After the march, a delegation of six girls from the Maratha community met Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis at the Vidhan Bhavan
After the march, a delegation of six girls from the Maratha community met Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis at the Vidhan Bhavan

Nagpur: After seeing hordes of protesters turn up for their silent marches across the state, the Maratha community was expecting 25 lakh people to show up for its 4-km march to Vidhan Bhavan in Nagpur on Wednesday. Far from showing up in droves, around 24 lakh protesters decided to sit this one out.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis held talks with six girls from the community, who said the community would respond to the government in ballots, not bullets if their demands were not met.

The unofficial figures of the crowd varied between 30,000 to 1 lakh. They silently walked to Vidhan Bhavan, where a group of ministers took the delegation of six girls to the CM for their first-ever interaction with state’s political leadership.

Promises win hearts?
More than 100 Maratha legislators from all parties and ministers participated in the march. But a low turnout made people in the government believe that either the measures announced in the legislature last week had won hearts of Marathas or the community leaders had weakened the organising capacity in view of factors such as attempt to politicise the agitation by a section of the group. Previous Maratha marches found success because they rejected political interference and allowed a new crop of young activists to lead from the front.

Ballot and bullet
Initiated by the six Maratha girls, the interaction became heated when one of the delegates told the CM that her community would not respond through bullet but through ballot if their demands were not met by the government. They reiterated demands for a 16 per cent quota in jobs and education, preventing misuse of Atrocities Act, implementation of the Swaminathan Commission for giving better prices to farm produce and capital punishment for the accused in the Kopardi gang rape case.

“We have come to you for the first time and we request you to not let us return empty handed,” said one of the girls. The CM explained to the delegation that the government was doing everything possible to win the case in the Bombay High Court. The girl shot back and stunned the gathering when she warned the CM, “We will respond (to you) through ballot and not through bullet if our demand for reservation is not met.”

Fadnavis said the government was committed to fulfil most of the demands. “I’m happy that you met me. In fact, I have been asking for a meeting with you for so many months because I feel your views would help us in resolving the issue. I’m ready for holding further talks with seniors in the community and preparing a concrete plan,” he said.

Lack of interest
Other reason that is attributed to low turnout was a lack of interest from the organizers who were instrumental in raising resources and mobilising the community in other cities and towns. However, some of the outsiders played an important role in mobilising people from Marathwada and western Vidarbha to travel to Nagpur.

Organisers accused the police of stopping vehicles coming from other cities and towns beyond city limits and forcing participants to walk a long distance. The march started 90 minutes late because of delayed arrivals of protesters. Police said they had to make parking arrangements far from the gathering point because the organisers had anticipated thousands of vehicles and expected 25 lakh people to attend.

There was no concrete assurance from the organisers on whether the agitation would culminate in Mumbai or the event in Nagpur was the last agitation.

The Kunbi low-show
Before the low turnout, the silent march had already faced a homegrown hurdle in Nagpur. A silent march had already been held under the banner of Sakal Maratha Samaj a month ago. The organizers of the previous event stayed away from Wednesday’s march. The organizers of today’s march then sought the Kunbi community’s association because of marginal presence of Marathas in Vidarbha. In Vidarbha, Kunbis assert the kind of political dominance Marathas do in the rest of the state. Barring a few Kunbi leaders, a large section of the community gave the march a miss. People in the know of the development said that Kunbis are already a beneficiary in the OBC reservations and fear that Marathas may eat into their share of quota. On the other hand, the community’s presence was significant in a protest march that was held in Nagpur last week.

“Primarily, the decision to rename the agitation as Maratha Kunbi March was taken by leaders from both communities. It’s always a matter of political convenience for Kunbi leaders as they call themselves Marathas when they sit with established Maratha leadership of the state. However, at the ground level, the Kunbi community as a whole treats itself as a non-Maratha community,” a senior leader told mid-day.