I was never a scholar of Islamic religion and knew little to differentiate between a Shia and a Sunni until I was posted as S.S.P. Lucknow in March, 1980. I had taken charge as S.S.P., Lucknow in the forenoon and after meeting the staff posted in the office, I had proceeded to call on Mr. R.D. Pande, D.I.G. Lucknow Range. He was a very sober, understanding and affectionate person. After preliminaries and some wise-words about the importance and necessity of remaining politically updated, he added with a grave voice,
“The adherents of Shia and Sunni sects in Lucknow are always at daggers drawn and one of the most important jobs of the police here is avoidance of Shia-Sunni riots. These riots can trigger at any time in any area having mixed population of Shias and Sunnis, and for any reasonable or unreasonable reason. So you should make yourself fully aware of the history, extent, causes and involvement of some clerics and society leaders in these riots.”
For his advice on Shia-Sunni riots I always feel indebted to the D.I.G. because the wise words of him made me become wiser about Islam and also about the long history of Shia-Sunni riots in Lucknow. At the time of Mohammad Sahab’s death a question arose as to who should succeed him to rule the Caliphate. Mohammad Sahab’s followers got divided in two groups - one which supported the view that his closest disciple should take over the reins and the other group wanted his son-in-law Ali to take over. The first group prevailed and first Abu Bakr, then Umar and then Usman became the Caliphs. It was only after the passing away of these three Caliphs that Ali could become the Caliph. The first group that holds all the four Caliphs in high esteem was called Sunni. The second group that calls the first three Caliphs as usurpers of the throne was Called Shia.
Historically serious disputes existed between Shia and Sunni communities of Lucknow. The Moghals, who ruled the country from Delhi, were Sunni Muslims while the Nawabs of Lucknow who ruled Avadh as a protégée of the Moghals were Shias. The two rulers lived in apparent harmony, but the Shias and Sunnis of Lucknow never lived in harmony, because Sunnis were derisively looked down upon by Shias. While Sunnis outnumbered the Shias most of the property of Lucknow was owned by Shias only. Shia rulers allowed only limited religious activity to Sunnis. According to police records the Shias had been traditionally taking out a whopping number of 772 processions - small and big - during a year, while the Sunnis were allowed only one major procession of Moharram.
After attainment of independence by the country Sunnis further outgrew the Shias in number and also in political power. Then they started demanding more processions for themselves and curtailment of processions of Shias. The main plea of the Sunnis for reduction of Shia processions was that the Shias in their congregations used to recite Tabarra (Lanat or condemnation) against the three so-called usurper Caliphs. The Shias insisted on taking out their traditional processions and not allowing any fresh processions to Sunnis, which position the police had to endorse under rules. In all cases where there is dispute between two or more groups about some religious procession, Police is expected to follow the rule of adhering to tradition. So the hotter elements among Sunnis started taking out unauthorized processions and reciting Madhe-Sahiba in praise of all Caliphs including the three caliphs considered usurpers by Shias. In fact the Maulavis of the two sects incited the youngsters among Shias to recite Tabarra and among Sunnis to recite Madhe-Sahiba as a religious duty. The recitation of tabarra within hearing of Sunnis or of Madhe-Sahiba within hearing of Shias instantaneously turned the processions into battlefields and led to chhurebazi, aghzani, and bomb hurling in each others’ houses.
Police had to be extremely alert at all points of the processions or for that matter in all congregations because enjoying the anonymity of a crowd it was not difficult for a Shia to quietly utter the words Teen-Tabarra or for a Sunni to utter Madhe Sahiba within the hearing of some member of the other community. So the police had to be deployed in plain clothes also to take care of such mischief makers.
Then after some time police noticed to their bewilderment that nobody in a procession or a gathering uttered either of the two words, yet rioting started for reasons not understood. Therefore intelligence agencies were detailed to find the cause. What they reported was an enlightening example of ingenuity of mischief makers; in fact, since then I have become convinced that the mischief-makers possess a more fertile brain than that of a peace-loving person. Since the police used to pounce upon anybody uttering Teen-Tabarra or Madhe-Sahiba the youngsters of the two sides had devised new terms to insult each other : Shias had now started calling Sunnis as Machchar (mosquito) and Sunnis had retaliated by calling Shias as Khatmal (blood-sucking bug). These words quietly uttered by some mischief monger of one community for the ‘benefit’ of the other community had now become a fuse for the riot-dynamite. Naturally, now the police started taking into preventive custody anybody uttering these words in presence of members of the other community. And as the bacteria mutate to develop resistance against new antibiotics, soon the Shias came out with another innovation Tikona (indicating the three ‘usurper caliphs’). Now Tikona became the ‘fuse-word’ for the riots. When this too became known to police they came up with another epithet ‘Samosa’ (not the least for its deliciousness but for its three corners); and this they would utter in Lucknowi style to their buddy ‘Yaar, aao chalo Samosa kha aayen (Friend! Come let us go to eat Samosa)’ in order to ignite the fuse.
Since the funds received clandestinely by Shia leaders from Iran and by Sunni leaders from Saudi Arabia were proportionate to the stories of atrocities committed on Shias and Sunnis respectively, no community leader was genuinely interested in containing the riots. Hence, all police efforts to control the riots went in vain and the two sides kept on inventing new excuses and new vocabulary for perpetuation of riots.
Ultimately, government banned all processions of both the communities and then Lucknow turned into a riot-free city; of course, to the detriment of adding new words in Lucknowi lexicon of inciting chhurebazi, aagzani and bomb-bazi.