The Violent Attack on Thought and Discussion Through the Violent Act of Burning Down a Library was Met with a Unique Peaceful Resistance, in Kerala !
Within less than a month, the burned down Library that had 5,000 books was re-opened with a people's contribution of over 15,000 Books!
The remarkable story of the Campaign to Rebuild the Library after the Assault can be viewed in Images here
“Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon”, said the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. The RSS attacked a library and burnt it down, the people of Kerala have now turned books into their weapons to fight and defeat communal-fascism.
On March 22, 2016, a gang of about 50 people broke the locks to barge into the AKG Memorial Library and Cultural Centre at Thalookkara village in Malappuram district, Kerala. They ransacked furniture, poured petrol inside the building and set it on fire.
The library, with over 5,000 books and other material such as musical instruments, was completely destroyed in the fire. March 22 is the death anniversary of communist leader A K Gopalan (popularly known as AKG), and on the very day when the people were paying tributes to one of the most beloved mass leaders in the history of Kerala, the communal-fascist forces burnt down a library in his name. Two accused --Satheeshan and Vinod who are allegedly RSS activists --were arrested by the police the day after the attack. A total of five persons allegedly belonging tot he RSS have since been arrested and released on bail so far.
The Sangh Parivar-led BJP government’s attacks on education in general through fund cuts, attempts to communalise education etc., and the attacks on various centres of higher education in particular, have often been termed as an assault on thought itself.
The RSS’s alleged attack on the library and the burning of books brought to light once again its morbid hatred of critical thinking, debates and discussions. (Perhaps it is instructive here to note that R.Unni, noted Malayalam writer, said recently that he had been an RSS sympathizer at one point of time, and that he realised his folly as he grew up, read and educated himself. Thus it is natural that the Sangh Parivar would fear books!)
The burnt down library was started as a Cultural Centre in 1974, and was renamed after AKG following his death in 1977. It was an important centre of theatre and musical performances, and was expanded in 2003 with the addition of a library. Mehfil evenings with performances by the musicians of the region have been a staple of the Centre in the recent years. It has remained a place for vibrant discussions and social interactions for the people of the region.
However, if the Sangh Parivar was under the impression that burning down a library would help them advance their agenda of muzzling all voices against communal-fascism, they were grossly mistaken. Instead it gave rise to a firm resolve among the people to mount a powerful resistance against the forces of hatred.
Appeals went out worldwide, and a social media campaign took off with the slogan "Each One Give One", calling for donations in the form of books and financial contributions. The response to the campaign was immense.
Book collection drives were initiated all over Kerala, in various cities in India including Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, and abroad.
Books were sent in from the Gulf countries, Europe and the US. Numerous writers, artists, political activists, students, youth and others joined in the effort, and the campaign travelled throughout Kerala to collect books. Pusthakavandis (book vehicles) from all over Kerala reached Thalookkara on Sunday, April 17, and the activists who arrived with the books were given a grand reception by the people of Thalookkara.
People have contributed more than 15,000 books and equipment to replace the 5000 books which were destroyed. Generous contributions to construct a new building that is set to emerge as a centre of resistance are still flowing in. As Vijoo Krishnan of the All India Kisan Sabha put it, “the ugly assault on reason was met with the most beautiful resistance”.
Libraries such as the one in Thalookkara dot the landscape of Kerala, and they are particularly numerous in places where the influence of the Left is strong. Reading rooms and libraries, the community of a reading public that emerged around the libraries, and the work of grassroots activists who are involved in running the libraries have played a critical role in shaping Kerala society.
From the 1930s and 1940s, the communists of Malabar have been active in the granthasala or public library movement. As V K Ramachandran notes in his landmark study[*]on Kerala, the vast network of village-level organisations led by the communists laid particular emphasis to setting up libraries.
The communists of Malabar, apart from leading the peasants’ and workers’ movements, were also the strongest contingent of the national movement against British rule, and were leading activists in the struggle for progressive social reform, against untouchability and in the temple entry movement.
After Congress activists were released from jail following the Civil Disobedience movement, and once EMS Namboodiripad became the Secretary of the District Congress Committee, the Congress organisation attempted to set up, in every village, a village Congress committee, a reading room, and a night school. This practice of village-level organisation, unique to Malabar, was taken over and extended by the Communists in the late thirties and forties. EMS, of course, would go on to become one of the tallest communist leaders in India. These village-level organisations and the struggles led by them provided the most powerful impetus for the social transformation that the state witnessed during the 20th century.
Vijoo Krishnan of the All India Kisan Sabha said, “the ugly assault on reason was met with the most beautiful resistance”.
Considering the political significance of the popular libraries in their historical setting, it becomes clear why the Hindutva forces are so desperate to attack and destroy them. Despite decades of attempts to foment communal riots starting from the Thalassery riots in 1971-72, the RSS has been unable to translate its efforts into any significant advances during the general elections in the state.
The grassroots networks that form the basis of the Left’s organisational presence have stood tall as the strongest bulwark against the attempts of the Sangh Parivar to reshape Kerala society in the communal mould.
Incidentally, a few days after the attack on the AKG Library, the students belonging to the RSS-BJP affiliated students’ wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) burnt copies of a college magazine. Most colleges of Kerala, have an established practice of students bringing out an annual magazine.
The Magazine Editor is a member of the Students Union and is elected directly by the students. This year, at the Zamorin's Guruvayurappan College in Kozhikode, the college magazine brought out by the Union this year was titled “Vishwavikhyaathamaayatheri” (World-renowned Abuse). Its central focus is a critique of the abusive words that are commonly used in Malayalam, and attempts to examine the etymology and meanings of these words.
As it turns out, many of the abusive words have their roots in the entrenched casteism, misogyny and iniquitous structures in our society. This analysis that the magazine expounded upon was too much for the Sangh Parivar to stomach.
Therefore, just as the students of JNU, HCU and so on were branded as “anti-national”, the college magazine and the Union members who worked to bringing it out were branded as the enemies of “Indian culture”.
The ABVP publicly burnt the magazine, and the police has been examining the possibility of the Editorial Board members being charged with sedition, no less! These acts of the ABVP and the police have been widely condemned.
Given the current circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that it is this public outcry that has prevented the creators of the magazine from being subjected to police harassment or even possible incarceration.
The Sangh's ploy in Thalookkara to intimidate the people into submission backfired badly. Now there are widespread discussions on rejuvenating the network of public libraries in Kerala, which in many places have fallen prey to neglect and apathy.
The 4th International Congress on Kerala Studies– a mammoth, periodic conference of activists and scholars which has been crucial to policy discussions in the state in recent decades – held in January this year also witnessed calls for enhanced government support to reinvigorate the network of public libraries. The resistance put up by Thalookkara, it is hoped, would inspire more powerful political and ideological battles against everything that communal-fascism represents.
[*]Ramachandran, V K (1996), “On Kerala’s Development Achievements”, in Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen, “Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives”, P.292-293, Oxford University Press, Delhi.
(The author is a Ph.D. research scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)