Zomato row: Food aggregator app is right to call out bigotry, but its own virtue-signalling raises problematic questions

There’s nothing like a good controversy to stir things up on a slow news day. On Wednesday, Zomato became a national talking point over its response to a customer who wanted the food aggregator app to change its delivery agent because he was a Muslim. Zomato refused to do so, following which the customer, one Jabalpur-based Amit Shukla, canceled the order and demanded a refund.

Zomato refused to comply with Shukla’s demands — changing the “Muslim rider” or a refund — and requested the customer to pay cancellation charges because the allocated delivery agent had already picked up his order. An aggrieved Shukla took to Twitter, threatened to remove the Zomato app from his phone and initiate legal action. He accused the company of forcing him to accept food delivery from “people we don’t want” and justified his stance by tweeting a conversation between him and the company’s helpdesk.

In that conversation, Shukla wrote: “We have Shrawan and I don’t need a delivery from a Muslim fellow.” The user has since taken his account off Twitter.

At this point, when Shukla’s response to Zomato became viral, the food delivery app came out with a repartee, tweeting that “food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion”.

The Zomato CEO also tweeted on the issue, backing the company’s stand and stressing that values cannot be negotiated for business expansion. It is a liberal stand by any yardstick. Both the company and its CEO have since received liberal amount of praise.

Following a heated debate on social media about food and religion where Muslims’ preference for “halal” meat also came in, Zomato released a statement where it clarified that it respects all religions and explained that its status is that of a “food aggregator” and that certification of “halal” meat or any other tags such as “Jain”, or “kosher” food is the result of restaurants seeking that distinction. It further said that its role is limited to offering the information to customers so that they may make an informed choice.

There are several issues conflated in this debate that need careful decoupling. First, Shukla’s bigoted stand as a customer needs unequivocal condemnation. The religious identity of the delivery agent who is merely doing his job should not be part of any debate. Zomato’s decision not to comply with the customer’s bizarre request for a “Hindu rider” instead of a “Muslim” one and refusal to give Shukla the chance to get a refund must be applauded.

Shukla’s logic behind his discriminatory behavior is weak. Hindu religious tradition imposes no such stricture on practitioners. It is most likely his personal belief which he tried to use as a leverage in the debate.

 Zomato row: Food aggregator app is right to call out bigotry, but its own virtue-signalling raises problematic questions

Deepinder Goyal. Image courtesy: Twitter/@deepigoyal

But Zomato’s response in this entire controversy, too, is equally problematic. While foiling the Jabalpur-based customer’s attempt at discriminating between its employees on the basis of religious identity, Zomato couldn’t resist the temptation to engage in virtue-signalling. It could have simply denied Shukla’s request for a different agent and refund and kept it at that. But its claim that food has no religion and is itself a “religion” is a position that is subjective and hence open to interpretation.

When Zomato says that “food doesn’t have a religion”, it is taking a certain stand against conflating food and religion. It is a commendable position. But as a company, is Zomato consistent in its messaging over this commendable position? Has it been consistent in taking this liberal stand in the past?

 

As it turns out, on an earlier occasion, a Muslim customer was aggrieved that the app did not inform him adequately enough about the choice of food. The customer wanted only “halal” meat whereas the food, delivered by Zomato, came from a non-Halal outlet.

In the first case, a customer made the religious identity of a delivery agent his main issue. Zomato was right to shut him down. In the second instance, a customer objected to the source of the food (which is outside Zomato’s purview) and accused the food aggregator app of not being informative. Zomato apologised. The issues, per se, are different but the problem lies in Zomato’s response.

If the company holds, in the first instance, that “food doesn’t have religion” — which is a liberal response against mixing of faith and food, then it should have given a similar response to the second instance as well (in the case of the Muslim customer). If Zomato respects the sensitivities of the Muslim customer and refrains from lecturing him on the futilities of mixing religion and food (which the call for “halal” meat unequivocally is), then why did it feel the need to virtue-signal in the case of the Hindu customer?

Zomato could have simply stuck to its stand and refused to budge on changing the delivery agent and refund. No problems there. But as soon as it started virtue-signaling on food and religion, it took a stand that calls for consistency in messaging. And as we see here, its inconsistent response makes the app vulnerable to criticism that its behaviour towards two customers is discriminatory and hypocritical. The company cannot have two different yardsticks for the sensibilities of its customers. It is, despite what the CEO says, in no position to claim moral high ground.

It is one thing to make smart quips on Twitter for an urban audience, but virtue-signaling about food and religion in a diverse, heterogenous, multi-religious and multi-ethnic country such as India, where food is intrinsically linked to religion is a practice fraught with danger. It calls for messaging that is sensitive and consistent.

The issue, however, touches a larger point. The Zomato controversy is akin to any other controversy on social media, where thousands of debates and outrages take birth and die every day. This issue, too, won’t stay in our consciousness for too long.

But this transient debate, perhaps fortuitously, also raises a theological debate about how an organised, codified religion — that has a clear set of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ for its followers — is different from a “lived” religion that lacks the codification and the sanction of a sacred text.

It is easy for the company to apologise in the case of the Muslim customer because the issue of “halal meat” (which differentiates between sources of meat based on the way the animal is slaughtered) is widely acknowledged to be a religious symbol. But the Hindu customer (leave aside his unreasonable behaviour for a moment) enjoys no such institutional protection and his discrimination is deemed to be a personal choice, even an example of bigotry.

Can a differentiation be made on the issue of faith on the basis of whether it is backed by a codified and organized set of beliefs, and a belief that is apparently personal?

One more question relevant to this debate is what happens when a religion — apart from faith — also has political beliefs built into its superstructure so that these beliefs may often be disguised as faith which, as we well know, is beyond questioning. Liberals worldwide frequently fall into this trap when they take Islam simply as a religion and not as a religio-political belief system that propagates a political system based on faith.

In this context, the Zomato controversy exceeds the boundaries of Twitter and takes on a different dimension. Perhaps the transient attention is an opportune moment to question these assumptions.

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