On February 8, womxn, children and students of Bengaluru began running the city’s own version of the famed Shaheen Bagh. Among the protesters, speakers and performers, are young, queer students who’ve been on-site since day one. Meet the Queeroes of Bengaluru’s Bilal Bagh.
Bilal Bagh on Tannery Road has become a second home to many Bengaluru residents, as they watch and participate in 24/7 speeches, performances, discussions and sloganeering, united against the controversial CAA, NRC and NPR. Enter the site and you will be welcomed by several womxn sitting on chairs and on the ground, some running around for logistics, others addressing the gathering, while men stand by the barricades in support.
To the side of the main protest site is a small library with books ranging from Enid Blyton to copies of the Indian Constitution. Here you will often find students reading away, or sitting with their laptops and finishing assignments for college well into the wee hours of midnight. Right behind the library is a tented area where children gather after school and are taught about the Constitution, encouraged to make art, express their feelings and opinions, and take in the atmosphere as gently as possible.
One evening, I decided to visit Bilal Bagh with a few of my friends, and stay overnight. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by a bunch of children scribbling away and chatting about how their days went. And in one of the corners under the shamiana, was a small group of young boys between eight and twelve years old gathered around Ankit* (name changed), a 20-year-old student. So I walked over to see what they were up to, and what I saw filled me with joy like I’d never felt before. These young kids were asking for their nails to be painted, and discussing how they would like to try on skirts and sarees, because Ankit, who identifies as non-binary, has actively been working on deconstructing gender and gender roles with the children.
“At first, the kids were not ready to have their nails painted, but then I explained to them that nail polish is gender neutral. I’ve realised that we need to flip the narrative for them. For example, you don’t tell them that transness is something you ‘espouse’ or just ‘get,’ but you deconstruct gender binaries for them so that they don’t look at it as something out of the ordinary,” says Ankit.
They further explain that by doing so, information is simplified, and children understand it better because they are receiving an alternate explanation to the concept of gender that they already know. Once they are comfortable with this, Ankit says, one can start introducing terms like transgender, and furthermore, the spectrum of sexuality.
Time flies by and it’s around 12 a.m. now, and sitting outside at the library is Lucy* (name changed), a young trans woman who has been at Bilal Bagh for several nights, leading the slogans and keeping the enthusiasm going. While I sit with her and discuss the politics of being queer, one of the protesters walks by and says to her with a smile, “It’s because of you that I’m so happy right now. You keep the crowd going with your slogans. It feels really good!”
Lucy’s first protest in Bengaluru was against the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, when it was passed in the Lok Sabha, and subsequently in the Rajya Sabha, and has since been consistently attending protests across the city.
“We live in a democracy and it is important that we voice out our opinions, because by definition, democracy means rule of the people, and if the people don’t put their elected representatives under checks and balances, what’s the whole point? As far as the outcome goes, I believe that this is a bigger fight; all of our individual fights merging together. The outcome I’m fighting for is complete liberation of every individual in India,” she tells me.
Also leading the slogans and possibly one of the most well-known faces at Bilal Bagh is Sai Adrian, a 21-year-old trans man, who has adopted the place as his home since day one. He works round the clock to ensure everything is going smoothly, encourages the womxn to speak out, and even takes care of babies when their mothers need a break. On being queer in the protest space, he says,
“What I have noticed is that the majority of the people who have started this movement in Bengaluru are queer. That says a lot about the community. We will not sit back quietly. No matter what happens, we will speak, and people will listen.
People have also found the protest space safe enough to come out, and that makes me really happy. There are people at Bilal Bagh who have been closeted for years, and have found the strength to tell me that they’re queer, and that they’re so glad that our voices are being heard. It’s a really special feeling.”
Adrian, who first began protesting just around five months ago, also regularly talks to the gathering about the Trans Act, and educates them about transgender people. He finds it extremely important to keep bringing the conversation up so that the stigma around queer identities is eradicated, and people stick together without creating walls.
One evening, he brought up one community that will get heavily affected by the CAA, NRC and NPR; a community which may have never crossed the minds of many – orphans. He says,
“Orphans. Has anyone ever thought about what orphans will go through? Where will they find their documents? Do you know how difficult it is to get a birth certificate for an orphan child? I’m telling you about this because I don’t have my birth certificate. I don’t know who my birth parents are. When people started talking about the CAA and NRC, I was so frightened. I visited the orphanage I grew up in to discuss this, and it took them six days to find just one file of mine. The only legal document I have is my adoption certificate. To make things more complicated, I am a transgender person as well. The details in my adoption certificate are completely different than who I identify as today. This is not just the fight of Muslims, it’s the fight of every minority in the country; everyone who gets left behind and forgotten in the society.”
The sit-in protest at Bilal Bagh is fast approaching its 30 day mark, and there’s no stopping. But the toll that constant protesting takes on its young, queer participants is heavy.
Ankit admits to having felt like they would burn out, and that they do need breaks from time to time. With college assignments and exams also weighing down on them, they say it does get difficult, and that they are still trying to balance all the aspects of their life.
“We’re already dealing with our own personal mental health issues, and the added stress of watching people suffer because of the government really does take a huge toll. There have been days where I just have to shut off and sit in a corner, listen to music, and hold a baby in my arms so that I don’t break down in front of the entire crowd that’s depending on me for their strength,” says Adrian.
Lucy says she sometimes gets depressed and even has hallucinations due to the pressure. “I feel like I am burning out, but I’m also so involved in everything, and I can’t afford to back out,” she adds.
But despite the challenges that protesters face, they all say that the community they have found at the space is ultimately what makes going back worthwhile.
The country may be getting walked all over by fascists and their puppets, but the spirit and drive for justice that the people have will never fail. And along with the tricolour that we fly so high, let’s always remember that the rainbow is also up there, waving with pride.