Hours after protestors demanding reservations for Marathas brought several parts of Mumbai to a halt on Wednesday morning, the umbrella body that had called for a bandh in the city and its neighbouring districts called off the strike, citing instances of violence.

“There were some protests at places which even we did not know about,” said an organiser of the Maratha Kranti Morcha at a press conference in Dadar at 2 pm. “These are the places where violence occurred. We are not sure who has done this and that is why we are calling off the strike.”

The Maratha Kranti Morcha had on Tuesday issued a call for a bandh across Maharashtra on Wednesday after Kakasaheb Shinde, 28, died after jumping into the Godavari river near Aurangabad on Monday during a protest for Maratha reservations. The community wants to be able to avail of quotas in educational institutions and government jobs, among its other demands.

In Mumbai, the protestors had varying degrees of success in enforcing the strike. The central and eastern suburbs were particularly affected. Protestors burnt a bus in Mankhurd and stopped trains in Airoli, Ghansoli, Jogeshwari and Thane. In Koparkhairane in Navi Mumbai, protestors assaulted a taxi driver, the police said. In other pockets of the city, protestors forced shops to shut blocked traffic.

Even before the protest was called off, protestors spoke suspiciously of outsiders possibly infiltrating their rally. “We are asking senior citizens and ladies to stand on the outer edges of our group so that even if an outsider joins our protest, they cannot throw stones easily at shops,” said Rajendra Shitole, a protestor at Kurla. “We want this to be a peaceful protest.”

After calling off the strike, the Maratha Kranti Morcha organisers said they would soon inform the press about when their next strike would be.

Protestors at Saki Naka included a Bal Thackeray lookalike. Image: Shone Satheesh
Protestors at Saki Naka included a Bal Thackeray lookalike. Image: Shone Satheesh

Disruptions in Mumbai

The night before the shutdown, Shiv Sena members had allegedly instructed all shop owners at Kurla, in central Mumbai, to keep their stores shut on Wednesday. The few shops that did not comply with this order were ordered to be shut down by Maratha Kranti Morcha protestors walking through the area in the morning.

The group claims to be apolitical, though many of its members have affiliations with political parties.

“We will not go back until all our demands are met,” said Dilip Sarate “Master”, a retired school teacher who protestors identified as the leader of the Kurla group. “[Chief minister Devendra] Fadnavis is trying to cheat us, but we have reached our limit. That is why there was violence in other parts of Maharashtra.”

Another group of protestors, some of whom are affiliated to the Sambhaji Brigade, stopped a film shoot and forcibly shut down a Honda showroom in Saki Naka. They also attempted to force a roadblack at Saki Naka junction – in the presence of around 50 police officials.

“Since they have put in so much effort in getting here, we will allow them to protest for some time,” said Sunil Mane, a police inspector at the site. “But we are video recording all of this for evidence and will file criminal cases against the protestors.”

Suhas Rane, a member of the Sambhaji Brigade at Saki Naka, who for the protest disavowed his political affiliations, said that the strike had been been successful in the Chandivali neighbourhood in the western suburbs. “None of the promises made by this government or the last government have been fulfilled,” he said. “This is why for the last two weeks we have been protesting across the state.”

After a few minutes, the police instructed the protestors to move first from one side of the road to another to allow traffic to flow.

Protests at Kurla. Image: Shone Satheesh
Protests at Kurla. Image: Shone Satheesh

Behind the protests

Marathas, a socially dominant land-owning caste in Maharashtra, have been demanding reservations and other concessions from the government for two years now and held a series of silent, non-violent protests across the state.

The initial protests, which began in July 2016, were ostensibly to demand justice for the child victim of a gang rape and murder that took place in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar. But the protestors also demanded reservations for Marathas and concessions for farmers.

Now, after three of the accused in the case were sentenced to death in November 2017 by a fast-track special court, the protestors have shifted their focus entirely to demanding reservations for Marathas. For the last two weeks, Marathas across the state have held sporadic protests, leading to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis backing away from performing rites at Pandharpur for Ashadi Ekadashi, a significant festival in Maharashtra.

Shinde, the young man who died near Aurangabad, was participating in one such protest. The government has announced compensation of Rs 25 lakh to his family and offered a government job to his younger brother. His death has set off another round of protests, some of which have turned violent.

A video circulating on social media shows angry protestors chasing a troop of policemen away from a bridge while hurling their lathis at them. The police in Aurangabad confirmed that this incident occured on Monday morning. Protestors also burned buses across the state on Tuesday. A policeman died of a heart attack while on duty at Shinde’s funeral.

Among Marathas, only Kunbi Marathas – a group of cultivators concentrated in central and eastern Maharashtra – are listed among the Other Backward Classes. The Bombay High Court is hearing a case about including the entire community in the list. It has asked the state government to submit a report on the socio-economic status of the Marathas before making a final call on whether to permit Maharashtra to allow for reservations beyond the 49% cap set by the Supreme Court.

Opinion is divided in the Maratha community on how to implement this. While some say that Marathas should be classified as Other Backward Classes and therefore be included in the constitutional reservation provided to those groups. But others argue that doing so would be unfair to other members of the Other Backward Classes. They contend that Maharashtra, like Tamil Nadu, should pass a law to implement reservations beyond the 49% cap and not disturb present equations.