Persons of the Year—2021

Woman of the Year


Eighty-two-year-old Bilkis Bano has managed to moblilise and inspire many to stand up against an ideology that is threatening to destroy India as we know it. Starting a simple Gandhian sit-in protest on a road in her locality of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, she managed to bring the world’s attention to the latest signpost in India’s slide into Hinduvta, ‘majoritarianism’,’ Hindu nationalism’ or ‘fascism, Hindu style’.

Bilkis was joined by thousands of women, initially Muslim, but then of all religions, ages and classes to protest against the government’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The NRC targeted people in Assam and asked them to prove citizenship by providing birth certificates. As many of these people are rural and don’t possess these documents, they couldn’t prove they were citizens and so were moved into detention centres where they would be classified as stateless and not have the same recourse to law as citizens.

To prevent all but Muslims from falling foul of this, the CAA was brought in. It allowed all people (except Muslims) without documentation to apply for citizenship as persecuted refugees from neighbouring countries. So, if they don’t have papers and are not Muslim they can apply for Indian nationality; if they don’t have papers and are Muslim, they become stateless and get moved into a detention centre.

These moves by the BJP-dominated government are another step in the realisation of Hinduvta by organisations like the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS). Set up in 1925, the RSS was the alternative voice to Gandhi’s vision of India. It was banished from the scene after one of its members assassinated Gandhi, and then the Congress Party kept similar voices at bay until their re-emergence in the 1990s. With Narendra Modi’s (a man heavily implicated in the 2002 Gujrat pogroms against Muslims) victory in 2014 and landslide in 2019, changes are being made on many fronts (e.g. Kashmir) which will result in disaster for the minorities of India.

Bilkis, or dadi (grandmother) as she is known, protested for over 100 days against this ideology which would overturn India as we know it. Her protest grew organically to over 12 locations in Delhi ititself and then on to other cities, with millions of people getting involved. Where it could have gone from there is unknown as Covid-19 and its restrictions entered the fray and brought everything to a halt. With the pandemic halting the protests for several months and with a supreme court ruling deeming indefinite protests in public places unacceptable, it remains to be seen whether the warning voice of Bilkis and others will be heard so loudly again. She is determined to carry on the fight, but whether she can once again garner this level of support is an open question.

Man of the Year


Ilham Tohti has been imprisoned on separatism-related charges since 2014, with no contact with his family for the past three years. A professor of economics at university, he hosted the Uyghur Online website for two years before it was shut down in 2008. It advocated for the rights of Uyghur culture and questioned the lack of economic opportunities for Uyghurs, all the while seeing a planned increase of Han immigration into the region. After the 2009 ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and Han in the capital, Ürümqi, Tohti was imprisoned but released a month later, mainly due to international pressure. However, he was arrested again in January 2014 and imprisoned after a two-day trial. Since then, events have gone from bad to worse.

The Uyghurs are the world’s most heavily surveilled community. Police officers routinely conduct what is known as fanghuiju: intrusive inspections to report on “extremist” behavior, such as not drinking alcohol, fasting during Ramadan, sporting beards or possessing “undesirable” items, such as copies of the Qur’an or prayer mats. If guilty of any of these things, then the person is sent to ‘re-education’ camps. These camps hold over 1 million Uyghurs and use all tactics to erase Uyghur cultural identity. It is a genocide. Prisoners are subject to torture, forced abortions and sterilisation, forcibly fed pork or are not permitted to eat until they denounce Islamic teachings or praise the Communist Party. It is estimated that a sixth to a third of young and middle-aged Uyghur men are currently imprisoned, or have been at some point in the past year.

Twenty-two countries mounted the first collective criticism of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs on 8th July 2019 in a statement to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A substantial record of evidence gathered by numerous human rights organisations has shown an oppressive strategy targeting the Uyghur population that is designed to criminalise all forms of religiousness within Xinjiang. However, to counter this, the Chinese government issued a letter of their own, with about a third of the signatories being members of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. This shows the extent of China’s economic power and hold over many of these countries.

How much of this Ilham is aware of is anybody’s guess, but since his arrest, his work has been recognised, and he has won numerous awards promoting freedom of expression and resistance to oppression. These include the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (2014), the Martin Ennals Award (2016), the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize (2019), and in October 2019, he was awarded the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. All of these have been collected by his daughter, Jewher Ilham, who continues the campaign to get justice for her father.