Lucknow, Feb. 20: Shias and Sunnis clashed here today over Muharram processions in a violent throwback to 1977 for the first time since a ban was lifted in 1997-98.
Three people were killed and at least 20 injured in the violence that erupted around 11 am in Hussainabad (the old walled city of Lucknow). It has happened at a time when sectarian fissures have been plaguing the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
The last such incident on Muharram day had occurred in 1977, following which processions were banned till they were resumed in 1997-98 after the two sects categorically agreed to maintain peace. The agreement had followed a clash on June 25, 1997.
Trouble erupted today when a Shia procession was prevented from passing through the Sunni-dominated Muftiganj locality. Witnesses said a group of Sunnis objected to the processionists' recitations.
An exchange of words soon deteriorated into stone-pelting, leading to a free-for-all that spread across the old city.
Stones rained down from mosques on rival groups that had positioned themselves on a street in the Chhota Imambara area. By 11.30, firearms, swords and knives had joined the arsenal. The rioters set ablaze parked vehicles and over 22 shops.
'The first blast of attack was so heavy that the police did not know how to cope with it. We deployed additional forces and exercised extreme caution against firing. The situation is now fully under control,' said Navneet Sikera, senior superintendent of police, Lucknow.
The police first lobbed teargas shells. A policeman was shot in the leg. Later, the police baton-charged the rival groups and opened fire.
Massive security reinforcements and preventive arrests helped contain the trouble, said Aloke Sinha, principal secretary for home, Uttar Pradesh.
Senior clerics from both sects condemned the clash. The state has convened a meeting of sect leaders and talk is on about both sides bringing out a peace march.
As many as 1,000 youngsters of one sect gathered in the old city's Akbari Gate area to demand compensation for those killed, leading to some tension. 'The state government has decided to pay Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of the three killed in the riot,' Sinha said.