The silent march that shook Mumbai

Aditi Bhande

In the past decade, demands for reservation from upper caste communities have increased and the agitations led by them are symptomatic of the upper-class psyche finding its clout diminishing
Aditi Bhande, Harshada Kulkarni, Rohita Raju, Sampad Nandy, Vinay Sharma Mumbai

Marathas of all ages bearing proudly the image of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj on Zaripatakas (saffron flags), orange Gandhi- topis and t-shirts marched to Azad Maidan on August 10 with discipline befitting an army. With desperate faces and determined spirits, the Marathas stood silently to make their demands heard. After the 58th Maratha Kranti Morcha rally since 2016, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was compelled to assure reservation for Marathas in education and an immediate deliverance of justice for the Kopardi rape victim.

The demonstration led by a massive three lakh-strong crowd presented an impressive sight against the backdrop of the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station, with a sea of humanity marching forward bearing saffron flags. Exhausted protesters rested on the sidewalks and the empty streets, and many clambered to buy food from a single shop that was open in the area.

Vinay Sharma

The sense of caste identity was evident in the unison of their sloganeering and in the way they spoke of their grievances. As one of the young protestors explained, the herculean feat of bringing together such a huge congregation of people rally after rally with no apparent leadership was possible simply because these are not any single individual’s problems nor any political agenda, but the hardship faced by the entire community every day.

The speeches were about to begin at Azad Maidan when we came across a group of young men from Osmanabad, a district in central Maharashtra, some 400 km away from Mumbai. They had travelled overnight to take part in the protests. Abhijeet, a Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) aspirant, said that after a year of hollow assurances, they do not expect much from the government.

Much like the Patels of Gujarat, which was once an affluent agrarian community, the Marathas are now worried about their economic vulnerability because of agricultural debt, unemployment and little access to higher education as many cannot afford the fees. Abhijeet, along with the other students accompanying him, blamed the present reservation policy to be the sole reason for their hardship and insisted on reservations in education and employment for Marathas. They also spoke of the unfair means by which the police convicted people from the general category under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. The group agreed that if a crime had been committed, it deserves due punishment by law. However, they also alleged that the police often makes arrests without proper evidence or fair means. For this, they demanded an amendment to the law for protection from misuse. They said that they do not wish to take away reservations from SC, ST and OBC categories but instead are demanding a separate reservation category for their own community. The recently announced loan waivers for farmers are of little help as a very limited number of them are eligible under the criteria stipulated by the government.

At the heart of the matter is the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Maratha girl in Ahmednagar district last year by three people belonging to scheduled castes. The protests by the Maratha community started as a means to demand immediate action against the accused and catapulted into a mass movement to demand reservation for the community in government jobs and educational institutions and scrapping of the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Tribes Act (they alleged that it was being misued).

 The show of woman power at the rally was amply on display as 15 young women on a stage made powerful speeches for the cause and urged the protesters to join them in chanting the movement’s slogans:  Jai Jijaau, Jai Shivray; Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha and Har Har Mahadev. As it was a working day, office-going women from Mumbai showed their support by using their lunch hour to take part in the rally.

In the past decade or so, demands for reservation from upper caste communities have increased. The Patidar agitation in Gujarat, the Jat stir in Haryana and protests by Gujjars in Rajasthan are all symptomatic of the upper-class psyche finding its clout diminishing. However, a marked difference between the movements started by the various communities and the Maratha community is that the latter is using silence to demonstrate for their demands. In Haryana during the Jat agitation, the Jats, as a form of ‘protest’,  burned shops and pelted stones at the houses of non-Jats, destroyed state property and disrupted the social harmony of the state. The government was nearly helpless and could do very little to control the anarchy. However, one protester at the rally in Mumbai warned that the long-held patience was wearing thin and if the government doesn’t act after this last rally, then the movement might take an intense turn.