Royal Enfields led the way in a motorbike rally held by Marathas in Mumbai on Sunday to demand, among other things, reservations in educational institutions and government employment. Buses on 11 routes in the city were diverted and traffic blocked off to make way for the cavalcade of an estimated 20,000 bikes that streamed from Chunabhatti to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus between 10 am and 1 pm.

Members of the Maratha caste have been holding a series of “muk morchas” or silent rallies across Maharashtra to demand reservations, the dilution of the Atrocity Act that penalises people who abuse Dalits and Adivasis, and economic relief for farmers.

In Mumbai, the assertion that Marathas are mostly economically backward and therefore deserving of reservations was set aside as men and women at the head of the rally brought out their best vehicles – from Royal Enfields to even an Audi – in a show of strength before a final mega rally that will be held in Mumbai sometime after December 14.

A child waves a saffron flag from the sun roof of an Audi. Photo credit: Mridula Chari
One of the few women driving a Royal Enfield. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

“Marathas are not backward at all,” asserted Abhijit Takle, 28, a hardware engineer living in Chunabhatti in central Mumbai. “We are on top of everyone else. It is just that the backward people are getting facilities ahead of us. Even people who come from Uttar Pradesh get facilities before Marathi people.”

Takle’s views align closely with the Shiv Sena, although like others at the rally he denied any party affiliation. He echoed the saffron party’s call for jobs for Maharashtrians first before any other.

“Marathi means Maratha,” Takle said. “If other castes from Maharashtra want to join us, they are welcome. They are just put off by our saffron colour. That is their problem.”

Abhijit Takle at Chunabhatti. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

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As the procession coursed ahead, the density of Royal Enfields reduced, to be replaced with people riding significantly older Bajaj Pulsars, Hero Hondas, Passion Pros, Suzuki Accesses and Honda Activas.

While people came from as far as Thane and Borivali to attend the rally, almost all were urban dwellers who were not as concerned about the demands relating to agricultural prosperity. Instead, almost unanimously, the concern was about reservations.

Akshay Jadhav, 29, an Activa rider from Kurla, recently got a permanent clerical job at the Brihanmumbai Electricity, Supply and Transport. He was at the rally to demand reservations.

“I had to wait three years to get a permanent job, where people from other castes got promoted ahead of me,” Jadhav said. “We don’t want to steal anyone’s reservations. We just want some for ourselves. Kuch hisaab se kuch hona chahiye." We should get our dues.

Akshay Jadhav. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

PR Sawant recently retired as Chief Traffic Officer at the BEST. His concern, however, was the Atrocity Act, which he wanted to be made bailable. The act protects Adivasis and Dalits from abuse.

“I am the first victim of the Atrocity act,” Sawant said. “In 2005, I was suspended for eight years because of a charge under the act. I got reinstated only one month before I was to retire.”

As with other Maratha rallies so far, this one too was relatively silent apart from the revving of bike engines. One person chanted slogans and instructions into loudspeakers at each end of the rally. A token contingent of around 30 women bike drivers led the rally. Another group 50 women sat pillion behind male drivers. All others, pillion and drivers, were men.

The organisers of the rally continued to attempt to maintain the fiction that it had none. They were however easily identified as the only ones at the rally who refused to share their names.

“We are a committee without name,” said one such person who declined to reveal either his name or profession. Others had pointed out this volunteer as being one of the organisers. “We have all come here spontaneously," this man said. "Any police permissions were taken only with a token name.”

These permissions extended to setting up a massive banner of Chhatrapati Shivaji at the junction outside the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation headquarters opposite the main train terminus. As bikes took a u-turn at the station, they slowed down to pay their respects to the banner.

A man waves a flag as he passes a banner of Shivaji opposite Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Caste identities solidify

Caste pride prevailed at the rally, as parents dressed their children in saffron and men and women alike tied saffron turbans. Marathi newspaper Navakal had a huge banner promising to be the first and only paper to dedicate an entire issue on Monday to the demands of the Marathas.

“We are intellectually high level, but we still do not get seats in colleges,” said Nivedita Deshmukh, a resident of Sion. “It is not as if we are economically backward.”

Asked whether reservations would solve the larger issue of a decaying education system, Deshmukh said, “We also talk of equality and secularism, but this is not happening. We need to change the entire system. Until then, we should get reservations.”

A woman gets a turban tied before the rally begins. The service came at Rs 100 per turban. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

There have now been enough silent rallies that a historian has written a book on them. Pune resident Namdevrao Jadhav, who is related to the family of Shivaji’s wife, has written an account of the reasons for the rally as well as what Marathas should do going ahead.

“Marathas were once rajas and zamindars [landlords],” Jadhav said. “Now we are kangal [very poor]. I want to explain how this has happened and what our people should do so that we can rule the world once again.”

Jadhav’s solution is simple. Children with “high merit” who get 80% to 90% in examinations should attempt to enter government services such as the United Public Services Commission or the Indian Revenue Service. Those with 60% to 80% should complete their higher education and enter businesses. All the rest should study at least until the 12th standard, do technical courses of their interest and become self-employed.

“We are still stuck in this zamindari mentality that all we can do is agriculture and war,” Jadhav said. “We need to let the horse and sword go and adopt the laptop and mouse. This is my vision. No other caste will help us so we should at least help ourselves.”

Namdevrao Jadhav with his book. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Vijay Shinde, 42, rejected the entire system altogether.

“We are only asking for reservations because others have it but actually we don’t want reservation from anyone and nobody else should get it either," he said. "Ab khunnas hai mere ang mein." I am filled with resentment.”