Zomato India’s official handle — “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.” They argue that Zomato’s use of the tag “halal meat” is incontrovertible proof that it does mix religion with food.
This is a classic blurring of issues, especially since only the first part of the tweet — “food doesn’t have a religion” — is used to make the argument. Read with the second part, “it is a religion”, leaves few who know the English language in doubt as to the intended meaning — that the appreciation and enjoyment of food knows no religious barriers. To those who love food, and it can be food of any kind, cooked in any way, food is indeed religion.
To distort this to argue that “food doesn’t have a religion” means that food can’t be labelled, factoring in cultural, societal and religious sensitivities, is what I would call a matter of false equivalence.
Which brings me to the core issue here — discrimination.
In a democracy, you can choose your food. But you can’t insist that an enterprise discriminate against a delivery man/woman on the basis of his/her religion just because many people, even a majority, sees such discrimination as kosher.
The incident brings to mind another incident last year. A man cancelled his request for an Ola cab because the driver happened to be a Muslim. It became an issue because not only did he cancel his request, he publicly stated that he cancelled the cab because he did not want to give money to “jihadi people”. According to media reports, he flaunted a screenshot of the cancellation, which showed the driver’s name — Masood Alam.
This is not exercising choice. This is bigotry masquerading as freedom of choice. This is signalling that discrimination is good, great and glorious if it is used against groups you don’t like for whatever reason.
Discrimination is not new in India. But if we talk about a “New India”, we need to speak up, and in a new language, in our private and public lives, when we are face to face with bigots, including educated ones, who legitimise the highly prejudicial idea of purity and pollution.
It is this bigotry and prejudice which lies at the heart of many customs, mores and personal habits which are inherently discriminatory. Speaking up also means asking uncomfortable questions like why do so many urban, educated households choose to insist on an “upper caste” cook and think that persons who are from supposedly “lower castes” are best hired for sweeping and swabbing?
Amit Shukla, the man in the Zomato story, says he believes that in the month of Sawan, one should “eat pure and clean food”. Clearly, in his mind, “pure and clean food” can only be served by specific groups of people.
What does it say of New India or its flagship cleanliness mission when people conflate cleanliness with discrimination on grounds of religion? Mr Shukla’s action should be seen as illegal, because it is effectively a case of untouchability.