NEW DELHI: As the black SUV pulled up outside her village, 82-year-old Bilkis could see a group of people waiting with garlands and big smiles on their faces.
They approached her one by one, and as she slowly stepped out of the car, some greeted her with a “namaste” or “salaam,” while others queued to take a selfie.
It has been a week since Bilkis was named by Time magazine as one of its 100 most influential people for 2020 list, but the “dadi” (grandmother) of Kurana village, nearly 70 km west of New Delhi, says she is still getting used to all the attention.
“This is new to me. I have never experienced anything like this in my life,” she said.
“I was born in this village and married here, too, but never greeted this way by the villagers. It seems I have done something that has touched them,“ Bilkis, who uses one name, told Arab News.
A mother of six and grandmother of 17, Bilkis has never been to school, and can neither read nor write.
But she gained prominence earlier this year when she joined several other young and older women in a three-month demonstration in New Delhi’s Muslim-dominated Shaheen Bagh neighborhood, protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), while braving harsh winter temperatures in the capital.
“I sat on the street from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day for 101 days without a break,” Bilkis said.
On Sept. 22, Time magazine honored her for being “the symbol of resistance in a nation where the voices of women and minorities are being systematically drowned out by the majoritarian politics” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime.
More accolades are in order.
On Tuesday, a women’s group said the magazine’s “recognition of Bilkis comes at a dark time when anyone who stands for justice, equality and democratic rights are being put behind bars.”
According to Annie Raja, general secretary of National Federation of Indian Women, Bilkis represents the “resolve of the women to safeguard democracy and the secularism of the constitution.”
The CAA grants citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis from the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but excludes Muslims.
It is part of a proposed National Register of Citizenship (NRC), an initiative to identify “genuine citizens” of India.
However, many Muslims fear the exercise will leave them “stateless” and drive them out of the country.
Opposing the move, Indians from all walks of life, faiths and communities began protesting last December, culminating in violent clashes with police at New Delhi’s Jamia Milia University in March.
“When I saw students on TV being beaten by police for protesting against the CAA, I decided to join the protest in Shaheen Bagh,” Bilkis said.
For three months, protesters occupied one of the capital’s busiest areas, with the sit-in ending on March 25 after the government announced a nationwide lockdown to limit the coronavirus outbreak.
Bilkis said she didn’t expect the protests would last that long, but would “do it all over again” if necessary.
“I was born here and I will die here,” Bilkis said, referring to Kurana village, where she has lived for more than 70 years.
“I am not fighting for myself, I have lived my life, but I am fighting for the new generation who have their whole life in front of them. We are the citizens of the country. Our forefathers were born here. Where will we go if we leave?”
She blamed the government for encouraging religious violence in New Delhi in February when more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, lost their lives.
“This government is creating a wall of hatred and has arrested innocent people. They should be released. This is an atrocity against the students,” she said.
“Hindus and Muslims have existed together in harmony for ages; why does the government want to create religious disharmony?” she said.
A young villager, Zaid Khan, who has been listening to Bilkis, nods his head before sharing his opinion.
“Dadi (grandma) is fighting for us, and we have to stand by her. I am happy the issue is being highlighted again. The law has only one aim — to target Muslims,” Khan said.
Manzoor Ahmad, Bilkis’ son, said that while the entire family is proud of her achievements, their “real win” would be for the CAA to be withdrawn.
Bilkis joins other Indian women, including Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone, and celebrated lawyers Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju, to be featured by Time magazine in recent years.