THE 3-kilometre stretch from Byculla to Azad Maidan turned into a sea of saffron phetas (turbans) and flags by mid-morning Wednesday, as the Maratha Kranti Morcha staged its 58th and final ‘muk-morcha’ or silent demonstration, in Mumbai. The morcha brings to end a year-long agitation by the community, which had reservation in jobs and education as one of its chief demands. Lakhs of Marathas participated in the demonstration, wearing saffron caps or turbans, waving huge saffron flags and sporting badges and stoles emblazoned with Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji.
While organisers claimed the number of participants was nearly 5-6 lakh, the Mumbai Police estimated that the real figure was around 3 lakh. There was some aggression on display at the start and end of the morcha, with participants tearing up the Shiv Sena’s posters at Byculla, stressing that they do not support any one political party.
At the end of the day, following speeches by more than 15 girls on the Marathas’ demands, a restive crowd at Azad Maidan was visibly irked by the presence of politicians on stage. Apart from that, the massive march of demonstrators was peaceful, with police and traffic personnel deployed in large numbers to manage the crowd. The JJ flyover, an arterial connection from south-central Mumbai to south Mumbai, was closed for traffic as demonstrators walked across it.
Chetan Gaikwad (23), who runs a garage in his village in Nashik, told The Indian Express that he came to Mumbai for the protest out of concern for his cousins’ future. “They are in school. I could not pursue higher education due to the high fee and lack of reservation, and don’t want the same fate for my brothers. I want them to get higher education and good jobs. And that will happen only through quota for us,” said Gaikwad, who owns 1.5 acres of non-irrigated land that he says does not offer even basic subsistence.
In all, 10,000 volunteers were on the streets to guide protestors and to clean up later. While participants from Vidarbha and North Maharashtra were fewer, Marathas from Western Maharashtra, Marathwada and Konkan accounted for the big bulk of protesters, said Virendra Pawar, a member of the Maratha Kranti Morcha. Manohar Anandrao Patil (40) came from Mangrul village in Latur district. The former army man wore a tri-colour turban. “I have participated in all the 58 ralIies. I am here to spread the message of peace along with being part of the community’s struggle. Hence I carried a tri-colour flag and wore a tri-colour turban at all morchas,” Patil said.
The morcha started at 11 am and reached Azad Maidan around 1 pm. The speeches by the girls were met with resounding applause and cheers. Puja More, one of the girls to give the speech, said the community had been reduced to penury due to the crisis in jobs and education. “If Marathas decide so, then only Marathas will be elected from open seats. If Maratha leaders do not support the morcha, the community will not forgive them,” she said, to cheering and enthusiastic sloganeering.
Archana Karande, another girl, said the government’s promises from 2014 remain on paper. “Many promises were made in 2014, but all are still on paper. Though we have land, we do not have adequate resources for cultivation,” said Karande. Speaking about attacks on women, she said, “Draupadi is disrobed everyday, but there is no Krishna coming to rescue her.”
Other girls attacked the state government and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis over the delay on the issue of Maratha quota. They said they would next march to New Delhi if their demands remain unfulfilled. Towards the end of the protest, as a delegation returned after meeting Fadnavis, the crowd appeared enraged that Sambhaji Raje, a descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji and now a BJP-nominated Rajya Sabha member, was on stage. Sambhaji had to pacify the crowd. “I am here not as a Maharaj or MP, but as a member of the community. The girls will continue to lead the morcha.”
Congress’s Nitesh Rane was also on stage, again to the annoyance of the crowd. Virendra Pawar of the MKM admitted to some unrest at the end. “The stage had not been shared by any politician so far and this was one reason for unrest among the crowd,” he said. Subsequently, a girl read out the chief minister’s assurances, but the gathered lakhs were more keen to know when reservation for the community would get the nod from the courts. Sensing that some protestors were unhappy, organisers wrapped up the day’s events.
(With inputs from Arita Sarkar and Dipti Singh)