The Rise of India’s Protest Libraries - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Sometimes, reading a book in a makeshift library can be an act of protest.

By Maroosha Muzaffar

It’s around noon and the February sun is finally warming up. On a stretch of road in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi — the epicenter of recent protests against India’s controversial new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims — it’s unusually quiet. Constantly innovating, the men and women there have today chosen a silent protest, even as posters, drawings and huge plastic sheets with slogans against the citizenship regime line the walls of the Muslim-majority neighborhood. That silence suits Jauzi just fine.

The 24-year-old medical student from Chittor in the state of Rajasthan (who doesn’t want to share his last name) is reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, at the Shaheen Bagh bus stop — now a makeshift library. Every day, Jauzi and other volunteers set up the library by noon, with mattresses and blankets on which visitors sit and read. Named the Fatima Sheikh Savitribai Phule Library after two pathbreaking 19th-century Indian women educators, reformers and friends — Phule belonged to a Hindu caste that was discriminated against, while Sheikh was Muslim — it now has more than 1,000 books on history, literature, law, philosophy, science and more, all donated by visitors.

It’s one of a growing number of libraries sprouting up across protest sites in India, promising to reshape the language of popular agitations in the world’s largest democracy. Across New Delhi, violent clashes between Hindu and Muslim mobs over the past two days have claimed at least 20 lives. But these libraries are offering an alternative form of resistance, opening up platforms traditionally reserved for committed activists to waves of first-time protesters — from high school students to homemakers — who have joined hands against moves by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to introduce a religious test for naturalized citizenship.

There’s the Inquilabi Library — roughly translated as the Revolutionary Library — created by the students of Aligarh Muslim University in the northern Indian city of Aligarh. A similar makeshift library has come up at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. The Park Circus Maidan protest site has a library, as does the one at Azad Market in New Delhi. Several of the other indefinite, round-the-clock protests that continue in city after city also have libraries, some of which start out with as few as 10 books.

This government is scared of questions or anyone who differs from them … This is when libraries become a form of protest.

Mohd. Asif, student protester

These libraries double as classrooms for lectures on the Indian constitution — which Modi’s critics say is being violated through the citizenship law. The Shaheen Bagh Library, for instance, was set up on the principle of “Educate, Agitate, Organize,” propounded by B.R. Ambedkar, the father of India’s constitution, say organizers. Mohammad Umar, a 22-year-old student volunteer there, writes down his message for me on a piece of paper so he doesn’t break his silent protest. The library, he writes, also has “biographies of some of the freedom fighters.”

And in a more fundamental way, these libraries are allowing India’s protesters to reclaim public spaces not just for political sloganeering and marches, but for education and learning.

“It is occupying the public space and saying we’re just going to have the world that we want,” says Sherrin Frances, an associate professor at Saginaw Valley State University, whose book Libraries Amid Protest: Books, Organizing, and Global Activism is releasing in June. “It’s sort of a utopian vision, kind of it comes out of the roots of anarchy, and it has to do with appropriating space and building what you want.” 

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Read for Revolution and JNU is Bleeding posters following the 2020 attack at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Frances says libraries have played a role in other protest movements too in recent years — be it Zuccotti Park in New York City during the Occupy Wall Street protests or at Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013. But it’s only now that these sporadic instances are giving way to a surge in pavement libraries at protest sites in multiple cities. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy agitation has also seen libraries come up at protest sites.

And in India, the symbolism behind these libraries is deeper than just the citizenship law. They’re emerging at a time students have come under attack and Modi’s critics are accusing his government of defunding public education. In December, police entered the library of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi and lobbed tear gas shells to drive students out, while they were ostensibly searching for protesters. On Jan. 3, masked goons — since identified as members of the student union affiliated to Modi’s party — entered JNU and thrashed students protesting against a fee hike.

“There is a war that the government has waged against educational institutions,” says Mohd. Asif, a 25-year-old student of Persian. “This government is scared of questions or anyone who differs from them. Books help us understand our past. Our ideals. They are trying to limit the reach of education now. This is when libraries become a form of protest.”

The books are also a lasting legacy of protests, suggests Frances’ research. She found that after protests in New York, Madrid and other cities ended, “the librarians [who are the activists] kept the books and hauled them around and tried to find permanent places,” she says. “And so the libraries persisted for months and years after the occupations themselves were over.”

Back at the Shaheen Bagh Library, 5-year-old Laiba Fazal walks in with her mother after school and finds herself a drawing book. She is soon consumed by the colors, as her mother looks on happily. The library will stay there until the government withdraws the citizenship law, insists Umar. And if and when the protest ends, he says, “we will shift this [library] to another location, and this will be for the public forever.”

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