On September 23, when TIME magazine released its list of ‘100 Most Influential People 2020’ and cast Bilkis Bano, the face of the 101-day Shaheen Bagh protests against the citizenship law, alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was a marketing master stroke. It made that issue of TIME irresistible to critics and supporters alike of the two personalities and what each represented.
Yet, in thus honouring Bilkis Dadi—who became the iconic face of the protests in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which inspired the longest and most widespread non-violent demonstrations against a dubious law in post-Independence India—the magazine compelled attention to her cause. It also compelled attention to less celebrated facets of how diversity, democratic expression and dissent is unravelling in a “New India” reeling under unprecedented state repression in some parts and on certain issues.
In doing so, TIME globalised the Shaheen Bagh dadis who were vocal about the local (and made it national), albeit in a way not even remotely conceived by those who coined and popularised “vocal for local”. Some six months after the government, like in many other, especially developing countries, exploited Covid-19 and the lockdown it entailed to stifle civil society and its articulations on issues of national concern, the news magazine has refocused attention on an issue that remains unresolved; and, can be ignored only at peril to the citizenship status of millions of Indians.
The magazine’s focus on Bilkis Dadi draws attention to what the sound and fury of the anti-CAA protests signify—even more so now than six months ago. The state and its agencies, particularly Delhi Police which comes under the Union Home Ministry, have put the interregnum to ruthless use.
In an all-out bid to discredit if not detain activists, intellectuals and students and women who played a prominent role in the anti-CAA protests and resisted attacks on JNU and Jamia Millia, Delhi Police is perceived to be linking it to the February 2020 Delhi riots in which 53, most of them Muslims, were killed. And, there has been criticism, including from well-regarded retired police officers of the Delhi police being brazenly partisan and persecuting the victims instead of going after those who incited and perpetrated violence.
Even as the police in Delhi and elsewhere but more so in Uttar Pradesh went about this “investigation” in what is alleged to be a pre-determined manner, the gang rape, death and secret cremation of the victim in the dead of night in Hathras in UP has now triggered a new rise in rage and protests.
Bilkis Dadi being featured in TIME though fortuitous could not have come at a more propitious juncture for those protesting police action particularly against the weaker sections, minorities and Dalits.
Thus, the magazine’s focus on the Shaheen Bagh Dadi also signifies that people’s protests in India and the causes being fought for on the streets in the face of brutal crackdowns by state agencies have gained global recognition. This also bears out that the letters in defence of incarcerated public intellectuals, academic figures and scholars that appear with the signatures of hundreds of names from the academic community worldwide, especially from the U.S., represent the force of public opinion.
Much like enlightened sections across the world have come show solidarity, support and sympathy for people protesting in Hong Kong, similarly there is tremendous interest in people’s protests in India, too. Which also means that the free pass on human rights issues that the present regime has got from the Trump Administration and some in Europe, mainly on Jammu & Kashmir, may not last for long.
The single most important message in this portrayal of Bilkis Bano to those who control the levers of the Indian state is that the government and its narratives have failed to discredit and delegitimise people’s protests and movements in the eyes of the international community. Implied in such perceptions is that there is greater global acceptance of people’s protests than presumed by the Government of India.
Modi, as Prime Minister, has appeared in TIME magazine’s ‘100 most influential people’ list four times—in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2020; and, once, as chief minister, in 2012.
The appearance of Bilkis Bano this year denotes that the dominant narrative of India is no longer one driven by those who helm the state, but by the citizens, particularly a vulnerable underclass, that can’t breathe under the weight of this leviathan.
(The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV. Views expressed are personal.)