Twitter seems to bring out the worst in people, as Microsoft discovered when it tried to train its bot Tay on the social network. It learned so much racism and bigotry that the project was a failure. The rise of 'nationalism' has made the online space a highly polarised one, and so it's perhaps not surprising that someone would broadcast their bigotry by refusing to accept customer service because the person who responded is a Muslim.
Twitter user Pooja Singh posted a tweet complaining about poor customer service on Airtel, and complained about one particular engineer. When Airtel responded on Twitter, the customer service agent closed the message saying, "Thank you, Shoaib."
Singh, who identifies herself on Twitter as a 'Proud Indian/Proud Hindu/Nation First/Love our army', wasn't having it. The management professional replied saying: "Dear Shohaib, as you're a Muslim and I have no faith in your working ethics because Kuran may have different version for customer service, thus requesting you to assign a Hindu representative for my request. Thanks."
Airtel responded by changing the customer service agent, and the next agent to reply was Gaganjot. This response by the company incensed a lot of people, including former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who tweeted that he refuses to pay a company that condones such blatant bigotry, and AIPWA Secretary Kavita Krishnan, who tweeted asking Airtel to "stand by Shoaib".
Amidst all this, a second response by Airtel seems to have gone relatively unnoticed. Although the company switched representatives, it also tweeted at Singh and said, "Dear Pooja, at Airtel, we absolutely do not differentiate between customers, employees and partners on the basis of caste or religion. We would urge you to do the same. Both Shoaib and Gaganjot are part of our customer resolution team. If any customer contacts us for an ongoing service issue then the first available service executive responds in the interest of time. On your query, we will get back to you as soon as there is an update."
The company is actually at a difficult position where any action would lead to ire. An Airtel spokesperson talked to HuffPost and reiterated the above statement, before adding, "We request everyone not to misinterpret and give it unnecessary religious colour. The said customer has been responded to."
Although Airtel gets a huge number of customer complaints and queries every day - it is India's biggest operator - people we spoke to in the company said that this particular exchange was "strange", and not in keeping with the kind of complaints it normally gets.
But Twitter has steadily become a place where people feel the need to prove their nationalist credentials - even ones who don't live in India. Celebrity chef Atul Kochhar, for example, took to Twitter to complain about "Hindus being terrorised by Islam for 2000 years" after Priyanka Chopra apologised for an episode of her show Quantico, that had depicted Indian nationalists trying to frame Pakistan in a terrorist plot.
This time too, there was a lot of backlash which came up from the tweet, and Kochhar was fired from his job at the JW Marriott hotel in Dubai. In the highly normalised atmosphere of bigotry though, many Twitter nationalists took this as proof that Hindus were under attack.
Another incident that took place earlier this year had similar tones. A VHP member, Abhishek Mishra, tweeted that he canceled an Ola booking because "Driver was Muslim. I don't want to give my money to Jihadi People." Ola responded by tweeting that "Ola, like our country, is a secular platform, and we don't discriminate out driver partners of customers basis their caste, religion, gender, or creed. We urge all our customers and driver partners to treat each other with respect at all times." Mishra, who works as a social media advisor for VHP, continues to tweet like a 'nationalist'.
It's not all one-sided though, and there are times when the customer is the one who is being discriminated against. Just yesterday, Ola fired a driver for refusing to drop a customer to his location, with the driver saying he didn't want to enter a Muslim area.
In his complaint, the customer - a journalist - noted that he spoke to Ola, whose customer care was not particularly responsive, before taking to Twitter to complain, which resulted in some action. Ola then apologised, and on Monday, tweeted that it had "off-roaded" the driver, and added, "Ola, like India, believes in secularity and will never allow any sort of discrimination amongst its customers and driver partners."