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Zomato Row: In A Caste-Coded Society, The Politics Of Who Touches Your Food

Zomato's call to launch a 'Pure Veg mode’ and 'Pure veg fleet’ for vegetarian customers has triggered a hot debate.

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For the last one and half months, I have been asking people if I could get a rented flat in the Mylapore area in Chennai, where my new office is located. Given the area has a concentration of Brahmins in certain pockets, I have been told that I might be refused rent since I identify as a meat-eating person and there are also subtle ways through which they could identify my caste location.

Such instances are not uncommon across residential colonies from Bangalore, and Mumbai to Ahmedabad where certain higher caste groups such as the Brahmins, Marwaris, Banias, and Jains own the apartments and are in big numbers.

Additionally, Muslim rent-seekers are associated with beef eating, and those from the Northeast region with 'smelly food' and bamboo shoots.

In this broad context, the recent announcement by Zomato to launch a 'Pure Veg mode’ and 'Pure veg fleet’ for its vegetarian customers has triggered a hot debate, as to whether food habits in India are just harmless individual dietary preferences or they influence social relations and reinforce value-based tendencies of dominant communities by demarcating others.

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Discrimination Is at the Root of Zomato’s 'Pure Veg Fleet’ Campaign

The reason given by Zomato for the initiative alludes to the convenience and special needs of vegetarian customers. However, underlying this are notions of separation and purity that stem from caste and religion-based exclusivity.

The need to have separate delivery persons, separate coloured clothing, and the suspicion towards even handling of vegetarian food seems to accord it a superior status, to be dealt with immense sensitivity, details, and exclusivity.

After receiving social media flak for the announcement, Zomato withdrew the colour-coded exclusive fleet that might demarcate and render non-veg serving delivery persons prone to being targeted in vegetarian-majority residential areas.

Although welcoming, this raises serious questions about Zomato’s understanding of the socio-cultural landscape of this country as well as the dominant upper caste Hindu minoritarian cultural tropes being reproduced in corporate board rooms.
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'Vegetarianism’ as a Caste-Based Differentiator

Here, it is important to differentiate between vegetarianism merely as a dietary preference and one stemming from notions of caste purity, separation, and stigma towards those eating meat and eggs.

If one were to study the history of Indian society in the last 150 years, it is found that the latter has been one of the key differentiations to enforce caste-based untouchability and segregation on a vast section of Dalits in this country.

In the process of differentiation, food habits could not remain value-free but become caste-coded and the food practices of certain higher caste communities such as the Brahmins and Banias came to be presented as the legitimate food culture of India with little or no restrictions.
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Higher educational institutions, office and corporate spaces, and residential localities in metropolitan cities which are supposed to be shared public spaces deem many subaltern food habits as deviant and impose the high caste Hindu food habits as acceptable. It doesn’t even allow a separate space for those wanting to practice their food habits independently.

Hence, the argument that everyone has a choice to eat what they like is completely untrue.
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How Food Practices Divide More Than Unite

Rather than cherishing cultural diversity of food practices and habits by different communities and geographical reasons in India, this move by Zomato tends to reinforce notions of purity and separation historically practiced by a section of higher caste Hindu communities towards sections of Dalits, lower castes, and tribes.

The prohibitions on inter-caste dining and separate water sources have not been harmless cultural differences in the Indian context but revolved around purity and untouchability based on caste.

The popular reference Mera Dharam Bhrast ho jayega (My religion would be destroyed) about eating food with others is a fear of caste rules being transgressed.

Leading Anti-caste radicals Dr Ambedkar and Sahodaran Ayyappan are the two important names to remember when it comes to the struggle of sharing water and eating food together, confronting caste practices in the 20th century.

Even today, big political leaders go for photo ops in Dalit households where the basic human act of eating food together is projected to be a radical act because food associated with Dalits, cooked by Dalits, and eating together with them is generally looked at with stigma.
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On Misplaced Notions of Purity Associated With Meat Eating

The normative food culture propagated by dominant Caste Hindu groups has also led to a process of Sanskritisation among a section of lower castes, Tribals, and Dalits who have stopped eating meat with the hope that the impurity and inferiority attached to their social status would be elevated.

Such processes occur due to the hierarchy of values attached to food and Zomato seems to be propagating such a norm in the language of harmless preferences and needs.

The other important aspect of food habits in India has to do with cultural influences and geographical regions and the exclusive vegetarian food habits are predominant in the West and Northern parts of India, namely Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, and Haryana. These are also regions where the Jain and Dera influences are strong and it impacts even the subaltern groups who have over the decades incorporated themselves into such food habits.

On the contrary, in states such as Odisha, West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, people across social groups tend to eat meat and fish except for a significant section of Tamil Brahmins. According to the NFHS 2019-21 data analysed by The Indian Express, an overwhelming 83.4% of men and 70.6% of women in the 15-49 years age group eat non-vegetarian food daily, weekly, or occasionally.

It could also be asked then if Zomato could cater to diverse social groups and geographical regions based on their specific preferences and needs by categorising them or if such initiatives are restricted only to normalise the ‘puritan habits’ of a minority.
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Does Zomato’s Colour Code Rollback Extend Protection to Delivery Agents?

Despite the withdrawal of the colour-coded ‘Pure veg fleet’ on the ground, the ‘Pure veg food’ will be delivered by the veg-only fleet and will be shown on the app. Who gets to touch the delivery packages and handle them would still be segregated, it is just that the segregation won’t be visible through the colours anymore.

Moreover, hostility and suspicion could still be directed at the delivery persons regarding their identities while delivering 'pure vegetarian foods’ since handling of food has been given as one of the reasons for the launching of the 'Pure veg mode’.

News about young school children not eating foods cooked and served by a Dalit cook and Muslims being harassed for suspicion of carrying meat are not uncommon. Zomato so far doesn’t have a guideline to address these probabilities and the protective measures it would undertake to intervene in such situations to protect the delivery persons.

The suspicions and hostility towards who could be handling the 'pure vegetarian food’ and the need to have a separate 'pure fleet’ to deliver them once again exposes the deep feelings of Caste and orthodoxy embedded among the Indian middle and upper middle class.
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Separate lifts for the delivery and courier persons and separate cups and plates for the maids in residential localities are other tendencies that emerge out of such feelings. They are not just modern consumers with some disposable income and neither are the big corporations such as Zomato mere capitalists for profit, but also in constant negotiation with new technological innovations and economy while reproducing orthodox values of dominant groups.

One needs to also ask then if those delivering 'pure vegetarian foods’ are 'pure veg’ and belonging to certain higher caste Hindu groups and can these big platforms function without the service of the subaltern population whose food habits and eating with them are looked down upon by its consumers?

(Sumeet Samos hails from south Odisha. He recently completed MSc in Modern South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford. He is a young researcher and anti-caste activist and his research interests are Dalit Christians, cosmopolitan elites, student politics, and society and culture in Odisha.)

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Topics:  Zomato   Casteist   Caste Discrimination 

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