Protesting in a pandemic: National lockdown over coronavirus outbreak changes how Bilal Bagh's women carry on anti-CAA fight
On the morning of 24 March, hours after the protest site at Shaheen Bagh had been cleared by the Delhi Police, five women in Bengaluru’s Bilal Bagh sat waiting for the inevitable. It had been 46 days since they had begun their sit-in protest against the CAA, NRC and NPR, and they knew the police would come knocking any minute.
On the morning of 24 March 2020, hours after the protest site at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi had been cleared by the Delhi Police, five women in Bengaluru’s Bilal Bagh sat waiting for the inevitable. It had been 46 days since they had begun their sit-in protest against the CAA, NRC and NPR, and they knew the police would come knocking any minute. The previous night, they had announced that all activities at Bilal Bagh would be suspended for the public. But these five women, who had been sitting in since Day 1, had quarantined themselves inside a shed adjoining Bilal Bagh’s main tent. From behind a barricade (in reality, a table blocking the entrance to the shed), they were trying to keep Bilal Bagh alive.
Among the women, was 27-year-old Nasreen Syed. When I spoke to her on a video call that morning, she did not lower her surgical mask. “You can see I am wearing a mask,” she asserted. “I am using hand sanitiser. And I am taking care of myself according to what the government has told me to do.” For Nasreen and her fellow protestors, any police intervention seemed unjustified. They believed they were taking appropriate precautions for the public’s and their own safety. “We have stopped letting people come here,” Nasreen said, “There is no need for the police to come and ask us to clear out.”
When the protest had been in full-swing, this same shed was a bustling space used for namaz, and to conduct activities for children. The corner with the bookshelf had been the community library, adorned with posters made by protestors over the weeks. Now, this same space, with its bathroom and a make-shift cooking area, had allowed the women to be self-sufficient in their “quarantine protest”.
Nasreen walked outside the shed to show me that the main tent was indeed deserted. Until only a few weeks ago, crowds of women had packed themselves in here, listening to speeches delivered from a small podium. The protest had begun to thin the previous week, and the organisers had also started restricting entry because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, red and blue plastic chairs sat equidistant and empty. Upon some chairs, posters saying, “I’m right here” and “We are present” stood in for people, in an attempt to sustain the protest symbolically.
Nasreen explained that she and the other women who had stayed on at Bilal Bagh were being careful and abiding by the rules of Section 144. They had deliberately capped their gathering at five people—the same number of people, she claimed, you would find in a house. As Nasreen returned inside the shed, she showed me that the women were sitting on chairs far away from each other. “We are sitting here with precautions,” Nasreen emphasised. “We are not letting anyone inside. We are sitting here to take care of Bilal Bagh.”
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When I asked Nasreen why they wouldn’t suspend the protest temporarily and return home, she was quick to reply. “I am not sitting outside,” she said, “This is our home. We cannot leave Bilal Bagh until they repeal CAA, NRC and NPR”. For her, it was a simple matter.
Over the last few weeks, Nasreen and her comrades had been following the happenings at Shaheen Bagh over the internet. And even though Shaheen Bagh was no more, Nasreen claimed that they still found resolve in what it had stood for. Referring to the shooting and explosion at Shaheen Bagh she said, “We have seen so much injustice happening there. We have seen so much violence that now fear doesn’t matter to us anymore. Fear has died.” Nasreen explained that the riots in Delhi last month had changed how she and the other women viewed their cause. “Since people were attacked in their homes in Delhi, it has been stuck in our minds that people can come into our homes and kill us,” she said. “I am not safe in my home. And I am not safe outside my home. So why not sit on the road and tell [the government] that we are not scared?”
For Nasreen, protesting the government’s citizenship laws is not unrelated to the COVID-19 outbreak. According to her, the government’s response to the pandemic has been insufficient. She complained that the lockdowns and top-down isolation measures do not take into account poor people, especially from minority communities, who cannot stay home because they live hand-to-mouth. She said that she was now also protesting for the government to provide food and medical assistance to these minorities.
When I pointed out the magnitude of the health emergency, Nasreen clarified, “Don’t think we are taking this lightly. We are not.” Instead, she explained that the pandemic had effects on the NRC, too. She said, “The government says that they are concerned about the people, but what about the 19 lakh people in detention centres in Assam? What precautions have been taken for them?” Even in a time of widespread illness, she felt, it was important to carry on the resistance. She said, “CAA-NRC is like Corona [sic]…both are killing people.”
Mid-way through our conversation Nasreen told me the police had arrived, sticks in hand. She ended the call soon after. Over the next few hours, I followed live videos on Instagram and messages sent to me by Bilal Bagh’s organisers who were at the site. Policemen in plain clothes had arrived, asking the protesters to take down the tent. They had blocked all roads leading to Bilal Bagh and had also brought in a truck. The women argued with the police that the site was shut to the public, and that they were sitting inside the shed, so the tent should be allowed to remain. For them, the tent was a symbol of their movement.
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The police, however, reportedly said that the tent had to be taken down because of the lockdown in the state. They told the women that they could erect the tent once again, after 31 March —then the end date of the Karnataka lockdown. Soon after, women constables arrived at the scene, though there was no physical altercation between the protestors and the police.
After some discussion with the senior organisers, the women at Bilal Bagh agreed to let the tent be taken down. As workers untied the scaffolding and lowered the banners, carrying them to the waiting truck, the women began to shout slogans. They praised the women of Shaheen Bagh, they cried “Inquilab!”, they waved the national flag and sang ‘Hum Dekhenge’ together as, piece by piece, the tent that had been Bilal Bagh disappeared from around them.
Later that evening, I called Nasreen again. She was back inside the shed with the other four women. They had lowered the shutter and hung outside it a banner that reads: “Bilal Bagh: The Power & Patience of Bengaluru Women.” Nasreen sounded tired as she spoke. “We do feel bad,” she said, “What was a shamiana going to do? But we decided it was best to make a compromise.”
Though the tent has gone, the protest remains, carried on by these five women. They will continue to occupy the shed, and monitor the developments in the COVID-19 situation. They will reopen the protest to the public only when it is officially okay to do so, Nasreen said. But, she added, “After the virus emergency is over, we will still be asking the government about CAA and NRC.”
After what was a harrowing Tuesday, the women planned to catch up on sleep. In the morning, they decided, they would begin cleaning the shed. They will read books from the erstwhile community library, and they will watch the news on their phones. “We will upload on social media everything that is happening at Bilal Bagh,” Nasreen said, “As you know, Bilal Bagh does not end.”
Poorna Swami is a writer based between Bengaluru and Mumbai. Her work has appeared in The Caravan, Mint-Lounge, and Open, among other publications.
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