The story of protests in Bilal Bagh and how it is NOT shutdown by COVID-19

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Image description: Photograph of banner for Bilal Bagh

Image description: Photograph of banner for Bilal Bagh featuring from left to right Gandhi, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and Tipu Sultan with the text in the center: Save constitution, save India: Bangalore Womxn's protest supported by students

On February 16th, 2020 I witnessed my first women-only, 24x7, sit-in protest in my city of Bangalore in India. The protest was named Bilal Bagh, it was around 200 square metres large, and in 46 days it snowballed from a protest to a highly disciplined, fervently patriotic, passionate, transformative, syncretic and firmly non-violent revolution, even as it headed on a collision course with the Indian state and, as the government claimed, the COVID-19 virus.

The Citizenship Amendment Act

But first things first. On December 11th, 2019 the Indian parliament, dominated by the Hindutva right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, passed the heavily protested Citizenship Amendment Bill into law. Briefly summarized, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) would grant Indian citizenship to immigrants from certain neighbouring countries who had entered India before 2015 (omitting Sri Lankan Tamils, however) – if they belonged to any religion except Islam. Muslim immigrants, on the other hand, would not be considered for citizenship and would be put in detention camps – concentration camps, in fact. (Some of these Muslims immigrants have probably been living in India for decades.) The law appeared to apply to Muslim immigrants only, which was terrifying enough, but the general lack of documents proving citizenship among the majority of Indian residents – the poor, the caste-oppressed, the indigenous, transgender persons, and older generations, among numerous others – revealed an even more sinister motive: to move Indian Muslims too in large numbers to detention camps, strip them of their rights, label them doubtful citizens, seize their property, separate families, etc. Unsurprising, given the Indian state’s track record with its minority Muslim population, yet a shocking, fresh wave of intensified persecution in a new form.

In 46 days it snowballed from a protest to a highly disciplined, fervently patriotic, passionate, transformative, syncretic and firmly non-violent revolution

Shaheen Bagh

Apart from the numerous stand-up and marching protests that sprang up in reaction to this new law, some consisting of thousands, a New Delhi neighbourhood, Shaheen Bagh, began a women-only, 24x7, sit-in protest on 14th December 2019 – mainly Muslim women. Their numbers grew exponentially, they invited women of all religions to join them, and soon “Shaheen Bagh” (literally, “falcon garden”) came to signify the protest rather than the neighbourhood. They made protest art, organized speeches and protest activities around the clock, and refused to move until the CAA was repealed. The governmental and right-wing backlash was huge but initially rhetorical, compared to the police brutality that other protests had faced so far.

Entering Bilal Bagh

Soon other “Baghs” began taking root all over the country, and that’s how our very own Bangalore’s Bilal Bagh (“Bilal’s garden”, named after the Prophet’s companion Bilal ibn Rabah) was born on February 8th 2020, next to the Masjid-e-Hazrath-Bilal mosque in northeast Bangalore. Initially the volunteers organizing Bilal Bagh took police permission for their protest for three days. As Bilal Bagh continued, the police began to threaten them, demanded a Rs 100,000 bond, and harassed a key organizer. As Bilal Bagh grew in numbers, news reports of such incidents dwindled, yet the police and the Karnataka state government were a constant lurking threat, we all knew, looking for the slightest excuse or non-excuse to attack Bilal Bagh.

As a non-cis woman, entering the protest site, instead of the word “women”, you would see the inclusive sign “Womxn's Protest Supported by Students” on a banner, along with the pictures of some Indian freedom fighters and pioneers of varying ideologies.

This is only the beginning of the effortless syncretism that Bilal Bagh pulled off right from the start. Even men were a part of Bilal Bagh, though they stood at the outskirts of the designated tent area unless they were volunteers, and no man sat in the sit-in protesters’ area. That was only for women and children.

Even men were a part of Bilal Bagh, though they stood at the outskirts of the designated tent area unless they were volunteers

By February 23rd, the second time I went to Bilal Bagh, they had been warmly inviting non-Muslims to attend their protest for weeks. Two women had gone on hunger strike, asking to speak to the Chief Minister of the state of Karnataka about the CAA (he ignored them) and been forced to call off their strike when their health deteriorated. I sat on the ground hedged in by women and children, mostly Muslim, and spoke to my neighbour who made small talk and then briefly expressed her despair at the government’s actions before she left at the evening azan . I giggled with two children playing, learned a few new revolutionary slogans from adults and children bursting with energy, looked at art-filled postcards petitioning the Prime Minister shown to me by enthusiastic children on site who had made them, watched women perform their usual magic of juggling children, baby bottles and activity, and listened to speeches that radiated from the heart of the endangerment felt by the Muslim community present.

Atmosphere

That evening, a Muslim school principal gave a speech in which she mentioned two Indian women warriors from the last couple of centuries to cheers from the audience, and recommended following in their footsteps. That’s when I had the realization that many of these women next to me were preparing to be injured, maimed, to sacrifice everything and die for this cause. Having once taken up the protest, they were well aware of how the Indian state likes to escalate things against peaceful protests by Muslims, as opposed to peaceful protests by upper-caste Hindus which often tend to carry less risk. Yet – and these were the two currents in the river that was Bilal Bagh – the atmosphere was full of energy, often bubbling with good humour, love and positive, almost ecstatic anger in the form of sloganeering. This was perhaps partly due to the presence of children, and mostly, I believe, because of the form of the protest itself that they had conceived, that they had determined would be loving and inclusive. This atmosphere was not traceable to any of the individual women or men volunteers, speakers or protesters present at the site, and yet, as a whole,  this was all about gender for me. Because it subverted the machismo of the Indian state – hypermasculine, majoritarian, corrupt, land-grabbing, colonial, exploiting lower caste labour, killing minorities, using rape as a tool of oppression, militarized, hierarchical, dealing capital punishment, over-policing, silencing dissent, hate-filled, spewing venom. And this subversion, for some reason, made the government uneasy.

Because it subverted the machismo of the Indian state – hypermasculine, majoritarian, corrupt, land-grabbing, colonial, exploiting lower caste labour, killing minorities, using rape as a tool of oppression, militarized, hierarchical, dealing capital punishment, overpolicing, silencing dissent, hate-filled, spewing venom.

Protesting as a Muslim

Another speech that showed what a narrow tightrope the protesters were walking: a friend outside the protest told me he heard a woman on the loudspeaker emphasizing that the protest – this protest for Muslim rights – would not allow Islamic slogans, references, or sources of strength; it would only refer to and adhere to the Indian Constitution from which Muslims and other minorities derived their rights. I respect this rule made by the protesters because it was made by them. But I admit the first question I asked myself was: do they have a choice in this Hindu-majority country? Hannah Arendt said: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.” And that matter is entirely a choice left to each protester, but hypothetically, if the protesters of Bilal Bagh chose to include Islamic slogans in their protest, if they used “La Ilaha Illallah”, would they alienate so-called secular liberals who are theoretically supposed to be tolerant of minority religions? The answer is yes. An Indian MP, Shashi Tharoor, responded to one such slogan on Twitter, wildly and randomly terming it “Islamic extremism” and “fundamentalism”, exposing the Hindu majority’s demonization of any expression of Muslim religious sentiments and prompting two thoughtful critical essays that make room for the reader to digest the choice of the Bilal Bagh protesters.

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 Social distancing at Bilal Bagh Protest

Image description: Social distancing at Bilal Bagh Protest, women and few pairs of slippers are visible. Image source: Bengaluru Bagh Instagram page

The Isthmus

The narrow tightrope – or isthmus – walked by Bilal Bagh required a kind of acrobatics extremely hard to pull off. In Sufism the concept of Barzakh, usually understood in Islam as a sort of space between the living and the dead, is seen as “an intermediate realm or ‘isthmus’...“between the World of Corporeal Bodies and the World of Spirits”, coincidentally reflecting the trajectory of Bilal Bagh from a geographical and physical space to a space in our hearts and spirits.

The constant, heavy public scrutiny and onus on the protesting Indian Muslimah to prove herself over and over to be patriotic, secular, non-violent, incorruptible, a good mother, non-traffic-blocking, the perfect victim, law-abiding, Hindu-loving, could easily have daunted the boldest protester. At any moment the state could send a cohort of policewomen to beat her with batons, arrest her, charge her disproportionately under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, and keep her in jail indefinitely without cause. The state does this with impunity.

The students and volunteers, however, somehow, took their precariously balanced protest forward. They must have been under tremendous pressure from various directions. But external pressures weren’t their only issue.

Logistics of a 24x7 Protest

I probably understood a tiny fraction of the logistical effort being put into the protest. As I understand it, the infrastructure – the tent, loudspeakers and microphones, chairs, stage, electrical connection, CCTV cameras (for security), a makeshift kitchen, portable toilets, shops in the Hazrath Bilal Masjid Complex that were shut down by shopkeepers to make space for this protest – were all voluntarily donated by the community. A separate space was kept for children to do their homework, make art and read. Hundreds of protesters were fed 3-4 meals a day, for which no financial donations were accepted. (In general, too, financial donations were not accepted by the organizers). Donations of food, however, were accepted for these meals. Student volunteers, we were told, carried a change of clothes in their bags, went to college, wrote exams, slept for an hour or two at home, came to Bilal Bagh, studied right there and slept right there. Other volunteers – some had sacrificed their livelihoods to volunteer – stayed on-site in shifts, on the lookout for trouble, organizing food, plastic packets of water, taking care of a million big and little things. Not to mention the effort that goes into planning speeches and stage events for 24 hours in a day.

Student volunteers, we were told, carried a change of clothes in their bags, went to college, wrote exams, slept for an hour or two at home, came to Bilal Bagh, studied right there and slept right there.

The Delhi Pogrom

On February 26th evening, after a few long days (that would continue for a few more days) of Muslims being assaulted, burned and murdered in northeast Delhi and their homes, shops and mosques being set on fire – a state-sponsored backlash against peaceful anti-CAA protests – Bilal Bagh, which had been conducting night-time candlelight vigils for the victims of the massacre, put out a call that it wished to host an inter-faith prayer evening. I understood from hints on social media that they felt strongly about this event. That evening, non-Muslim women protesters turned up in waves at Bilal Bagh.

Possibly the first-ever religious group to officially show solidarity with Bilal Bagh were the Sikhs from the nearby gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) on February 23rd. Today though, on February 26th, a Christian pastor performed a short service sealed by “Amen”, some Hindu chants were recited, a Sikh on stage asked us to repeat some common Sikh clarion calls after him, and a short chapter of the Quran was read out; the people representing these four religions were standing together on the stage. I don’t know if this show of solidarity made the organizers of Bilal Bagh feel less alone. The crowd raised the slogan “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian – all are sisters and brothers”. We dispersed as the night progressed and women had to go home, leaving only the all-nighters behind.

The day after the inter-faith prayer I visited Bilal Bagh again. More reports had been pouring in of the continuing atrocities in Delhi. An elderly Muslim woman I was sitting next to hesitantly began speaking to me as she finished her dinner. She had seen the horrific photo that had come to represent the massacre and asked me gently, in horrified wonder: what were they doing, how could they do that, how could they beat that man up like that? She told me she had diabetes, high BP and leg pain. I asked how she could sit here for hours like that. “They [the organizers] are doing all this for us only,” she said.

Over the next few days, I noticed the speeches given by the organizers and volunteers were full of pain and yes, anger – but not the kind of hate-filled, out-of-control, black, blind fury that I considered highly justified in the circumstances and that I felt myself. Instead, to my bafflement, they disciplined and channelled their anger back into the protest; their words themselves were nonviolent as their speeches emphasized their continuing belief in the potential of India and the Indian Constitution and differentiated between the perpetrators of the pogrom and “true Hindus”, who would not persecute Muslims as these purported impostors had in the Delhi pogrom.

Instead, to my bafflement, they disciplined and channelled their anger back into the protest

I could not tolerate Hinduism, the religion I was born into that formed the basis of caste and did not know how to coexist with minorities. Similarly, speeches and slogans in Bilal Bagh contained a lot of patriotism and the Indian flag waved everywhere – but the only form of patriotism I understood was love for people. I could not love the Indian state that had perpetrated so many atrocities. I had hate in my heart, which I do not consider an immediately bad thing – but Bilal Bagh as a whole had a lot less than me. I am still scratching my head over this, and the government probably is too.

Dalit-Muslim Unity

The organizers who gave interviews to the press were very clear that Bilal Bagh was organized by volunteers and students and had no affiliations with any political party. The range of speakers invited to speak over 46 days, with varying ideologies, included, among others: politicians, MLAs and MPs from all over the country, prominent anti-caste activists, a political scientist, historians, a Bollywood actor, a 102-year-old freedom fighter, a local Hindu doctor, a well-known Hindu swami who is a politician and human rights activist, a human rights activist, a trans man who also volunteered at Bilal Bagh, lawyers, a Muslim woman from North India who carried her baby around in a carrier, a former civil servant who had resigned in protest. Musicians and theatre artists came to perform. Children and volunteers recited poetry and sang songs.

On March 12th, two prominent Indian Dalit leaders visited Bilal Bagh and spoke about the CAA and the anti-caste movement. The anti-caste slogan “Jai Bhim!” was raised by the (mostly Muslim) Bilal Bagh protesters that evening, as it usually was every evening. One of the two leaders, the South Indian MP Dr Thol. Thirumavalavan began his speech with:

“The government is planning to push one set of people [Muslims] out, ostracise them, oppress them. We will never let them do it. Earlier only Dalits said ‘Jai Bhim’. Now, because of the Modi government, Muslims too are saying ‘Jai Bhim’. This is the biggest blow to the Modi government, that Dalits and Muslims are coming together and saying ‘Jai Bhim’. This is their failure and their slide downwards. This protest must continue because their biggest aim is to kill the Constitution. This is why our Muslim brethren are here protesting and fighting, and we must never let them (the government) get away with it because if we must protect the nation, we must protect the Constitution.”

Earlier only Dalits said ‘Jai Bhim’. Now, because of the Modi government, Muslims too are saying ‘Jai Bhim’.

Again, Bilal Bagh had united different groups with its usual alchemy, but this time Dalit and Muslim activists had come together under its tent – a great achievement, as pointed out by Dr Thirumavalavan.

The COVID-19 virus

On March 13th, Karnataka’s Chief Minister Yediyurappa announced that malls, cinema theatres, schools, colleges, public gatherings etc. would be shut down to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Those who make the rules are allowed to break them: the Chief Minister himself attended a large wedding two days later. However, as usual, public scrutiny fell on Bilal Bagh, who had to answer to the press. Bilal Bagh was continuing its protest, making hand sterilisers and face masks, and saying, as some Muslims were, that they could take precautions against the COVID-19 virus but they could not stop the deadly CAA virus unless they protested. On March 16th, Bangalore’s police commissioner said that Bilal Bagh is not a priority for him and he wasn’t going to shut down the protest site.

By 23rd March, Bilal Bagh had taken full precautions against COVID-19: it had reduced its number from hundreds to half a dozen women, sitting a few metres apart, covering their mouths with masks/hijabs. Other women were protesting “symbolically” in the manner of Shaheen Bagh in the COVID-19 context: they had left their footwear or placards behind in their place. Bilal Bagh had been closed to the public.

Other women were protesting “symbolically” in the manner of Shaheen Bagh in the COVID-19 context: they had left their footwear or placards behind in their place. Bilal Bagh had been closed to the public.

Imagine our surprise and shock, then, when we woke up on March 24th to the news that Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, which had been taking every precaution against COVID-19, was being bulldozed to the ground by the police and the few volunteers on site were being arrested. Shaheen Bagh had reduced their numbers drastically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the police took advantage of this to quietly destroy it. The government had been waiting for months to destroy Shaheen Bagh and had finally got its chance. Of course, they claimed that this was due to the virus. A few hours later, on its 46th day, Bilal Bagh met the same fate. It was cleared out by the police and its tent taken down, despite the police commissioner’s assurances, as I saw with a sinking heart on Instagram. Bilal Bagh decided to take their revolution online with this message:

"Bilal Bagh shamiana [tent] and the road has been cleared but the protest shall continue with five people in the vicinity of the protest area. The women have raised their voice again, and they have taken an oath to not leave the place until the pandemic has passed. And we promise to come back stronger. 46 days and counting!"

Humanitarian Efforts

As soon as Bilal Bagh’s revolution went online in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, they plunged into fundraising and distributing food and supplies to the poor, who had been left to starve in the badly planned COVID-19 lockdown, announced by PM Modi on March 24th night. For me, this revealed a little more of what Bilal Bagh had been all along and why their open, loving attitudes had puzzled me. Bilal Bagh was, it seemed, many things: a physical place, a student group, a protest, a revolution, a humanitarian effort, a unifying force, and who knew what else. It seemed they had crossed that narrow isthmus, the Barzakh, and reached the other side, where an open vista of possibility awaited them – where, having planted themselves firmly in all our spirits and hearts, only their physical presence (the tent) could be erased by the police. The Kashmiri artist Mir Suhail captures this in his portrayal of Bilal Bagh’s mother-protest Shaheen Bagh, which he annotates with a quote from the poet Allama Iqbal:

“Tu Shaheen Hai, Parwaz Hai Kaam Tera
Tere Samne Aasman Aur Bhi Hain

You are an eagle, to fly is your vocation:
You have other skies stretching out before you.”

You are an eagle, to fly is your vocation:
You have other skies stretching out before you.”

Update: The six women at Bilal Bagh site are still going strong despite Ramzan ❤️ and in spite of many forces attempting to shut down the protest.