The sound of the mid-day azzan from the speakers of the local mosque, Masjid-E-Hazrath, made its rounds of the relatively narrow Tannery road in Bengaluru, overcrowded with small shops and vegetable vendors on either side. Local shopkeepers had gathered in front of the shamiana to help Warsi, one of the many women organisers at Bilal Bagh for the peak lunch-hour rush.
She would engage with all of the resident protestors and arriving student activists who were making their way in.
Many had come to Bilal Bagh for the first time but everyone there had come to protest the draconian NRC-CAA which was passed by the BJP-led government in December of 2019.
It was not too long ago that Warsi herself had taken to hunger strike in protest. She recalled, “I fasted for a total of eighty hours, along with a friend- she fasted for sixty eight hours”. “Without any water, that too”, she had said, while handing out water bottles to arriving protestors. She had put off my other questions and had signaled for me to take a seat with the other arrivals. “How can our voices be heard all the way till Delhi if we don’t have a good lunch!”
This had been days after the riots that took place in Delhi in February 2020. The realities of so many in North-east Delhi seemed to be on the minds of everyone’s at Bilal Bagh.
A hum of solidarity was wafting through the air, much like the azaan and the sound of impatient footsteps.
The woman helping Warsi had ushered me to join the other protestors for lunch, gesturing to the expanded seating beside the shamiana. This was Fatima, a resident of Bilal Bagh. She told me that she runs a store a few minutes away from the mosque and that she had sponsored the water bottles for today’s protest.
The protesters were being served karibevu soppu anna along with a juice box. All the food and other resources here were provided by local food shop owners like Fatima.
Bilal Bagh is overlooked by the various figures from whom the protest derives its meaning. Much like Warsi and Fatima, protestors seemed to be welcomed by images of Gandhi, Amdedkar and Tipu Sultan.
Many arriving here were taken aback upon seeing Tipu Sultan alongside the father of the nation and the beloved chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. Reclaiming and participating in creating history had become unsurprising to the resident protestors here, who had come to expect such reactions by now.
At the time of reporting, the protest was ongoing for over 30 days now, around the clock, backed by the students as well as the fellow community members of Muslim Colony.
“The number of protesters attending have started to dwindle and therefore we had to fast to revive the anger among them to protest once again”, Warsi had said.
But unlike other protests that we have come to be familiar with, the protests at Bilal Bagh was headed mainly by Muslim women. The goal of the protest was to educate, agitate and organise, in true Amdedkarite fashion. The protestors had set out to make the protest an autonomous entity to challenge the fascist tendencies and legislations of the ruling government.
“We stand in solidarity with the women of Shaheen Bagh and vehemently against the NRC-CAA-NPR discourse”, said Syed. He was head of the student union head and one of the volunteers here at Bilal Bagh.
There had been increasing accounts of police pressures on the protestors to wind up the protests, especially during the initial days.
“The police told us we could not protest because we did not own the speakers, the shamiana or the chairs”, Syed had said. The community at Bilal Bagh had therefore proceeded to pool in money to buy all of the objects, and thereby reduce the risk of police pressure. The police, however, found other ways.
Despite such pressures and limitations to its full fruition, the community of protestors and the dedicated student volunteers had managed to curate a library for people to understand the essence and the relevance of the protest.
The second wave of problems however came when the police went forward to pressure the local mosque, to disallow protestors to use the restrooms in Bilal Bagh, citing divisive religious politics.
When asked, Syed had explained that “they appealed to the elders at the mosque to disallow any non-Muslims from using the bathrooms, but after negotiations we are now allowed to use the ones there. Additionally, we also have set up facilities for portable toilets here itself”.
The wall behind Syed was full of posters, some made in Bilal Bagh and many others donated by other student protestors.
”As the number of people increased with protests, the police interference has reduced.” This sounded like a sigh of relief but Syed however, was concerned as the numbers of protestors were dipping yet again. Syed worried that this might lead to a fresh set of problems for the protesters. His apprehensions were justified, as everyone in Bilal Bagh would go on to find out.
The Bilal Bagh protest was at the time being carried though without permits from the local police station. However, Sadik, another organiser, had asserted, “It is our basic right to voice our dissent”.
Sadik had helped clean up that day after the lunch hour ended and people started moving into the main shamiana. Another young volunteer helped Sadik in removing the table cloths, which when closely observed, revealed anti NRC-CAA slogans. The protest would stop for none, even when it’s time to fuel up during lunch. The post-lunch sloganeering was started off by a few evocative speeches that held the same sentiments as the ones on the table cloths of Bilal Bagh.
Warsi was seen taking her position in front to start the sloganeering.
“Jab mahila karti hai, Sarkar ki kursi hilti hai”, she yelled, and the women emphatically chimed back in unison. (Translation: When women protest, the government’s chair shakes.)
The space that would otherwise have been mistaken for a family function, stood as an example of dissent with all the voices of the many women reverberating all across the neighborhood. Many of the women sloganeering were also simultaneously creating a tapestry of sorts.
“This is the aman ki razai”, Hasina, one of the protestors from the neighborhood, had explained. She said, “We are sending this to Shaheen Bagh to show our support to our sisters in Delhi, especially now because of the riots there, and also for them to have something for the approaching winter.”
Bilal Bagh hosted many reputable speakers, such as Ramchandra Guha, who had said “As a historian by profession, I concern himself with momentous moments in history. But the women of Bilal Bagh are creating history themselves”.
Guha’s sentiment was extremely palpable. Bilal Bagh felt like a small sustainable underground resistance to protect democracy-only more unabashed and bold. “A lot of students come in in the evening after their colleges close for the day”, explained Hasina. “They of course come to be a part of the protest but also to hear the speakers who come in from time to time”.
There were many other notable public figures such as Naseeruddin Shah, and activists like Shabnam Hashmi, Jignesh Mewani and other lesser known figures from the Dalit and LGBTQIA+ community, who also participated and showed their solidarity with the protests at Bilal Bagh.
These events had been accompanied with several other events to boost the morale among the protesters who remained here around the clock protesting after the speakers and the students had left. Its goal remained the same-attract more protesters and bolstering the cause.
Hasina herself was a first time protestor. “I have never participated in a protest before because there has always been something more important” she said, “but now this affects everyone and if we don’t stand up now, it would be too late”.
“It is a matter of privilege to remain silent”, said Hanumesh, who had come representing the All India Democratic Student Organization (AIDSO). “It’s time to stand for those that have been marginalized and whose voices have been systematically silenced”.
Bilal Bagh had been one of the only spaces of protest outside of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, headed and initiated by women, which also accommodated queer, dalit and north-eastern perspectives on the matter. Not only did it create a space for the marginalised sections, it also altered the existing protest culture in the nation. It created a space for women to voice their dissent and their opinion. This took precedence over the anger of men, which had become a norm in spaces of protest and activism.
The outrage over the NRC-CAA-NPR removed the ‘cultural’ restrictions placed on a woman and a newer model was adopted in its place. This model allowed for women to be involved in politics and invested in matters of the public sphere. This newer, more inclusive model of protest had come closer to the mainstream norm within dissent with the coming of more such sporadic movements.
The Bilal Bagh protests came to a close in late March of 2020 as cops were seen clearing the space and taking down the shamiana. Towards the end of 2020, the Indian farmers, men and women alike, marched to Delhi protesting the three central farm legislations that they didn’t ask for or were consulted with before passing. These imposed legislations have been a trigger for thousands of farmers from North India who are camped at the Singhu border asking that the farm laws be repealed.
Bilal Bagh stands as a strong reminder of the role of woman, who have up until this time been seen as passive and apolitical. Even still, the Supreme Court has asked women protestors and the elderly to go back even though so much of the agrarian labor is carried out by these very women. This ruling by the apex court perpetuates the same notions that the women in Bilal Bagh were determined to break. The women protestors at the farmer’s protest carry the same outrage and share the same precarious position if legislations remain unchanged.
The resilience of these protestors is a testament to the power of solidarity and a story this country should get used to hearing, because these women are not backing down and nor should they.
Roheet Bose is a final year student studying at Azim Premji University in Bangalore.
All images as provided by the author.