On April 6, a butcher shop in a plush South Delhi neighbourhood had its shutters down but it was not completely closed for business: it was catering to loyal customers who would phone before arriving. “We’ve heard there could be trouble,” said the owner’s soft-spoken bespectacled son.

Two days earlier, on April 4, the mayor of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, Mukkesh Suryaan, had urged the civic commissioner to issue an order closing meat shops in the area from April 2-April 11.

The period marks Chaitra Navaratri, a nine-day festival that begins on the first day of the Hindu calendar, and culminates on Ram Navami, the birthday of Ram, according to the religious beliefs of the community in North India. Many believers, particularly in North India, follow a strict vegetarian diet during this period while some fast.

What was a matter of private belief, however, has been spilling over into the public space in recent years. In West Bengal, for instance, Ram Navami processions have become arenas of right-wing mobilisation, complete with men wielding swords and tridents, with saffron flags in tow. This year marks a further escalation, with the most affluent part of the national capital seeing Hindutva groups using Navratri to assert themselves.

Suryaan, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, had invoked “religious beliefs and sentiments” while asking for the ban that he insisted should be enforced strictly.

Operating with fear

Although the South Delhi Municipal Corporation has since clarified that Suryaan’s letter was not a legal order and shops need not be shut, many meat sellers – most of whom are Muslim – are plying their trade with anxiety.

As the South Delhi meat seller put it, “Who knows who comes when and creates a ruckus.”

Sanober Ali Qureshi, who heads the All India Jamiatul Quresh Action Committee – an organisation that works for the welfare of Qureshi Muslims, a community largely engaged in the meat business – insisted that the damage had already been done.

“There need not be a formal order,” said Qureshi, an advocate who practices in Delhi’s Tis Hazari court. “The fact that it is in the newspapers means people are scared. Any group can come, they can disturb, so there is fear.”

At the same time, Muslims in India have been observing the holy month of Ramzan from April 2. It will culminate with Eid celebrations around the beginning of May.

Vigilantism galore

This fear of vigilante action is not far-fetched. On April 2, barely 100 km from the capital, in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut, Mohammad Zahid Qureshi had his food cart and adjoining eatery ransacked by Hindu extremists who insisted that his soya bean biryani had meat in it.

Although one-third of the district’s population is Muslim, it has had an unofficial ban, enforced by the police, on selling meat during Navratri since Adityanath took over as chief minister of the state in 2017.

“We were told by the police to not sell non-vegetarian food during Navratri so we switched to soya biryani,” claimed Zahid Qureshi. “Yet, a bunch of dabbang [strongmen] came and upturned my cart and pillaged my eatery.”

The police lodged a First Information Report against 30 men belonging to the Som Sena, a hardline Hindutva group comprising followers of Sangeet Som, a former BJP legislator accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath at the Vindhyavasini temple in Mirzapur on Sunday. Credit: PTI

However, the police are yet to arrest any of the men who plundered Qureshi’s cart and eatery. Speaking to Scroll.in, Sachin Khatik, who heads the Som Sena and led the mob, alleged Zahid Qureshi was selling “meat-based” dishes despite prohibitory orders by the government.

“We had gone around town that day inspecting food carts,” said Khatik. “Others selling meat agreed to shut, but not him.”

Khatik said he was undeterred by the police FIR. “We are true followers of Sanatana Dharma,” he said, using a term that followers of Hinduism employ to describe their religious practices. “We will make sure that no one sells meat during Navratri.”

This militant assertion is not just limited to the hinterlands.

Labelling troubles

In an outlandish episode, a staffer at a news organisation that pushes the Hindutva ideology on Tuesday stormed the outlet of a popular snack chain in the Capital. On camera, the staffer harangued the outlet’s manager for including Urdu descriptions on packages of a crispy snack popular with Hindus during the Navratri fast. Many Hindutva adherents believe that Urdu is a language spoken only by Muslims in India.

As it turns out, the descriptions that drew the Hindutva channel’s fury were actually in Arabic. The company exports its products to countries in the Middle East that are home to a large population of Indian expatriates. Arabic labelling is mandatory in those countries. The snack packets were most likely headed there.

Taking over the streets

The communal frenzy this Navratri has not just been restricted to food policing. Hindu fundamentalists have also resorted to violently laying claim over public spaces as part of the celebrations, carrying out armed rallies in Muslim-dominated areas ostensibly with the intention of intimidating the minority community.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur, Hindu men out on one such procession climbed atop a mosque from where they waved saffron flags and raised incendiary slogans. The men were later booked by the police for “promoting enmity between two groups”.

A BJP supporter celebrates at the party headquarters in New Delhi after the election results were declared on March 10. Credit: Reuters

Yet again, this was no isolated incident. Across North India, from Delhi to Punjab to Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh, Hindutva groups have held similar rallies, carrying and distributing saffron flags to mark the Navratri celebrations.

In Rajasthan’s Karauli, one such motorbike rally by Hindu groups led to a communal conflagration forcing the authorities to clamp a curfew.

A ‘masculine’ Hinduism

Hindu groups say the celebrations this year may come across as more widespread because they were being held after two years of Covid-induced restrictions.

“The enthusiasm is palpable because celebrations had been subdued the last two years,” said Mukesh Khandekar, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s North India organisational secretary. “This time, there are no advisories on crowds, etc.” However, Khandekar insisted that the festivities were not “against anyone”.

Yet, critics say the nature of the celebrations suggest otherwise and seem to be emblematic of contemporary muscular form of Hinduism in the country that is inherently about uniformity.

“It is about creating a very masculine idea of Ram in whose name one can take very decisive action to stop people who don’t conform, Muslims in particular, from doing whatever they do,” said anthropologist Sanjay Srivastava.