Mumbai: Road and rail traffic were disrupted, schools and shops remained shut, and sporadic violence was reported from various parts of Maharashtra on Wednesday, following a day-long bandh (shutdown) called by Dalit organizations protesting against alleged violence against them at a memorial event near Pune the previous day.
After a day of chaos, Prakash Ambedkar, president of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and grandson of Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar, announced at a press conference around 4.15pm that the Maharashtra bandh was being withdrawn. The bandh was called by Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and other Ambedkarite organisations.
Mumbai and its suburbs bore the brunt of the Maharashtra bandh. Railway tracks and arterial roads were blocked by Dalit activists, and the Mumbai Metro remained shut for several hours. Around 50 public transport buses of Bombay Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking were pelted with stones. Shops and business establishments remained shut and there were instances of arson and damage to public property at Ghatkopar (which includes Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar dominated by Dalits), Chembur, Dadar, Elphinstone, Sion, Mulund, Borivli, Goregaon, and Malad and towns like Thane, Kalyan, Dombivli, and Ambernath in the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Prohibitory orders under Section 144 was imposed in Thane, which adjoins Mumbai, for some hours.
Most schools and colleges remained closed, and those which opened, reported low attendance. However, the University of Mumbai decided to go ahead with 13 examinations as planned, though it allowed students to report late. Passengers were stranded at the Mumbai airport's domestic and international terminals as the strike disrupted transport.
Maharashtra bandh: 12 flights cancelled, 235 delayed at Mumbai airport
Between 11.30 am and 5 pm, Mumbai local train services on Central, Western, and Harbour lines remained totally or partially shut as Dalit activists sat on the tracks. Services resumed slowly after the Maharashtra bandh was withdrawn. Mumbai Metro’s Versova-Andheri-Ghatkopar line remained shut for nearly five hours.
Most malls and multiplexes across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region remained shut. Heavy police bandobast, apart from the Rapid Action Force, was deployed all across the metropolitan region. Major roads connecting the island city to the suburbs like Eastern Express Highway, Western Express Highway, Jogeshwari Vikhroli Link Road, Santacruz-Chembur Link Road, and Sion-Panvel Road remained blocked for several hours. Activists who protested on streets and at railway stations also included a large number of teenagers.
In several suburbs and cities, Dalit activists ordered shopkeepers and schools to close. Other cities in Maharashtra reported sporadic to significant response to the strike call. Cities like Pune, Nashik, Kolhapur, Parbhani and Kalyan reported large-scale incidences of damage to public property and verbal confrontations between Dalit activists and workers of the Shiv Sena.
The Maharashtra bandh was called to protest alleged violence against Dalits at Sanaswadi in Bhima-Koregaon on the outskirts of Pune on 1 January. Thousands of Dalits had gathered there to observe the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, in which a group of Mahar ( a Dalit caste) soldiers fought on the British side to overthrow the Peshwa rule which, according to the Dalit narrative, were their tormentors. A 30-year-old Maratha community youth Rahul Phatangade was killed in Sanaswadi on 1 January in the clashes between Dalits and Marathas. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has ordered a judicial probe by a sitting judge in the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
At Wednesday's press conference, Prakash Ambedkar, a former Member of Parliament, demanded that Sambhaji Bhide, also known as Bhide Guruji, the 85-year-old founder-chief of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, and Milind Ekbote of Samasta Hindu Aaghadi who had fought the 2014 Maharashtra elections on a Shiv Sena ticket, be booked under the same sections of the Indian Penal Code applied to Mumbai bomb blast convict Yakub Memon who was hanged in 2015.
“Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote are the main conspirators and culprits of violence against Dalits in Sanaswadi. They must be booked for murder and tried under the same sections that Yakub Memon was booked under,” Ambedkar said. On Tuesday, Anita Salve, an activist of Bahujan Republican Socialist Party in Pune, had filed a first information report (FIR) against both Bhide and Ekbote for “orchestrating violence”.
Ambedkar also claimed that Fadnavis, who holds the home portfolio, was aware of the complicity of these two individuals in the violence at Pune. Ambedkar alleged that some Hindu organizations, which he did not name, were trying to create anarchy. The Dalit leader also claimed that the strike was not supported by Dalits alone, and people from other castes and communities had also participated.
Bhide, a former physics professor at Pune’s Fergusson College, is considered close to both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met him in Sangli, his hometown in Western Maharashtra, during the campaigning for the 2014 general elections and lauded his organisation’s work.
The issue was also raised in the Parliament which is holding its winter session. The Congress accused the BJP and its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of fuelling violence against Dalits and demanded that Modi make a statement in Parliament clarifying his stand. The party also demanded the formation of a commission of inquiry by a sitting Supreme Court judge on the Pune clashes.
Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, accused the BJP-RSS of “conspiring to divide people” on caste and religious lines. "We demand that the prime minister, who shows sympathy for Dalits during polls, should clarify his position inside Parliament on violence against Dalits,” he told reporters outside Parliament. Kharge also accused the BJP government in Maharashtra of having “failed” to control violence as it did not make proper arrangements in Bhima-Koregaon.
Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad dubbed the BJP and the RSS as “anti-Dalit”. He also accused the government of “suppressing” the voice of the opposition in Parliament as live proceedings of both Houses were not telecast. "We had given adjournment notice in the Rajya Sabha for taking up the issue of violence against Dalits in Maharashtra, but our voice was suppressed and live telecast was stopped,” he told reporters.
The Rajya Sabha proceedings were disrupted following protests over the issue of caste violence in Maharashtra, with the House witnessing three adjournments with opposition parties like Congress and BSP seeking a discussion on it.
PTI contributed to this story.