The 58th Marathi Kranti Morcha went off peacefully in Mumbai on Wednesday, with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis assuring Marathas of reservations in educational institutes and jobs as well as special sops for farmers and students.
The protest rally, which saw participation from nearly three lakh members of the Maratha community from across the state, was held for the first time in Mumbai.
According to eyewitness accounts, protesters began gathering at Veer Jijamata Udhyan in Byculla since 7 am on Wednesday. These included not just Mumbaikars but also those from places across the state like Pune, Nashik, Kolhapur, Raigad, Satara, etc.
At around 11 am, they began marching from Jijamata Udyan towards Azad Maidan in south Mumbai, with a tight cordon of security being present around them. The protestors carried saffron swallowtail flags and wore saffron caps. They arrived at Azad Maidan at around 3 pm.
Beyond the strength in numbers the protestors boasted of, another unique aspect of the event was that all speakers at Azad Maidan on Wednesday were young women. These women attacked the BJP government for its inaction in the rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi. While invoking the past glory of the Maratha empire, they also pondered upon the poverty of Maratha farmers in Marathwada.
Most of the speakers seemed to be college students and spoke about the plight of meritorious Maratha students losing out to SC/OBC/ST candidates in terms of getting admitted to top colleges.
Fadnavis assures reservation
As the agitators assembled at Azad Maidan, a few kilometres away, at the state secretariat of Vidhan Bhavan, Fadnavis announced his government would extend to the Maratha community educational concessions currently given to OBCs.
He also said his government would form a Cabinet sub-committee to review the implementation of various welfare schemes meant for the Marathas. The announcements were made after Fadnavis held a meeting with representatives of the Marathas, whose demands have received support from almost the entire political spectrum in the state.
Fadnvais, who held a meeting with representatives of the Maratha community, also announced that farmers with loans of over Rs 10 lakh will be helped by the government.
On the Kopardi rape and murder case, Fadnavis said that the investigation is in its final stages. The chief minister also said that the government will initiate various schemes, including providing 18 Maratha communities with caste identification cards.
He also released a statement in the state legislative council and legislative Assembly on the issue. Protests were called off after this announcement.
However, it wasn't all peaceful. When Mumbai BJP chief Ashish Shelar reached the site, some of the protestors refused to allow him entry and said they don't want politicians to interfere. There were also reports that said Shelar was stopped and manhandled at Azad Maidan, but he denied them.
A delegation of 40 people, including women, met the chief minister at Vidhan Bhavan on Wednesday afternoon. The Monsoon Session of state legislature is currently underway, and is scheduled to end on Friday.
Social media mobilisation
Social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter were used to mobilise community members, the organisers said.
And when thousands descended on Azad Maidan to press home their demands, Mumbai's protest capital turned into a sea of saffron.
The JJ flyover in south Mumbai, which was closed for vehicular traffic, was full of protesters carrying saffron flags and winding their way to the venue.
Bollywood actor Riteish Deshmukh also displayed his support to the protest march in a late night tweet. "Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha," the actor tweeted in Marathi.
At Azad Maidan, a morcha participant was dressed like Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and was seen extolling the virtues of the "government of the people and for the people" concept practised by the Maratha king.
Another protester came to the venue with a noose dangling from his neck, supposed to signify the plight of indebted farmers who are killing themselves out of poverty in the state. "This is an attempt to draw the government's attention to the plight of farmers," he said.
Sitaram (45), one of the participants who came from Sangali district, said, "I am happy with the arrangements. But we want justice for our Maratha samaj. Therefore, our struggle and arrangement made by the administration will be successful only when our demands are met."
After the protestors called off their stir, at 5 pm, a few participants headed to the Gateway of India. Prasad Chava, 32, who made it all the way from Nanded, said, "Today was the biggest day of my life. I got a chance to become part of this historic rally. Besides, I also got to see the Gateway (of India), which was a long-pending wish."
Mumbai's famed 'Dabbawalas' (lunchbox delivery men), a majority of whom hail from the Maratha community, were also part of the march.
Mumbai Police on high alert
Police and traffic personnel were deployed in large numbers to manage the huge rush of people and movement of vehicles in south Mumbai.
This was the 58th protest held by the community, and was held exactly a year after the first one in Aurangabad, which was on 9 August, 2016. The Sakal Maratha Samaj, an umbrella organisation of several Maratha groups, held the protest.
These mook morcha (silent rallies) have been held at various parts of the state following the brutal rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl belonging to the Maratha community at Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district in July 2016.
Ruckus in the Assembly
The protests also made themselves heard in the state Assembly which had to be adjourned twice over the issue, with lawmkers across party lines raising slogans in support of the demands of the community.
Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde said, "We completely support the demands of the community. A large section of the community is deprived of education, income and also lacks skills that would get them good jobs. Reservation in education and government jobs could be one way of supporting them."
"Other demands, such as strict action against culprits responsible for the rape and murder of the teenaged girl, will also get our required support," he said.
NCP leader Ajit Pawar also slammed the government. "Everybody is focused on the morcha. Everyone felt that the government will do something in the Kopardi rape and murder case, that the Swaminathan Committee report will be implemented. We even asked them to stop Question Hour to discuss the issue. But the government is not interested," he said.
A collective effort
Even though the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Mumbai Police have been applauded for making all required arrangements for the rally, volunteers of the Marathi Kranti Morcha also played a crucial role in ensuring things goes smoothly.
Furthermore, around 15,000 volunteers were hard at work cleaning the streets of Mumbai. The rally also witnessed several NGOs and social groups showing their support.
A large number of vehicles came to the city from Pune, Nashik, Kolhapur, Raigad, and Satara districts, due to which traffic movement during peak hours was affected.
Anticipating a large gathering of members, the civic body had made arrangements to provide water and emergency medical help, while mobile toilets were also installed in several locations.
Taxis were advised not to ply in areas where the rally was supposed to pass through. AL Quadros, head of Mumbai Taximen's Union, said, "We had asked our drivers to avoid plying at areas where the rally was to pass through."
In a bid to facilitate smooth flow of vehicles, the Mumbai traffic police blocked certain roads leading to south Mumbai, the site of the protest, and diverted traffic between Byculla and Mumbai Central towards CST/Churchgate.
Central Railway too had made special arrangements to clear the extra rush after the protest was over. Additional suburban services were pressed into service from 2 pm, said a railway official.
Chief spokesperson of the Central Railway, Sunil Udasi, said, "Passengers are being regularly informed about our services at all stations. We ran special local trains in the afternoon and during peak hours. We have also deployed additional RPF jawans at all important stations."
With inputs from PTI
Updated Date: Nov 03, 2017 15:12:39 IST