Updated: Jan 23
New Delhi: Bilkis Bano watched her grandchildren pottering around with pencils and crayons in their hands, and reminisced about her days at the Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest, one year ago.
The 82-year-old, who was married when she was seven-years-old and never had a chance to attend school, said the three-month long movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019 had taught her how important it was for women to leave the house and make themselves heard.
“I’ll just say that women should get out of their houses whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh. If you leave your house, only then will you grow and live life,” she said. “If you sit at home, life will pass you by.”
Muslim women like Bilkis became the face of the anti-CAA movement, sitting day after day on public roads of Delhi to oppose a law that makes religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship.
The octogenarian, named in Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in 2020 and BBC's Top 100 Women for 2020 List, said that she joined the movement to oppose the Delhi Police attacking Jamia Millia Islamia University students on 13 and 15 December. A mother to seven children and 18 grandchildren, she said that she learnt about the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise to identify people living without documents in India, in the subsequent weeks. The movement ended after communal violence erupted in Delhi in the last week of February, killing 53 people, most of them Muslim.
In this interview, Bilkis looked back at the longest people’s movement since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, and how she emerged as its daadi (grandmother). “I know many more things now. The protest made me stronger. It is a good feeling,” she said.
Do you feel happy or sad when you look back at Shaheen Bagh?
A. I feel happy remembering it. There was love and friendship in our Shaheen Bagh. Brother and brother sat together. Sister and sister sat together. It was peaceful.
When did you first hear of NRC and CAA?
A. After they attacked our children in Jamia. I thought that the government doesn’t listen to us. The police are attacking our children. That is when I first sat in Shaheen Bagh. I thought we elders are alive today and they are attacking our children. What will happen when we are gone? It doesn’t matter if they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh. We will stand by everyone who is hurting. They say that Muslim women don’t know anything and they can only stay behind doors. But when the time comes, we can also come out, we can also speak out, we can give birth, we can raise children, and we can educate them.
What were the early days of the protest like?
A. There were few people first — around 50 — who sat at the protest site and then they increased. There was fear that the police would beat us and chase us away, but we found our courage and sat down. First, there were no mattresses. We just sat on cloth. When it started raining, we got chairs. Later, we got blankets. I would go there at eight in the morning and return the next day at around noon or one. So many people came and went from the protest site, but I was not afraid. The day when a man fired a gun, I was not afraid. People said, ‘go to Pakistan.’ We said, ‘but we don’t belong to Pakistan. Why should we go to Pakistan?’ We were born here, we have lived here, and we will die here.
What happened at Jamia shook you.
A. I couldn’t bear it. Children from all over the country come to study at Jamia. It is prestigious. People from the university have gone on to do big things. These children are important to us. Someone will become a judge, a lawyer, an MLA. They have to study to become these things. It is a miracle of Allah, that without studying, I got the chance to experience all that I experienced in the 101 days that I sat at Shaheen Bagh. I’ve realised that demanding justice will never hurt anyone. It could pinch for some time, but then you can’t hide what is true for very long. If we don’t come out and demand our rights, how will the government listen to us. If we stay inside our homes, how will the government know what we want to say.
What do you think of the CAA-NRC?
A. We call it the kala kanoon — (black law). Why did they have to pass it? Why not keep things as they are. So many governments have come and gone, there has never been so much tension. We have our documents, land, tractors, and a well. But what about those people who don’t have documents. What about the rickshaw wallahs and labourers. They are struggling to feed their families. They don’t have documents. Every year, there is flooding in Bihar. Those folks lose everything they have. They are poor and work hard to survive. How will they show documents? People should not get left behind. Everyone should prosper.
The students and activists who organised the movement are now in jail in connection with the Delhi riots.
A. They should be released. This is my plea. If they are out of jail, they will study. If they are out of jail, I’m sure they will make the country proud. Inside jail, they will be wasted. Inside jail, morning turns to evening and evening turns to morning. That is all.
What do you remember most about the movement?
A. Unfurling the national flag in Shaheen Bagh on Republic Day. The crowd was huge, just huge that day. I never in my life thought that I would ever be in the middle of something so big and important in my life. Unfurling our country’s flag and so many people watching.
What else did you like about the movement ?
A. I went for a day to Kerala and three days to Kolkata. It was the first time that I had traveled anywhere. I really liked both places. People gave me a lot of love. I know many more things now. The protest made me stronger. It is a good feeling. I’ve started watching a lot of news. I made a lot of friends at Shaheen Bagh. I got to travel. I got famous. The country came to know me. What else can one ask for?
Critics said that Muslim women were being paid to sit at Shaheen Bagh.
A. This is wrong. I have not gone one rupee for sitting there. One woman sat with her 20 day old baby. The day there was the shooting, people started running, but I never moved from my spot. I knew we were doing the right thing in sitting there.
What difference has this movement made in the lives of the women who were part of the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh.
A. I’ll just say that women should get out of their houses whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh. If you leave your house, only then will you grow and live life. Only then will you be recognised and heard. If you sit at home, life will pass you by. This is true. Listen to me.
Do you think there will be more protests over the CAA?
A. I’m not thinking about it at the moment. If it happens in the future, I will sit again.
Home Minister Amit Shah has said there will be no NRC.
A. They should give it in writing. We can’t rely on just verbal assurance. They are saying something today but what if they decide to do it tomorrow.
Hindus and Muslims have always had problems. What is the difference between then and now.
A. The difference between then and now is the difference between the sky and land. Earlier if there was a disagreement between Hindus and Muslims, it would be about in that area and it would end after some time. But now it seems as if hatred has been sown in the hearts. It has become part of life. Now, one is always afraid — who is who and who might ask what. That is the fear. There is too much hate. The Partition at the time of the British was very sad. But what is the point of dividing us further. We should all live peacefully now.
You said PM Modi is like your son.
A. I meant it. He is my son. He should listen to me.
How did you like speaking with the media?
A. I’ve enjoyed it. Allah, thankfully, has given me a brain. I spoke with my heart, but I also thought about what I was saying.
People call you the face of the movement. Civil society groups call you for events. Do you like it?
A. I like it. I’m happy to go when people invite me. I’m happy that people listen to me.
What did you think about being recognised by Time Magazine?
A. My fifth son told me about it. I have not seen the magazine yet. We could not find it in the market. I’m waiting for a copy. I’m thankful to Allah that I got recognition just because I sat at Shaheen Bagh for 101 days. Everyone calls me, ‘daadi, daadi.’ I’ve received so much respect.
That first day at Shaheen Bagh—did you imagine it would be such a big thing?
A. I could never even have imagined it in my dreams.
(Betwa Sharma is an independent journalist who covers politics and civil liberties. She was the politics editor at HuffPost India)