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'QR Code Shows He's Muslim’ — Online Platforms Leave Vendors, Workers Vulnerable

Muslim vendors and delivery agents have been harassed when their identity is revealed via payment or delivery apps.

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In July 2023, a group of women halted their scooters at 32-year-old Shoaib Ali’s juice shop called ‘The Jungle Juice Corner’ in Uttarakhand’s capital Dehradun, near the Shimla Bypass Road.

Shoaib’s younger brother, Zeeshan, took their order and provided them with their fresh juices. One of the women asked Zeeshan if they can make a digital payment, using the QR code placed at the counter. Zeeshan, instinctively, said yes, not realising the havoc that decision would wreak in his life in the coming minutes.

Before he knew it, the women began yelling and hurling abuses at him for “deceiving” them.

In a video the women subsequently uploaded, the leader of the group, Radha Semwal Dhoni, a right-wing vigilante activist, can be seen alleging that they learnt of the shop-owner's Muslim identity while making the payment. “We drank the juice and paid him via Google Pay and his mohemmadan (Muslim) name showed up – Ali. We don’t drink from a Mullah (Muslim). We have our Hindu brothers’ shops, we could just go to them,” Dhoni said.

Muslim vendors and delivery agents have been harassed when their identity is revealed via payment or delivery apps.

Women led by Radha Semwal Dhoni harassed a Muslim vendor after learning of his name while making the online payment

(Screenshot)

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When onlookers intervened inquiring what the issue was, she said, “We don’t eat (or drink) thook-wala (food that has been spat in),” referring to the ‘thook-jihad’ (spit jihad) false conspiracy theory that began doing the rounds during COVID. In the video, Dhoni insists that he initially claimed to be a Hindu and “only got busted” because of the digital payment she was making. Speaking to The Quint, Shoaib denied Zeeshan or him making any such false claim. “Our shop has existed for 13 years at this very place. Everyone here knows we are Muslims. Why would we lie about such a thing?” said Shoaib. “The minute she made the payment, her eyebrows raised. She learnt we are Muslims, and her instinct was to harass us,” he added. 
 
Shoaib’s case is one among many that have surfaced in the last few years, where a Muslim vendor has been harassed, assaulted, abused and discriminated against. In many such cases, the vigilantes explicitly say, like Dhoni, that it is while making the payment that they learnt of their Muslim identity. But it isn’t just digital payments that have left Muslims of the poorer social strata trying to earn a living vulnerable, but other platforms too. The Quint has found multiple incidents of bias, discrimination and assault that delivery agents, cab drivers, and service providers have been subjected to, based on their Muslim identity.

How does the customer learn of their Muslim identity? It is provided on the platform itself. The Quint spoke to multiple Muslim gig workers and vendors, many of whom claimed that technology has left them more vulnerable to attacks and discrimination, rather than easing their lives.  

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Muslim Shopkeepers Harassed After Learning Of Identity While Making Payment Via QR Code

In January 2024, Dhoni attacked another Muslim vendor, this time at Dehradun’s ISBT Haridwar road, running a general store called ‘Aman General Store’. The shop has a poster of Hindu gods, with the line ‘Jai Shri Ram’ written under it. Dhoni began hurling abuses at the man, after making the payment. “Why does the scanner have a Muslim name,” one of her teammates said, referring to the QR scanner placed at the shop for making payments. Her team proceeded to remove the poster of the shop and took it away, and while leaving Dhoni told the shopkeeper that “you can’t keep our Hindu gods’ name as your shop’s name. And if you (shop owner) want to come into our faith, then do ghar-wapsi (return to Hinduism).”

Muslim vendors and delivery agents have been harassed when their identity is revealed via payment or delivery apps.

Radha Semwal Dhoni harassed a Muslim man running a Hindu-owned shop.

(Screenshot)

The Dehradun police later released a statement saying that the shop was owned by a Hindu man, Rakesh Borai, who had given the shop on rent to a man called Girish, who in turn had hired a Muslim man, Shahnawaz, for the operation of the shop. “While giving the shop on rent, the landlord asked for the shop to not be changed either in name or in its appearance, and the man was asked not to remove any item from the shop either, but on 09/01/24, Radha Dhoni along with her associates came to the shop and forcibly occupied the shop. Religious posters and shop boards were removed, and objectionable comments were made on people of other sects, and an attempt was made to incite the religious sentiments of the people by circulating a video of the same on social media,” the police statement said. 

Muslim vendors and delivery agents have been harassed when their identity is revealed via payment or delivery apps.

Dehradoon police's statement on the incident.

(doonpolice/Instagrram)

Here too, the person sitting at the shop, Shahnawaz, tried to explain that he is merely “running the shop” and the QR code is linked to his number after approval from the owner, but Dhoni didn’t care.  
 
Similar incidents have been reported from Karnataka’s Dharwad, where Muslim fruit sellers were harassed outside a Hanuman temple in April 2022, and from Delhi’s Uttam Nagar in June 2021. 
 
“Almost every vendor today has a QR scanner kept on their cart, so it’s very easy to identify someone’s identity and thus their background. Ideally, this shouldn’t be the case,” said Ajay Singh, a fruit vendors’ union leader in Delhi.  

'There Is No Reason For QR Code To Reveal Identity, Many Alternatives', Say Experts

Technology experts say that there is no reason why any digital payments’ app should display the name of the user, and that fintech companies need to take cognisance of the social inequalities and biases that exist in the country.

“There isn’t any reason why displaying the name of the individual would help the payment mechanism. Such a technology is in fact helping mediate pre-existing social exclusions and alienations. It’s also helping enable societal biases, and add speed and volume to it. Privacy of marginalised individuals is simply not considered,” said Srinivas Kodali, data and technology researcher.

“Data collection has become such an intrinsic part of modern-day technology, the system incentivises data collection as well as its disclosure. UPI which was supposed to only share UPI ID between two parties now shares the phone numbers too with the bank and payment operator of the other side. The architects of these systems have removed privacy at each stage from the design,” he added.  

Since demonetisation in 2016, there has been a heightened emphasis on digitisation in the country, with the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) given a push by the government.  The National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) is the umbrella organisation for operating retail payments in India. The NPCI did not respond to The Quint’s emails, nor did payment platforms PhonePe and Paytm. Google Pay declined to comment.  

Osama Manzar, founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) said that if platforms were truly willing, alternatives could be found.

“Right after scanning a QR code at a shop, many customers turn around and ask the shopkeeper if the name showing up is the right one, to ensure the money goes to the correct source. So I understand if there needs to be some sort of an identifier there. But that doesn’t have to be the individual’s name. It can be a unique four-digit alpha-numeric code, which the platform can give to every user right at the start. This will help keep the anonymity intact, while also ensuring smooth payment,” Manzar said.

“If the will is there, solutions can be found to prevent or at least reduce such incidents of violence and discrimination. But ultimately it’s about bringing systemic changes and not just temporary adhesives,” he added.

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Muslim Delivery Agents Also Vulnerable

But it isn’t just digital payment companies, incidents of discrimination and violence against Muslim delivery agents and cab drivers have also been reported.

In August 2023, Sheikh Rehan Fayaz, then a delivery agent with Amazon, got an order to deliver a parcel in Hyderabad's Jeedimetla area. He left that place with multiple injuries.

Muslim vendors and delivery agents have been harassed when their identity is revealed via payment or delivery apps.

A 20-year-old Amazon delivery executive, Sheikh Rehan Fayaz, was allegedly beaten up in Hyderabad in August 2023.  

(Photo: The Quint)

“It was my first time in that part of the city, so I wasn’t familiar with the route. Once I reached the location, I was asked to come to some other address, but I told them that won’t be possible. They asked me to share my location on WhatsApp. I said no but they insisted. Then, a few men came to my location on bike and asked me to follow them to the residence,” said Rehan. At the residence, Rehan found KP Vishal Goud, a local BRS politician sitting on a sofa. “Apparently it was his parcel and he got agitated at the delay. He ordered his men to beat me up and they kept at it till some guests arrived at the house and they let me go,” said Rehan. An FIR was registered by the Hyderabad police against Goud and the other men.

Rehan suspects it was an anti-Muslim hate crime. “They knew my name. Plus, at that time my WhatsApp DP was that of the holy Kaaba. Then when I arrived there they checked my Aadhar card, kept asking my background and why I am in that part of the city,” said Rehan. Rehan, who was a student at the time, told The Quint he had to leave this job after the incident and hasn’t found anything else to do yet.

Food delivery apps like Zomato and Swiggy always show the name of the delivery agent on the app, as soon as the order is booked.  
 
In March 2023, Amran Tamboli, a 21-year-old law student in Nanded, Maharashtra, was working as a Zomato agent part-time to support his studies. Tamboli was assaulted by a group of men while delivering a parcel in Bajrang Nagar area of the city, who kept asking him “how dare you come to our area.” Tamboli said the company promised him legal as well as monetary help, but none came his way.  

Muslim vendors and delivery agents have been harassed when their identity is revealed via payment or delivery apps.

Amran Tamboli, a zomato delivery agent, was assaulted in Nanded in March 2023.

(Screenshot)

In September 2022, Syed Lateefuddin, an Uber driver in Hyderabad was beaten and assaulted by stranger men who forced him to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. “I will never forget that night. It’s imprinted in my brain. I was never able to resume driving after that,” he told The Quint.  

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'Don't Want Muslim To Deliver My Food': How Revealing Identity Causes Discrimination

While these are extreme and relatively rare incidents of assault, there are the more everyday biases and microaggressions that Muslim gig workers are also exposed to, because their identity is not kept private.  

“When identity is revealed, everything becomes subjective. A driver might be given a bad rating simply because they are Muslim. After multiple bad ratings, they stop getting premier rides,” said Shaikh Salauddin, Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), a trade union of app-based drivers, and a member of Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union (TGPW)

For food delivery agents, there are other forms of discrimination too. 

Tamboli said that prior to the harassment he had faced in Nanded, it was common for customers to ask him to place the food at the doorstep, and not hand it over to them. “Now what can one do if someone believes in purity and untouchability like this. I would just follow the instructions,” he said.

There is also the outright refusal in accepting food orders from Muslim delivery agents. In July 2019, a man with the handle NaMo_SARKAAR tweeted a screenshot of a Zomato order he had placed, being delivered by a rider named Faiyaz.

Muslim vendors and delivery agents have been harassed when their identity is revealed via payment or delivery apps.

A user complained to Zomato about being asigned a Muslim delivery agent.

(Shared by user on X)

In a screenshot of his chat with Zomato, the user said he wants the rider to be changed. “We have shrawan and I don’t need a delivery from a Muslim fellow,” he wrote. Zomato charged him the cancellation fee, which didn’t go down well with the user.

Muslim vendors and delivery agents have been harassed when their identity is revealed via payment or delivery apps.

The user asked for the rider to be changed because of his identity.

(Shared by user on X)

On Twitter (Now X), Zomato responded to the issue saying, “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.”

Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal also weighed in, writing, “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.”

In a similar incident in August 2022, a customer told Swiggy in the delivery instructions that they “don’t want a Muslim delivery person.”

Responding to a query by The Quint, a Swiggy spokesperson said, “The assignment of orders is entirely automated and does not take any such requests into consideration. Swiggy has a strong anti-discriminatory policy, clearly displayed on the app as well... Any credible proof of such discrimination, including any refusal to provide or receive goods or services based on the above metrics, whether alone or in conjunction with any other metric, whether lawful or unlawful, shall render the user liable to lose access to the platform immediately.”

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Discrimination Comes In Many Shades

While companies might take action when an incident of assault or explicit discrimination comes to light, or goes viral, there are other times when things are more gray.  

Balaji Parthasarathy, a professor with the Center for Information Technology and Public Policy, at IIIT Bangalore, is the principal investigator of ‘Fairwork India’, a project which seeks to understand and highlight the several problems faced by gig workers in the country. Discrimination is prominent among them.

“The problem is that discrimination is not a binary, it comes in many shades. While companies do respond to the most egregious attacks, there are also the less blatant forms of discrimination that happen but gig workers do not report them. They have a target number of deliveries to meet, so they often swallow the humiliation, and get on with their job,” Parthasarathy said.    

Experts, however, agree that platforms need to be more cognizant of their role in society.  
 
“At the end of the day, we live in a world where technology has taken over our lives be it in terms of food or transport. So, the responsibility of tech companies is huge. They have to be cognisant of the societal issues and do their bit in ensuring the privacy, safety, and protection of marginalised groups,” said Manzar. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Zomato   Harassment   Paytm 

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