Food Doesn’t Have A Religion, It Is A Religion

A recent incident in India involving India’s version of Uber Eats, Zomato, has sparked a fierce social media debate about inter-religious relations in India.  The incident involved a Hindu customer, Amit Shukla, who complained to Zomato that his food was delivered by a non-Hindu driver.  

Shukla took to Twitter, saying, “Just cancelled an order on @ZomatoIN they allocated a non hindu rider for my food they said that they can’t change rider and can’t refund on cancellation I said you can’t force me to take a delivery I don’t want don’t refund just cancel.”  Zomato India later responded, saying, “Food doesn’t have a religion, it is a religion.”  The tweet has been liked and retweeted tens of thousands of times. 

This spat then erupted across the Twitter-sphere.  One user wrote, “Thanks.  Zomato for standing out against these bigots.”  Another said, “Can you please block customers like him forever so that they are made to learn a lesson?  Religious hatred has no place among food lovers.”  One other user said, “It’s 2019 and people with such mentality still exist.  Smh.”  Zomato co-founder Deepinder Goyal also weighed into the incident, replying, “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.”  Uber Eats India also lent its support to these sentiments.  In addition, various opposition politicians supported Zomato. 

However, other social media users announced that they had deleted their Zomato and Uber Eats apps and called Zomato’s statements as unfair discrimination against Hindus.  The hashtags #BoycottZomato and #BoycottUberEats trended. 

The police have responded bluntly by warning Shukla that if, “he again posts such tweets or commits an act which is against the basic tenets of the constitution, then it will be considered a breach of trust and he will be sent to jail.”  They further slapped on a Rs 10,000 ($144 USD) bond on Shukla.  The police have generally been instrumental in maintaining the peace and preventing such situations from escalating. 

Fortunately, there are others in the country who have furthered the message of Zomato’s tweet, such as in Tamil Nadu.  There, the owner of a coffee shop, Arun Mozhi, added to the tweet, putting on a message board: “We don’t provide food people who see religion.”  On regional television, Mozhi said, “If we start seeing religion in everything, we won't even be able to fill our vehicles with petrol, we can't wear any dress and can't do any of our day to day activities like brushing our teeth and even taking shower. If we start to look at religion/caste, humans can't live at all.”

The incident comes within the backdrop of increasing religious tensions in the South Asian country.  The overwhelming victory of Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP in the recent general elections this past spring (the BJP itself winning 303 seats out of 546 and its National Democratic Alliance coalition gaining 353 total seats) signifies the growing appeal of Hindu identity for much of the electorate.  In contrast to the visions of independence leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who aspired for a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-faith India, today’s Indian leaders have pursued a different path

This diverging pathway, known as Hindutva (“Hinduness”), has become the cornerstone of Indian domestic policy.  According to Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat, the reason why the BJP and its coalition securing such a stunning success was because it put its “Hindutva project” to effective use.  In his assessment of the future trajectory of Indian politics is that the BJP will harness both its Hindutva ideology and neoliberal economic policies to effectively disempower rival political parties.  It would do this by engineering defections, restricting democratic rights, suppressing civil liberties, and undermining constitutional bodies.  While these are rather dramatic predictions, they are indicative of growing fears over social cohesion in the country. 

Indeed, inter-religious violence has seen a worrying upward spike under Modi’s premiership.  According to the data journalism initiative India Spread, 98 percent of India’s 125 cow-related hate attacks during this decade have occurred during Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister.  In most of these cases, vigilante Hindu groups attack non-Hindus (mostly Muslims) who are suspected of having slaughtered a cow and/or consumed beef, considered a sacred animal by Hindus.  Instead of condemning such violent acts, the BJP has oscillated between silence or even espousing rhetoric that seems to absolve such perpetrators of their crimes. 

Such acts of violence and a failure to curtail them have led to horrific consequences for Muslims—the second-largest religious community in India—with an estimated population of 200 million.  In June, a video featuring a young Muslim man tied up and beaten by a Hindu mob spread quickly across the country’s social media sphere.  The man, pleading for mercy and forced to sing a Hindu chant, later died of his wounds in hospital.  Another similar attack occurred later that week in which a 25-year old Muslim cab driver was beaten up near Mumbai. 

These are just a few of the instances (which are now turning into an alarming trend) of the growing religious, cultural, and political divides that are now taking shape.  Although India is still one of the fastest growing major economies in the world and analysts predict that its economy will surpass both Germany and Japan to become the third largest, significant structural impediments remain.  Thus, in order to rally support the BJP will likely emphasize Hindutva above all other political initiatives and considerations.  However, given precedents of (ethnic and religious) nationalist discourse both past and present, pursuing such a path could prove disastrous for the unity and future of the Indian state.  With tensions with Pakistan already quite palpable, continuous targeting a religious community of comparable population size will only intensify long-standing regional enmities. 

Therefore, it is imperative that Modi’s India becomes an India for all.  Not only will a responsible response from the BJP to ongoing societal tensions reduce civil strife and foster positive relations among the various social groups, it will present the country as a well-functioning democracy that provides equal rights, protections, and opportunities for all.  Such policies will not only facilitate an environment that effectively capitalizes on India’s vast human capital resources but also boost the country’s soft power globally.  Although the country has much work to do to improve its international image, India can and should act as both a regional and global model of a flourishing civil society in a world increasingly devoid of such.