Mumbai, July 25 (IANS) The shutdown by Maratha groups seeking reservation evoked a mixed response on Wednesday in Mumbai and the coastal districts of Maharashtra, but ended on a violent note as police tear-gassed and caned protestors.
The state government hastily agreed to hold talks with the agitation leaders even as a protestor Jagannath Sonawane, 55, who had consumed poison in Devgaon-Rangari village in Aurangabad, succumbed in a government hospital, taking the death toll in the three-day agitation to two.
On Monday, 28-year-old Kakasaheb Dattatreya Shinde had committed suicide by jumping into the Godavari river in the same district, triggering massive protests.
Since Wednesday morning, a large groups of Maratha activists carrying saffron flags and banners took out noisy processions amid tight security in Mumbai and other districts like Palghar, Thane, Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg.
Shouting ‘Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha’, ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai’, they condemned the government for not heeding their demands over two years of peaceful agitation.
Roads were blocked in several parts of Mumbai, with an attempt to block the suburban railway at Thane. City transport buses were pelted with stones in Navi Mumbai, and private vehicular traffic stopped by protestors.
At least one protestor was injured in police caning in Navi Mumbai as it attempted to remove a blockade by a large group of Marathas and later tear-gassed to disperse them.
As per official figures, in Mumbai and Thane, at least two buses were set ablaze, while nine others were damaged in heavy stone-pelting. Tyres of another 10 were deflated.
During the shutdown, several vehicles were damaged in other parts of the state, with repercussions of the agitation felt for the second day in districts like Aurangabad, Kolhapur and Satara.
As the violence seemed to escalate, Maratha Kranti Morcha Convenor Virendra Pawar called a press conference to announce withdrawal of the stir at 3 p.m., after nearly eight hours.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis responded by saying that the state government had taken cognizance and was willing to discuss and resolve the issue.
“We have taken several decisions for the Maratha community and are committed to giving them reservation. Presently, the matter is sub judice,” Fadnavis added.
Massive traffic jams were witnessed on major roads and highways leading to Mumbai from Goa, Pune, Nashik and Ahmedabad routes.
Most shops and commercial establishments remained shut in important pockets like Dadar, Andheri, Mulund, Kanjurmarg, Borivali, Kandivali. In many other places the Maratha activists went around requesting shopkeepers to down shutters and express solidarity with their cause.
A large group of protestors blocked certain pockets on the Eastern Express Highway and Western Express Highway, disrupting normal traffic movement, as well as arterial roads in the suburbs, stopping all vehicles from plying to and from the highways.
Some protestors blocked the railway tracks at Jogeshwari but were evicted by security forces to help resume normal services after around 10 minutes, said a Western Railway spokesperson.
However, local train services on the Central Railway’s trans-harbour line were affected for over an hour due to stone-pelting on trains at Ghansoli and Thane this afternoon.
Though schools and colleges functioned normally, there were reports of drop in attendance. Mumbai’s lifeline — the suburban trains — and long-distance services largely remained unaffected while other essential services functioned smoothly.
Holding the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government responsible for the agitation, state Congress President Ashok Chavan said that it let down not only the Marathas, but also the Dhangars and the Muslims.
“For how long will you deceive the people? No more talks, now its time for action,” Chavan said.
Union Minister of State for Social Justice Ramdas Athawale said that law needs to be amended to raise the reservation cap from 50 to 70 per cent and promised to raise the issue with the National Democratic Alliance.
Wednesday’s shutdown was the second phase of agitation by the Maratha Kranti Morcha. The first phase was held spontaneously on Tuesday in most districts of northern, western and Marathwada regions of Maharashtra.
The Marathas are seeking reservation in government jobs and education, with the agitation remaining peaceful in over two years, including holding of silent processions in over a dozen districts.