Bindi and burqa at Bilal Bagh

Arundhati Ghosh | Updated on March 06, 2020

Dissenting note: The sit-in has opened up a world of songs, poetry, slogans and other forms of self-expression   -  IMAGES COURTESY: SHAMYA DASGUPTA, DARSHANA DAVE, NASREEN & ARUNDHATI GHOSH

The 24x7 protest site in Bengaluru is a testament to grit, resistance and unity against all odds

“I work through the day and then I cook in the evening for my three children. But since I am at Bilal Bagh every night, I hardly sleep nowadays,” says Zareena, a woman in her 40s who shares her plate of fruits with me as we pause between chanting slogans.

“You must explain the Kannada words in this round of slogans to me,” I say, ashamed of my rudimentary knowledge of the language of Bengaluru, the city that has embraced my Bengali identity with love and warmth.

The Masjid-e-Bilal stands behind the shamiana that has been put up for the 24x7 sit-in by women of the neighbourhood. The mosque is named after Bilal, one of Prophet Mohammed’s companions, who was the first muezzin of the world. I learn this from the protesters who have been here since February 8. Most of them are from the locality, which has a bustling bazaar and a warren of streets peppered with lower middle- to middle-class residences. And some — like me — belong to other parts of the city.

The number of non-Muslims at the protest is visibly low, but a dedicated campaign on social media is slowly changing the optics of this collective resistance against the country’s new citizenship laws.

Among those who have given Bilal Bagh both time and attention are artistes and activists such as Medha Patkar, Pallavi Arun, Jignesh Mevani, Kannan Gopinathan and Naseeruddin Shah. The stage here is not just for the famous though. A group of Sikhs from the locality has performed kirtans here; there have been interfaith prayer meetings as well. Farzana, an articulate woman in her 20s, walks up to me and asks me to watch the video of her speech on her smartphone. We exchange numbers before the slogans resume after the Maghrib (sunset) namaz. Soon after, someone starts performing protest songs and a few others wait near the makeshift podium with the promise of more music and verse. Nasreen, one of the organisers, requests the audience to settle down while she decides the flow of the evening’s programme.

Around me, women talk about the tunes and poems they like — Varun Grover’s Hum kagaz nahin dikhayenge and We shall overcome are the favourites. Most of them haven’t watched live performances before. Even the friskiness of the children at the venue cannot distract them from the action on the stage.

While the mothers offered prayers at sunset, the children attended an art workshop run by volunteers. They join in with gusto and little tricolours when it’s time again to chant slogans.

A few metres away from the stage is a desk that marks the entry point to the Bilal Bagh sit-in. Right next to it is a pop-up library, which has been set up with donated books. A kitchen dishes out basic meals to every attendee — anywhere from 30 heads in the day to more than 300 through the night. Food brought in by visitors is also distributed among the crowd.

The men chip in with moral support and physical labour. Some of them stand guard at the entrance. And some others toil in the kitchen. They, too, have been here since the first day of the protest.

It’s my eighth evening at Bilal Bagh and I am counting the number of life lessons to take home from here.

A gathering without age and social barriers, the sit-in has opened up a world of songs, poetry, slogans and other forms of self-expression to us. Some of us are abandoning stage fright, happy to go up there and share thoughts with strangers united by a cause. Some are learning to manage broods of naughty children. Some are cooking meals for many for the first time, while others are remembering youthful days of rebellion as we make posters and pamphlets. We are also discussing shades of hair colour and kohl and picking up words in dialects new to us. And some of us are also visiting “Muslim areas” or speaking to Muslims for the first time.

We are learning a bit about sharing as well — the sitting area, cut fruits, phone numbers, videos, Gelusil and slogans. Some of us are eating street food for the first time. And some are even learning to lean against the shoulders of a stranger.

We are also discovering the little joy of walking past police personnel without being intimidated. We are joining new WhatsApp groups that are free from bigoted jokes and family members.

With all this learning we are changing; rather, becoming new.

No matter what happens to the movement, we have already moved on — from what we were to what we will be.

And perhaps the world won’t know what to do with us, now that sections of news media and social media have declared us troublemakers.

In the words of a protester, whose name I can’t recall, “it is foolish to divide us by bindi and burqa”.

Peals of laughter ring out as she says this. I remember poet Nabiya Khan who had said that inquilab will come wearing “bindi, chudiyaan, burqa and hijab”.

As I prepare to call it a night, Bilal Bagh is far from asleep.

Arundhati Ghosh is an arts professional based in Bengaluru

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Published on March 06, 2020
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