Mumbai: Mumbai’s Azad Maidan turned into a sea of saffron today as thousands of people demanding reservations for the Maratha community gathered here in what was their 58th protest in a year.
Wearing saffron caps and carrying flags, the protesters walked down south Mumbai’s JJ flyover, which was closed for vehicular traffic, winding their way to the protest venue. At the Jijamata Udyan, where the Maratha Morcha began at 11 AM, protesters tore banners put up by the Shiv Sena, stressing that they did not want any “political interference”.
Rajya Sabha member Chhatrapati Sambhaji Raje told reporters at Azad Maidan he was participating in the march not as a Member of Parliament but as an “ordinary member” of the Maratha community. Bollywood actor Riteish Deshmukh also voiced his support to the protest march with a late night tweet.
“Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha,” the actor tweeted in Marathi, referring to a popular slogan.
At Azad Maidan, a morcha participant — dressed like Chhatrapati Shivaji — was heard extolling the virtues of a “government of the people and for the people”, as practised by the Maratha king. Ishanvi Deshmukh, a three-year-old girl, impressed the gathering with a well-memorised speech seeking reservations for the Maratha community. Some residents of Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district, where the brutal rape and murder in July 2016 of a 14-year-old girl belonging to the community triggered massive protests across the state, also participated in today’s morcha. Also present at the venue was Manohar Anandrao Patil from Latur district, who said he had participated in all the 58 Maratha morchas till date.
The first protest was held in Aurangabad on August 9 last year. Another protester came to the venue in the attire of a farmer in distress, with a noose dangling from his neck.
“This is an attempt to draw the government’s attention to the plight of farmers,” he said.
All parking areas in Navi Mumbai were full as morcha participants coming from across Maharashtra parked their vehicles on vacant lots. The protesters have been demanding reservation in jobs and educational institutions for members of the Maratha community, punishment for culprits in the Kopardi case and loan waivers for farmers.
Though the authorities anticipated between five to eight lakh Marathas to arrive, there were no official crowd estimates available till 1 p.m. The organisers are optimistic the city march will be the crown of all morchas so far, and the figure will cross three million.
“A delegation of Maratha leaders will call on the Chief MInister to submit a memorandum listing their various demands. Though there are many issues, stress will be on education and job reservations for the Maratha community members,” said former Chief Minister Narayan Rane, a prominent Maratha leader himself.
He headed a special committee appointed by the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party regime to study the socio-economic conditions of the Maratha community.
Wednesday’s procession has secured the support of all political parties with even the NDA constituents Shiv Sena and Republican Party of India-A announcing their support late on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Maratha Morcha into Mumbai from the five entry points from across the mainland, besides the railways, resulted in huge traffic jams in the city and adjacent districts of Thane, Raigad and Palghar.
The demonstrators reached the state capital by trains, private vehicles, trucks, tempos and even two-wheelers, waving Maratha flags and sporting bright orange turbans.
The Mumbai police have geared up with over 7,000 personnel, including commandos, armed police, police in plainclothes, to provide security. Besides, metal detectors, dog squads and drones have been deployed to monitor security.
The police have made use of social media like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, FM radios and other platforms to provide updates on traffic to the millions of office-goers in the peak morning and evening hours.
All schools and colleges in south Mumbai were ordered shut by Education Minister Vinod Tawde for the day to ensure students were not inconvenienced during the procession.