Less than two weeks after grandly stating that “Food doesn't have a religion. It is a religion”, after a customer refused to accept food delivered by a Muslim despatch executive, Zomato is having to re-examine its premises.
That quote, attributed to Deepinder Goyal, a Zomato co-founder who got on to a high horse to proclaim that “we are proud of the idea of India — and the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners,” actually reflects shallowness in the Indian context, where food choices are still an important component of group identity and religious practice.
If delivery boys were hailed as victims of Hindu bigotry in the earlier instance, they are now becoming villains, assuming one uses Goyal’s statement to judge them by. In north Howrah, West Bengal, Zomato delivery boys are refusing to carry food items that include beef and pork.
While some Hindu delivery boys have refused to deliver beef, a Muslim delivery executive, Mousin Akhtar, told IndiaToday.in: “recently some Muslim restaurants have been added to the online food delivery app. But we have some Hindu delivery boys who are denying (sic) to deliver beef. And it's been heard that in few days we have to deliver pork, which we refuse to deliver. We are also facing payout issues and have least medical facilities.”
The bluster of food having no religion is now gone, and Zomato is reduced to bleating a more neutral story of helplessness. A Times of India report on the Howrah situation quotes a Zomato spokesman as saying: “in a country as diverse as India, it is impossible to ensure that vegetarian and non-vegetarian preferences are factored into delivery logistics. Delivery partners are unequivocally made to understand the practical nature of the jobs as they choose to enter the workforce.”
This is the statement that ought to have been made two weeks ago, when Goyal caught liberal media attention with his statement on food having no religion.
The problem is that there is a very thin line separating bigotry from religious belief, and the sooner companies realise this, the better. In Zomato’s case, not only the odd customer or two, but even its employees have a problem aligning their religious beliefs with practical job responsibilities.
In the US, where religious belief is given high respect by law-makers, some states have legislated so-called Restoration of Religious Freedom Acts (RFRAs) where you can use the argument of religious belief to actually discriminate against people you disagree with.
For example, a state can legalise gay marriages, but if your religious beliefs say gay marriages are haram or wrong, and you happen to work for that state administration, you can refuse to deliver, say, a marriage certificate to gay couples. Also, this kind of religious freedom is not restricted to the Bible belt, and the Federal-level RFRA was legislated by Bill Clinton.
A franchised chicken-sandwich outfit, Chik-Fil-A, has a policy of promoting Christianity among its staff and even customers, and keeps its restaurants closed on Sundays even though it could do even more business. The company, when it recruits new employees, goes out its way to not only interview the prospect, but also his family and some others close to him or her. Some employees have even complained about being asked to attend prayer sessions to Jesus Christ.
The chain has faced some legal lawsuits alleging discrimination, but has so far gotten away with its narrow-minded policies since the US Constitution privileges religious belief as much as secular values. One Muslim who objected to being part of a prayer group to Jesus sued, but settled out of court.
In India, until recently, orthodox Hindus would not eat at a restaurant, or even at the place of a friend who is not from the same caste or community. We are free to label this as bigotry, but it is a reality and a right. If I do not want to eat with someone or at some place, I cannot be forced to do so. Most Jains will not eat non-Jain food, and Muslims will not eat at places that sell pork.
However much liberal societies, or food delivery chains like Zomato, dislike this, they cannot dismiss this reality of India. You cannot expect a customer to live by your corporate values.
They have to learn to live with it, and adjust their business models to reflect this reality until society itself changes. At some point in time, urbanisation and modernisation will embrace all people in its grasp, and citizens may no longer care who cooks their food or who delivers it.
Trying to uphold high constitutional principle is not something businesses ought to indulge in, for the customer is always right.
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