LUCKNOW (INDIA) • Violence erupted in India when police tried to clear squatters belonging to an obscure sect from a city park and at least 22 people were killed including two policemen, officials said yesterday.
Police began the operation to clear the park in a city in Uttar Pradesh state, Mathura, 140km south-east of New Delhi, on Thursday after a court ordered about 3,000 people out of the area.
The court had directed the authorities to clear the squatters, who had lived in the park since 2014, after they ignored orders to leave. Squatting on public land is common in Indian cities, where poor people often have nowhere else to live.
The authorities often let squatters stay because they are backed by powerful, well-connected people, who offer politicians votes in return for leaving the squatters alone.
Uttar Pradesh principal home secretary Debashish Panda said police had initially responded to gunshots with tear gas and rubber bullets, but returned fire when the two police officers, including a superintendent, were killed.
Other officials said it was not immediately clear how the squatters died. Domestic media reported that at least 11 died in a blaze during the clashes.
Uttar Pradesh police chief Javeed Ahmed said: "They were firing at us from treetops. Others were hurling stones or assaulting us with sticks and other weapons. Two of our men were wounded and they died in hospital. Soon after the attack, we got reinforcements and launched a counter-attack on the camp and successfully cleared the area."
Officials believe the squatters belong to a sect which media described as a self-styled revolutionary group with a list of demands including the axing of the position of prime minister, replacement of the Indian currency and cheap fuel.
The group emerged from among followers of a powerful religious figure who died four years ago, according to reports.
"Their ideology is similar to the Naxalites," said divisional commissioner Pradeep Bhatnagar, who is the top civilian official for the area.
Naxalites are Maoist revolutionaries who have been waging a four- decade-long insurgency in parts of eastern and central India.
Mr Ahmed said the group had set fire to their tents before abandoning the camp after the clashes. "Subsequent searches by the police revealed that the activists of the group... had stored firearms and other weapons, including grenades," he added.
Hundreds of people were detained over the violence, including 124 who have been formally charged with rioting and murder.
Mr Ahmed said: "We have identified four leaders of this illegal group. We are looking for them and will arrest them soon."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE