The raised sign for Avadh Point on Victoria Road in Old Lucknow is missing two letters, the “O” and the “I.” The “D” in Avadh also hangs precariously, as if it is ready to become the third. The three-story building was constructed in 2005, but it stands dilapidated, walls thinning and paint peeling, as if it is as old as the Awadh culture it’s named after.
Since Nov. 6, the start of Muharram, which is the first month of the Islamic calendar and the period of mourning observed mostly by Shia Muslims, several figures are making their presence known at Avadh Point and other areas deemed sensitive in Lucknow for the next two and a half months: police officers.
“All the mess starts from here,” said Zeeshan Ansari, 21, a Sunni Muslim and recent college graduate who lives in the neighborhood. He was sitting on the patio of Avadh Point, gazing at the fruit vendors, shared auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and throngs of people sharing the road in front of him.
It was Saturday, Nov. 9. A half-dozen police officers were sitting and standing only several meters away. “See, the police are all there maintaining control,” Mr. Ansari said with a smile.
Shiites live on one side of Avadh Point, Sunnis on the other. The division is not unusual in Old Lucknow, where the population is predominantly Muslim. In certain pockets of the old city, Shiites and Sunnis also live side by side with Hindus. In New Lucknow, the more modern part of the city that started developing rapidly in the 1980s, the population is largely non-Muslim.
Religious differences are generally a side note to daily life in Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. But during Muharram, and only in the old city, the differences become more pronounced. Conflict usually arises, but it’s not between Hindus and Muslims. In Lucknow, the conflict is between Muslims and Muslims. And it usually starts with something simple.
“For the past two or three years, there is always lots of violence happening here,” Mr. Ansari said. “Somebody just throws a rock.”
Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have erupted in Lucknow during Muharram since the early 1900s. The period commemorates the death of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, during the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century. The event was a turning point in Islamic history that intensified divisions regarding whom would succeed the Prophet Muhammad.
While ideological differences split the Muslim community historically, in Lucknow, political motivations now lurk behind the religious processions and gatherings of Muharram. And it’s only one part of Lucknow — Old Lucknow — that’s affected.
“This is local polarization,” said Anis Ashfaq, head of the Urdu department at Lucknow University and noted city historian. “The more you incite religious hatred, the more you can polarize the votes.”
Shiites make up about 20 percent of the city’s Muslim population, or about 190,000 people, according to Raphael Susewind, a political anthropologist who has spent the past two years studying Muslim belonging and electoral politics in Lucknow. The Shiite population is a tiny fraction of the city’s 2.8 million, but significant enough to influence the outcome of elections in Uttar Pradesh.
The Nawabs, the rulers of Lucknow during the 18th and 19th centuries, were Shia Muslims. The area they governed, known as Awadh, has remained a Shia stronghold since then. While Lucknow’s Sunni population generally aligns with the regionally popular Samajwadi Party, Shiites don’t align with any single political party.
“The strategy of the sectarian violence is to make Muslims feel and vote as either Shia or Sunni much more than as Muslims,” said Mr. Susewind. “So what you do is you create sectarian tension to produce this section. You pay a couple of youngsters to throw stones at a juloos [procession], and it spirals out of control.”
Since many Muslim candidates are Sunni, Shiites would then not vote for them because their Sunni identity would overshadow their Muslim one, he said. Many see that split as working in favor of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P.
“Ultimately, it’s hard to verify this dynamic because you just don’t know who votes for whom,” said Mr. Susewind. “But clearly a divided Muslim vote would benefit the B.J.P. much more than a united one.”
Observers say this strategy of inciting sectarian violence could only work in Old Lucknow because that is where instigators could most easily exploit the city’s educational and class differences.
Most of the people who become involved in violence are generally uneducated, according to Kalbe Jawad, a maulana who is widely considered the most influential Shia cleric in the city because of his lineage, which originates from the Nawabs.
“They are mostly poor people,” Mr. Jawad said as he sipped on Kashmiri chai in his apartment, located in the heart of Old Lucknow. “In Old Lucknow, many people are illiterate. They don’t really understand religion.”
Lucknow is continuing to expand as the population of the city increases. But Old Lucknow remains densely populated. Extended families often share the same building. Access to education, poverty and sanitation are widespread issues.
Most Muslims have stayed in Old Lucknow even if they can afford to move out because they feel safer there, where they have a large presence, said Navneet Sikera, the former police chief of Lucknow and current deputy inspector general of several districts in Uttar Pradesh. Neighborhoods in New Lucknow like Gomti Nagar, known for its malls and high-rise apartment buildings, also have Muslim residents. But they are few compared to non-Muslims.
Professor Ashfaq said the Muslims of New Lucknow wouldn’t allow the violent history to repeat itself, nor would such violence make sense in the area.
“Gomti Nagar is a well-educated, cosmopolitan locality,” said Professor Ashfaq. “That is why no such clash can ever take place in that locality.”
Indeed, several residents say the geographical difference between Old Lucknow and New Lucknow is secondary to the psychological distinction during Muharram.
“Nobody else from this modern Lucknow will be able to tell you about Muharram in Lucknow,” said A.A., 38, a restaurant owner whose family has lived in Old Lucknow for four generations but who works outside the old city. His customers mostly live in New Lucknow. He declined to give his full name because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The streets outside his restaurant were quiet except for the few auto-rickshaws and S.U.V.’s that drove by. That night, the restaurant was empty.
“When there is a curfew in the old city, I come here, and no one even knows there is a curfew in Old Lucknow,” he said.
Imposing a curfew is the district government’s usual response when sectarian violence erupts. The last such curfew occurred this summer in the Chowk neighborhood of Old Lucknow, during Ramadan, after a clash broke out during a Sunni procession.
For this year’s Muharram, the district government employed nearly 5,000 security personnel to patrol Old Lucknow. The tit-for-tat relationship between Sunnis and Shiites means that now, during this Shia-observed period, people suspect Sunnis may want to retaliate against Shiites for what happened during the summer.
The violence between the two communities is cyclic. The Ramadan incident, in turn, was likely inspired by an earlier attack on a Shia gathering in January.
Fears that violence would erupt in Lucknow during Muharram have abated. The first 10 days of Muharram, the most significant of the mourning period, passed calmly. “This has been the most peaceful Muharram in the last 10 years,” said Mr. Sikera, the inspector general.
Old Lucknow will stay on high alert for the remainder of Muharram, which lasts for 68 days in South Asia, Mr. Sikera said. But the stress is now over.
“We’re hopeful that nothing will happen,” he said.
Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in Lucknow.
This piece was originally published on November 20, 2013.