On December 11, 2019 the Parliament of India passed The Citizenship Amendment Act that provides citizenship to illegal immigrants from three bordering countries that are not Muslims. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can apply for citizenship. The bill’s critics argue it is discriminatory and break the democratic values enshrined in the Indian constitution.
Thousands of Indians protested against the proposed law on citizenship as well as potential proposals for a National Registry of Citizens. The protestors argued that the steps are an assault on a democratic constitution and on Muslim ethnic communities. All over India, tens of thousands of people came out into the streets to demonstrate their opposition to the CAA, with a heavy focus on upholding the constitution.
The protests were not explicitly limited to minority educational establishments or to any particular community. A Muslim middle-class community in New Delhi emerged as the epicenter and the face of anti-CAA protests across India. The infamous Shaheen Bagh sit-in peaceful protest began on December 14, 2019 and lasted for 101 days. The protests were halted on 24 March as Delhi Police vacated the area due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Shaheen Bagh’s distinguishing feature was the protesting women. Young, elderly, from villages to urban cities, women not only took part but also led the demonstrations.
Even as Delhi braved its coldest winter in over a century, for over three months, 82-year-old Bilkis, with a smile on her face and a shawl around her shoulders, sat under a canopied tent with hundreds of women at the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA/NRC sit-in protest in the national capital. Within days, the emblem of defiance and hope became Bilkis and the other elderly women who participated in the demonstration, and became fondly known as the “Dadis of Shaheen Bagh.” TIME magazine has now included Bilkis in its list of ‘The 100 most influential people of 2020.’
India experienced something entirely unprecedented during those 101 days of agitation, which was popularly known as the Shaheen Bagh movement. Until then, Muslim women, who were seen as powerless and oppressed and in urgent need of a saviour to free them from the clutches of their regressive customs and patriarchal families, now aspired to lead a nation of 1.3 billion people to a revolution.
The most disempowered and marginalised of India will go down in history as individuals who battled and raged against the dying of the sun when historians write the tale of our times. Bilkis Bano and Shaheen Bagh’s other dadis are not going to go gently into that good night. Certainly that’s enough to take heart for the rest of us.