By Shriya Roy
On a cold December evening last year, a couple of students from New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University carried a few books and blankets to a pavement outside the campus and set up the country’s first public protest library. This was some days after the Delhi Police crackdown on students who had been protesting against the government’s contentious citizenship law. The police reportedly entered the Dr Zakir Husain library inside the campus, fired tear gas and lathicharged the students. Although started as a form of protest against "police oppression" and to "remove irrationality promoted by the government", the library has transformed into a safe space for individuals who visited on a regular basis before the Corona crisis, say students. "During times like these, it’s important to have literature at hand. There are people who are putting everything on the line to carry this initiative forward," a student tells us.
Protests against the citizenship law have been ongoing in the country since December 2019. What has also grown alongside is the concept of the protest library. From Delhi and Kolkata to even small towns and cities like Aligarh, Kanpur, Nagpur, Bhopal, Sambhal and Udaygiri, many such libraries have sprung up at various protest sites. The organisers of these libraries, who are mostly students, say these spaces aim to encourage alternate learning.
But will these libraries shut shop too now that the protesters have been cleared from protest sites? No is the emphatic response from the volunteers, who make it clear that even though these spaces sprung up as part of the protests, they will continue to exist individually even when the protests are over and after the Corona crisis blows over. These are now individual spaces that withhold the dreams and aspirations of hundreds who never got the means to access and understand them and will stand as memorials of the fight to reclaim individual rights, free space and free thinking, they say.
It’s not hard to see why. Amidst the fiery speeches and slogans, and the constant fear of police and firing incidents, these spaces are aiming to reshape the language of agitation and offering what they call an alternative form of resistance. Almost three months into the protests, these libraries had become a striking feature underlying the struggle. Many who were frequent visitors believe that these libraries are allowing the general public to reclaim public places not just for political purposes, but to gain education and learning as well. "When we started this library, everyone pointed their fingers at us, questioning the purpose and the sustainability of the place. But today, after almost three months, those same people tell me that the library must not shut down. That is a victory in itself," says Mohd Asif, a volunteer who played a key role in setting up the Fatima Sheikh Savitribai Phule Library in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, which has become emblematic in the protests against the citizenship law across the country.
The future of these protest libraries looks secure as students, working professionals, women and children alike have joined hands to sustain these spaces. Between guns and books, these people have chosen to arm themselves with the latter and that’s what, volunteers and organisers believe, will sustain them through the highs and the lows. "Reading is resistance. It’s symbolic and has to continue no matter what," says Noor, a volunteer at Shaheen Bagh.
The journey hasn’t been without its fair share of challenges though. Last month, in fact, a library was burnt down in Mustafabad during the Delhi riots. In times of strife like these, doesn’t the footfall get affected, one wonders. It does, volunteers say in unison. "But the library feeds from revolution. So the decreasing numbers don’t demoralise us. Rather it makes us strive to push the community as a whole to take up ownership of these spaces. These libraries are for them and by them," says a volunteer, who didn't wish to be named, at the pulic protest library in Hauz Rani in the national capital.
But the biggest blow has been the ongoing Coronavirus threat, because of which the entire country is in a lockdown. The volunteers, however, see it as a blessing in disguise. They agree that the situation is threatening, but add that it has given them some breathing space after a fast-paced couple of months to think and chalk out an action plan for the future. "We are going to close for a few days, but that in no way means that we are over and out. We are going to sit down, put our heads together and come up with a pitch for donations and also look for a permanent place to shift the library," says Asif. Jamia students, on the other hand, are planning to set up a mobile library.
Libraries are not only cultural archives. They also provide a narrative to society, helping readers become the torchbearers of change. The story of how the Shaheen Bagh library came up is testament to this. "When we were setting up the tents for the library, two women came up to me," recalls Asif. "They said they couldn't study after a point as they were married off, and had not picked up a book in ages. I was inspired by them," he says, adding, "They visited the library everyday, each day picking up a new book, finishing it and coming back for another one… They have, in fact, requested me to never shut the library and have volunteered to take care and run the space themselves in case I or other student volunteers are forced to leave because of studies."
The Fatima Sheikh Savitribai Phule Library especially is a space where class and caste divides have been completely eliminated. Interestingly, there’s a separate library for children as well. "We are trying to channelise the energy that kids have into something creative. It’s important (for them) to understand their reality and that's what we are attempting to do. They are the ones that hold the baton for the future," says Vasundhara Gautam, a volunteer with the Read for Revolution group that manages the children’s library here. The group is now attempting to get some poor children admitted into MCD schools in Jasola. Hauz Rani, too, has a children’s library besides one for adults.
The most interesting feature of these libraries is the fact that those who come here don’t just read or browse through books in silence. They can draw, read, write or even sing. The reason, volunteers and organisers say, that these spaces were set up without any rules was to encourage visitors to do what makes them happy. Students across varsities in the country have been the most active participants, flocking to these places from day one like they would to their own university libraries. It’s these students, in fact, who have helped drive book donations. Author and activist Arundhati Roy, too, has reportedly donated books.