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Bilkis Dadi: Conspirator for the State, Inspiration for Indian Women

The hundred days of light and hope that was Shaheen Bagh cannot be extinguished by official slander and police chargesheets.

What does Bilkis’s place on TIME magazine’s list of 100 most influential people mean for the Shaheen Bagh movement and the future of democratic resistance in India?

“CAA ki ladaai abhi khatm nahi hui hai, lekin pehle hamein Corona se ladna hai” (The fight against CAA is not over yet, but we have to first fight Corona Virus), Bilkis told The Wire.

The 82-year old woman was one of the most venerable faces of the protest movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens. Bilkis and the other elderly women who participated in the iconic sit-down protest became symbols of resistance and hope.

By opening an easier path for refugees to become citizens of India provided they are not Muslim, the CAA violated a key Article of the Indian constitution that guarantees equality before the law to all persons – including refugees and migrants – and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, caste or gender.

Though the CAA by itself does not affect the status of Indian citizens, the insistence that beneficiaries must be non-Muslim marks the first formal endorsement of Muslim marginalisation in India. The informal targeting of Muslims that went on for the past almost six years has now got a legal stamp on it.

The protests against the CAA erupted just days after parliament passed the law. After the police violence against students at Jamia Millia Islamia on December 15, Muslim women from the neighbouring area of Shaheen Bagh came out to peacefully protest. Gradually, their protest attracted others ­– men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims – united in their common quest for equality and justice.

During those 100 days of protest that was popularly known as Shaheen Bagh movement, India witnessed something completely unprecedented. Muslim women, who until then were being seen as powerless and oppressed and in immediate need of a saviour to liberate them from the clutches of their regressive traditions and oppressive families, were now aspiring to lead a country of 1.3 billion people towards a renaissance.

Six months after the protests ended, the tragic irony is that a movement being recognised and celebrated at the global stage, has been criminalised by the Indian state. To avoid laying the blame for the Delhi riots at the doors of those politicians who willed it, the Delhi Police has advanced the far-fetched theory that Shaheen Bagh and the entire anti-CAA protest was part of a ‘terrorist’ plot to engineer large-scale riots ‘at suitable time’. For the state, the Gandhian-Ambedkarite revolutionaries of Shaheen Bagh were all part of a to overthrow the government.

Given this vicious pushback – which has seen the anti-CAA protesters being jailed – it is tempting to believe the anti-CAA movement eventually achieved nothing. But this is not the case.

To understand the outcome of the movement and what the latest global recognition means for the Shaheen Bagh movement and the future of dissent and resistance in India, we have to take a longer view back.

Narendra Modi’s second tenure as prime minister of India began with the passing of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill. The enthusiasm and speed with which the Modi government prioritised the Bill set the tone and agenda for his second tenure. Soon came the amendment to Article 370 and the demotion and division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in to two Union territories. Then, the Supreme Court’s verdict clearing the way for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and then the passing of the CAA.

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With a brute majority in parliament and a defeated and demoralised political opposition, the BJP and RSS were racing to fulfil their century old fantasies of reducing India’s Muslim minority to second class citizens and turning India, a secular-liberal democracy, into an illiberal Hindu Rashtra. But what the BJP and RSS did not bargain for was the resistance to their project, least of all from a community they thought they had throttled. The fact that the protests against the CAA were led by Muslim women – whom the BJP was trying to patronise a few months earlier by projecting Narendra Modi as their ultimate saviour – was a reminder of the limits to which the prime minister’s carefully crafted image could be used to sell anything.

In essence, the protests by Muslim women was like a wall standing between India’s secular democracy and the Hindu Rashtra the Sangh parivar would like to impose. Brick by brick, a non-descript, low-profile Muslim mohallah – Shaheen Bagh – rose from the dust and emerged on the international map to represent the sentiments of millions of people. It gave a voice and platform to the people who had been systemically alienated over a period of six years and saw themselves standing at the verge of total disenfranchisement. In the face of this existential threat, the women found extraordinary courage and determination. Challenging the warped logic of the Hindutva ideologues who equate citizenship with religious identity, they reclaimed the country of their ancestors.

The words of a teary-eyed Yasmeen still ring in my ears when she adamantly said that her ancestors are buried in the soil of India and so will she. A firm believer in the liberal traditions and syncretic culture of the country, she had even named her son Aakash Ahmed. I was moved when I met her during the coverage of Shaheen Bagh where Yasmeen used to come every day from Saket to protest with her two college-going daughters, Husna and Rehnuma.

The CAA is a central part of the Modi government’s Hindu nationalist agenda. The fact is the protest movement could not stop the government from going ahead with the law and as long as polarisation of people on religious lines ensures it remains in power, the Modi government may well continue to oppress and persecute India’s Muslims for the rest of its tenure. The basic principle of resistance is that it takes place not because there is a guarantee of success or assurance of the end of tyranny but because injustices and immoralities have to be resisted.

As India goes down the black hole of authoritarianism, what is remarkable is that this descent is not going unchallenged. Yes, grim projections are being made about the survival of Indian democracy, at least in the form and shape that our nation-builders conceived of it. But when historians write the story of our times, India’s most disempowered and oppressed will go down in history as people who fought and ‘raged against the dying of the light’. Bilkis Bano and the other dadis of Shaheen Bagh will not ‘go gentle into that good night.’ Surely that’s enough for the rest of us to take heart.