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Women spread awareness for Bilkis in Mumbai locals

Bilkis case: Ask not what Modi won’t do but ask what you can do

During a protest outside Dadar station on Tuesday, a majority of men felt the convicts should not be let off
Bilkis Bano.
Bilkis Bano.
File photo

Sudeshna Banerjee   |   Calcutta   |   Published 29.08.22, 02:26 AM

When Chayanika Shah was younger, she and her friends “used to jump in and out of trains, sing songs and distribute leaflets”. Then, around eight to 10 years ago, they lost heart, with many commuters getting glued to their phones and few with an inclination to listen.

At 60, the retired physics teacher and seven other women took a local from the Churchgate station in Mumbai around 11.30am last Monday.

It was yesterday once more but with a difference as there was no haste this time. They travelled on the western line towards Borivali, but their progress was slow as they would get off after every two or three stations and wait for the next train.

The women were getting on board to engage with passengers in the women’s compartments about the remission granted to the 11 life convicts in the Bilkis Bano case.

“We are part of a collective called Forum Against Oppression of Women. The women’s compartment is a space where women have time for themselves. When we were younger, we used to jump in and out of trains, sing songs and distribute leaflets. The local train and the women’s compartment have made the city accessible to us. But we have not been doing any of that in the last eight to 10 years. Now people are on their phones and not ready to listen. The rail authorities are also particular about what can be done on board. Moreover, after the pandemic, our activities have got confined online,” Shah told The Telegraph over phone.

But after the convicts were released on August 15, they discussed on a WhatsApp group how to take their sense of outrage offline.

“We wanted to have conversations to understand what ordinary women were thinking about the issue. So we chose the afternoon rather than the peak hour. Nor would we rush in and out like we used to. Instead, we talked to every person in the compartment, shared details, gave them time to think and sign our petition, if they wanted to,” Shah said.

About 70 per cent of the commuters they spoke to over three hours and more were in the dark.

“Some of the elderly women are not on social media and had no idea about the remission while the younger ones were not aware of the Gujarat incident 20 years ago. They do not watch or read news or have such topics come up for discussion in their peer group, be it on or offline,” said Sandhya Gokhale, a 1979 IIT Bombay graduate who has also just become a senior citizen.

The group distributed a leaflet that carried the details of the Bilkis Bano case. “The response we got was of shock and disbelief, not just at the relief the convicts were given but at their felicitation after their release,” Gokhale added.

Of the 30 per cent who knew, a lot were already outraged and signed the petition right away. “Some were scared to sign. A few said they were not interested, including one who asked me to shut up. These must be the Right-wingers who troll us,” said Shah.

The vendors who sell vada to earrings on the train got agitated on learning what had happened to Bilkis. “Those that knew how to sign, did so.”

Some passengers even thanked the activists. “That was a new thing for us, to be thanked!” Shah said and laughed. “It was a measure of how disturbed people are and helpless that nothing is being done. Some Muslim women had tears in their eyes,” Shah added.

The most heart-warming response came from Zoya, a transwoman, who blessed some coins from her day’s collection and handed one to each of the women.

On Tuesday, a protest took place outside Dadar station, where they spoke to several men. The majority felt that if this was the nature of the crime, they should not be let off.

“One said he was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member and that he felt the remission was wrong. Once we broached the topic, men linked it to the performance of the Narendra Modi government, broadening the discussion to privatisation, inflation, lack of employment... They got into a discussion among themselves even as we moved on,” Gokhale said.

Having collected over 400 signatures in the first two days, the group plans to campaign again this Monday on trains along the central line and the day after on the harbour line.

“The Supreme Court has sought a reply from the Gujarat government in two weeks. We plan to send all the signatures to the court by then,” Shah said.

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