Books vs batons: After Shaheen Bagh, ‘protest site libraries’ recreated by farmers at Delhi’s borders
These libraries are not just aesthetic add-ons to the artistically rich protest sites which have developed into mini-cities. Rather, they are symbols of protest, resistance and assertion
The Shaheen Bagh protest site is gone, but its legacy continues to inspire those who dream of a more egalitarian and democratic India. Led mostly by Muslim women, the Shaheen Bagh protest site inspired one of the most aesthetically-pleasing and thought-provoking experiments with protest art in recent times. Walls and streets of Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh protest site exploded with creativity as students and artists camped their and experimented with ideas. The protests added hugely to the protest repertoire of India which captured the imagination of people all across the world.
One of the most distinctive contributions of the Shaheen Bagh movement was the introduction of a ‘protest site library’. The idea of a ‘protest library’ came up during the Occupy Wall street protest, one of the largest popular demonstrations in the United States. Occupy protesters erected a tent and established a ‘People’s Library’ in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park in November 2011. This one of its kind library held over 5000 volumes of books along with magazines and newspapers, and was finally razed down by the police.
Since then, the concept of a ‘People’s Library’ captured the imagination of protesters all across the world. It travelled to Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013 when people resisted the commercialisation of public spaces. Make-shift libraries cropped up in different parts of Spain during the anti-austerity 15-M movement (2011-15) and then it travelled to Hong Kong during the pro-democracy movement there.
At Shaheen Bagh, a group of students decided to convert a bus stand into a makeshift library in the heydays of the anti-CAA protests. The ‘Fatima Sheikh Savitribai Phule Library’ captured the imagination of people and soon the make-shift library started to attract a lot of donors and also inspired similar libraries at different anti-CAA protest site.
The year 2020, an otherwise gloomy year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, ensued chaos, misery, and multipronged attack on the interest of Indian people, ended on a high note with the farmers’ uprising against the three farm bills, passed by the BJP-controlled Parliament in haste. The farmers’ protests are not only about the three farms laws, but against the growing neo-liberalization of Indian economy.
By blocking the entry points of nation’s capital, farmers are actually attempting to block the privatization and corporatization of Indian economy. Along with that, the protests are also a powerful assertion of the right to dissent and reclamation of democratic space which has been shrinking since 2014.
It not surprising that the Hindutva propaganda machinery gave the protesting farmers the same label (anti-national, anti-Hindu, funded by Pakistan etc.) it had given to students and Muslims and everyone who criticized the BJP government. Therefore, the ambit of the farmers’ protest is larger than what it appears to be.
It is but natural that such a huge protest in terms of both mobilization and concerns will also develop into a rich site for cultural production enriching the protest repertoire of the country. In one of the most innovative moves, protesting farmers launched their own bi-weekly newspaper titled ‘Trolley Times’ meant for intra-farmer communication. They are also planning to launch ‘Trolley Talkies’, an alternative to mainstream mass media, to communicate with the broader society.
They also set up libraries at the protest sites. The significance of this development is that it clearly carried on the legacy of the Shaheen Bagh protests. Now, we can be sure that protest site libraries are going to feature every time there is a sustained peoples’ movement.
The first library came up at Tikri Border, Pillar no 783. On December 22, a group of students began the ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh Library’ with a single book stand with almost 200 books standing against a yellow tent. Farmers at Tikri border welcomed the idea and people could be seen browsing through the limited books available there. Soon the idea picked up and similar libraries came up at Singhu border as well as Ghazipur border while attempts were being made to establish one at Shahjahanpur border.
These libraries are not just aesthetic add-ons to the artistically rich protest sites which have developed into mini-cities. They are not just a time-pass centres; rather they are symbols of protest, resistance and assertion. From the anti-CAA movement to the anti-farm law movement, the protesters have been accused of being ‘uneducated’ and ‘fools’. They have been accused by the Hindutva propaganda machinery of ‘not having ‘read the law’ or ‘not knowing what they are protesting against or for’. The protesters, in the world of Hindutva supporters, always ‘misunderstand’ the law.
Against these attempts at infantalisation, accusations of naivety and gullibility, the protest-site libraries stand as proof that these people are not ‘uneducated folks’ or are suffering from ‘sheep-like mentality’. Rather, they are mature enough to develop a concrete socio-economic-political understanding and act upon it.
These libraries are also a critique of the creeping anti-intellectualism in Indian society after the rise of Hindutva forces. In an age of (dis)information, when people become experts on different subjects by just scrolling through smartphones, these libraries containing books on varied subjects reclaim the importance of serious pursuit of knowledge. They are symbols of assertion against the attack on social science and humanities by the right-wing forces who always like to distort history as well as the present, to suit their diabolical agenda. The more people read serious works, the more they are shielded against the propaganda of the ruling party.
Protest-site libraries also democratize the very idea of learning, which is limited to elite space of university campuses, academia and think-tanks. The increasing price of books and arduous academic language keeps away a very big section of population away from a deeper knowledge of history, philosophy, political science etc. Protests site libraries have an important role in bringing books close to people. It helps in broader dissemination of ideas and information in a more conducive environment, where people can actually relate with the thoughts and struggles of Bhagat Singh, Che Guevara, Ambedkar and other revolutionary activists and thinkers.
These libraries exist in a very precarious situation. Apart from threats of rain and wind, there is the imminent threat of violence and eviction by the police and ruckus by vandals. Their very existence is a symbol of defiance and resistance. They are the embodiment of a famous quote that reads “when you give someone a book, you don’t give them just paper, ink, and glue. You give them the possibility of a whole new life”.
Ideas are seeds contained in books, which can find a fertile ground during people’s upsurge and grow like wildfire nurtured by the rebellious energy. Though temporary and labour intensive installations depending upon the goodwill of donors, protest site libraries are the storehouse of those seeds and thus are full of radical possibilities.