"If we don't raise our voice, if we don't come out of our houses, how will the government know that we have an issue?" asks Bilkis Bano from Delhi.
Fondly referred to as ‘Bilkis Dadi,’ 82-year-old Bilkis Bano will brave anything - even the biting cold of Delhi winters - if it means fighting for what’s right. And it is this unflinching tenacity that’s landed her on Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ list of 2020, which alongside her, has honoured game-changers like US Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, Canadian Singer The Weeknd and Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho.
Bilkis is one of the ‘Shaheen Bagh dadis,’ the silent leaders of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and anti-National Register of Citizens (NRC) movement that broke out in India last December. Bilkis and the other dadis who pledged themselves to the iconic sit-in protest at Shaheen Bagh are widely considered to be beacons of hope for those involved in the movement.
Long before the world was learning about Bilkis Dadi, the Shaheen Bagh protest was well on its way to becoming historic, its makeshift tent attracting visitors from across India, pledging their allegiance to the cause. However, after a successful 101 days, the protests had to be temporarily disbanded due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic in March.
Despite the roadblock, Bilkis remains undeterred. Speaking to The Wire, she said, “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 Coronavirus).
On September 29, at a press conference organised by Saheli, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, National Federation of Indian Women, and others to celebrate Bilkis’ recognition by Time Magazine, she reiterated what fuels her fight: “This country is ours. We love our children and respect our elders. For this love for the younger generation, we kept sitting there.” Despite her now international acclaim, Bilkis is busy planning ahead. “The students who have been incarcerated should be released. How will they get educated behind bars?” she asks, adding that all she wishes for them is to “study” and “reach great heights”.
Keeping with the true spirit of India’s freedom movement, Bilkis’ language of protest is of love and non-violence. Addressing this at the same press conference, Vani Subramanian from Saheli states that in any other country, Bilkis would have been “felicitated by the state.”
Syeda Hameed. former member of the Planning Commission agrees, adding that Bilkis has “proven that Muslim women are strong.” To the younger women of the protest, Bilkis is a ‘comrade’ whose tireless contributions deserve to be celebrated across oceans.
Age will not limit Bilkis’ fight.
Why did Bilkis join the movement? She traces it back to December 15, when violence broke out near Jamia Millia University after a student protest against the CAA had ended in a clash with the police, the latter being accused of using excessive force to quell the resistance. In an interview with Go News, Bilkis had said: “The students there are our children. It does not matter if they are Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs; they came there to get education.”
On January 26, Bilkis, along with the mothers of Rohith Vemula and Junaid Khan, had hoisted the tricolour as hundreds flocked to Shaheen Bagh for Republic Day celebrations. A month later, news of an armed assailant firing two shots near the stage at Shaheen Bagh made headlines. Bilkis was less than 50 metres from the stage at the time. Narrating the incident to The Indian Express, she said: “We walked till the point where cartridges were found and offered prayers… These bullets don’t scare us.”
On October 7, Supreme Court gave its verdict on a batch of petitions against the anti-citizenship law protests at Delhi's Shaheen Bagh over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that cleared the parliament last year. The ruling stated, "We have to make it clear that public places cannot be occupied indefinitely whether in Shaheen Bagh (in Delhi) or elsewhere. We appreciate the right to peacefully protest and it can be (held) at designated places only.”
In response to the ruling, Bilkis dadi was quoted in the media saying, “We were just sitting on one side of the road. The other side was intentionally blocked by the Delhi police unnecessarily. We facilitated the movement of school vans and ambulances smoothly.”
Time magazine’s recognition of Bilkis Bano has restarted a positive conversation about the Shaheen Bagh Dadis, who have not forgotten the movement and not forgiven those who threaten it. Like Bilkis, the Dadis of Shaheen Bagh bid their time, standing in solidarity for an India that will be inherited by the next generation, one that will treat all of its people as equals.
(Edited by Athira Nair)