In the backdrop of a Metro construction site, a group of around 36 people with saffron scarves and badges sat on the ground at Azad Maidan and chanted slogans to demand reservations for Marathas and a withdrawal of “false cases” registered against protestors across the state.

“It is a working day and that is why the footfall is less,” said Kedar Suryavanshi, a member of the Maratha Kranti Morcha who had on Tuesday issued a statement calling for a “jail bharo andolan” after Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis gave only a verbal and not a written assurance that cases would be dropped against protestors. “You know how busy Mumbai is.”

This gathering is a far cry from the lakhs who had flocked to the silent Maratha rallies held across the state over 2016 and 2017, or even from the thousands who came to the streets over the last two weeks, first to demand reservations and then to mark their respect for a Maratha youth who killed himself during a protest. This might be because, as some other organisers of the Maratha Kranti Morcha claim, this group does not represent the movement.

“Recently, some people who want publicity have come forward to announce protests that we have not agreed to as a committee,” said a Maratha Kranti Morcha coordinator from a neighbouring district, who asked not to be named. “These people do not represent us.”

Suryavanshi, however, countered this, saying that those who support the Maratha cause will gather through the day to join their protest at Azad Maidan. Those who do not join them will show themselves not to be supporting the cause.

But with recent protests across the state having turned violent, police officials took no chances even with this small gathering and were deployed in large numbers both at Mantralaya and with riot police at Azad Maidan.

This latest protest comes on the heels of two more suicide cases in Maharashtra, both citing the cause of reservations for Marathas, and a day after protestors in Chakan near Pune burned buses and attacked vehicles on the Pune-Nashik highway.

Faced with acute distress on their farms and an employment slowdown in other sectors, the socially dominant Maratha community, which forms about a third of the state’s population, has been demanding reservations in jobs and education for two years now as a solution to their economic distress. The “leaderless” Maratha Kranti Morcha held 58 rallies in the first year, all of which were entirely silent and non-violent.

Even then, however, protestors had spoken ominously of only waiting to unleash their voices. This voice has now begun to manifest in violence across the state.

Suicide spate

Since the latest round of Maratha protests began two weeks ago, five people have killed themselves. The latest was reported from Beed district, where Abhijeet Deshmukh, 35, hanged himself on July 31. His suicide note reportedly mentioned his support for Maratha reservations, as well his debt and farm distress. Police are also investigating the death of Kacharu Kalyane, 38, who killed himself on July 29 in Nanded district. His suicide note also reportedly said that he took this step in support of Maratha reservations. In the early hours of June 30, Pradip Hore, another person from the Maratha community died after he jumped in front of a train near Aurangabad. Minutes before his death, Hore had posted a selfie on Facebook saying that his death should serve the cause of Maratha reservations.

The first reported suicide linked to the demand for Maratha reservations was that of Kakasaheb Shinde, 28, who jumped off a bridge into the Godavari river during a protest at Kaygaon village just outside Aurangabad. Soon after Shinde died, two others in Aurangabad district attempted suicide, but survived. A third person, Vishwanath Sonawane, died after consuming poison on July 24.

Shinde’s death was the flashpoint for strikes across Maharashtra last week, many of which turned violent.

At the Azad Maidan jail bharo andolan. Photo: Mridula Chari

On Monday, protestors in Chakan, 40 kilometres outside Pune, damaged around 70 vehicles. Most of this damage was caused by stone pelting, though there were also a few instances of arson. Protests also intensified around Solapur, where protestors pelted the car of the Deputy Commissioner of Police with stones.

Districts across Marathwada continued to face unrest, including Aurangabad, Beed, Jalna, Osmanabad and Parbhani where people blocked roads and symbolically immersed themselves in water bodies as a mark of respect for Shinde, reported Lokmat. The initial round of protests, which were largely non-violent, began in Marathwada almost three weeks.

Faced with so many instances of suicide, the organisers of the Maratha Kranti Morcha are sending out messages to Marathas across the state not to take such drastic steps.

“We want to appeal to all our youth not to take such steps,” said Santosh Suryarao, coordinator from Thane district. “If our youth commit suicide, then who are we fighting for? They should remember they are Marathas. We Marathas take the lives of others, not our own lives.”

Meanwhile, to ensure that no further violence happens while protesting, Suryavanshi said that each district would hold their programmes independently and not call for support from other districts. That way, he said, it will not be as easy to infiltrate them.

Other casualties

There have been other casualties too, both direct and indirect. Police constable Sham Atgaonkar died of a heart attack while on duty at Shinde’s funeral at Kaygaon. And in protests during the bandh called by Maratha groups in Navi Mumbai, Rohan Todkar, 21, was attacked by a mob. He was taken to state-run JJ Hospital in Mumbai, where he died of his injuries. The Crime Branch of Navi Mumbai is set to investigate his death. The report added that a case of murder has been filed against unknown persons at Kopar Khairane police station. On Tuesday, the police identified one accused by examining CCTV camera footage.

Shinde’s suicide triggered a fresh spate of violence, first in Marathwada and western Maharashtra, then in Mumbai and its outskirts as well. On July 24, the Maratha Kranti Morcha called for a strike across Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai and Raigarh districts. After reports of protestors attacking vehicles during the strike that day, the coordinators of the Maratha Kranti Morcha announced in the afternoon that they were calling it off.

However, protestors in Navi Mumbai refused to give in. Violence in that part of the city continued until late night, with the police opening fire on protestors even as they burnt tires and attacked vehicles. On July 25, the Home department issued a notice to telecom providers to cut internet services in Navi Mumbai for 24 hours. Service was restored only at noon on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the opposition in the state has lent support to the protests for reservations, with Congress leaders, including former chief ministers Prithviraj Chavan and Ashok Chavan convening to urge chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to accede to the demands. Up to six MLAs across the state have offered to resign to support the cause. Even coalition partner Shiv Sena has weighed in, with Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray saying on Monday that the government should not wait for a commission to file its report on the backward status of the Maratha community. This report is essential to grant any community reservations and is the reason a court case filed about this in the Bombay High Court is stalled.

Opinion in the community is now divided, with some demanding inclusion in Other Backward Classes – a move which will antagonise those already in that category – or to supersede the 50% cap on reservations mandated by the Supreme Court and allow for there to be separate reservations specific to Marathas beyond this limit.