PINJRAWAN PANCHAYAT, India — In a remote town in the Indian state of Bihar, a peculiar grave stands. This grave holds the half-burnt books that lie behind the blackened library walls of Azizia Madrasa, a 113-year-old Islamic educational institution. The library’s 4,500 books were torched during a riot in March. Their ashes now lie in an eight-foot-deep pit. Hundreds of half-burnt pages are a testament to the many facets of Islamic culture and history, which now, both literally and figuratively, are consigned to a grave.
On March 31, a mob of about 1,000 people armed with swords, bricks, and petrol bombs vandalized and set fire to Azizia Madrasa. What started as a celebration of a Hindu religious festival ultimately turned violent as vehicles, homes, and shops in the small town were torched and several people were injured. The extremist mob was reportedly chanting “Jai Shri Ram” or “Glory to Lord Ram” and “Kill them, burn them” as they broke the lock of the madrasa (Islamic school) and threw petrol bombs into its three-acre campus housing 22 classrooms, a library, and other communal spaces. Closed for Ramadan, none of the madrasa’s 500 students or teachers were present on campus. However, the library of books, a rich archive of Islamic and cultural heritage, and a site for scholars, was completely destroyed.
The library is now a shell of its former self — soot-covered walls, cracked metal fans, and crumbling balustrades. The books — which included handwritten manuscripts from Egypt and Turkey, rare Arabic texts on science, philosophy and logic, Islamic literature, medicine, divinity, and 250 rare handwritten Hadiths in Urdu and Persian calligraphy — are now gone. The global source of these books would attest to transcontinental literary knowledge and exchange once common in the subcontinent ruled by Central Asian Islamic rulers. The depth and diversity of subjects are proof of the wide scope of scholarship practiced by readers and thinkers, who challenged the narrow-minded perceptions of Islamic knowledge as purely theological. The rich calligraphic texts were a nod to the visual aesthetic of Islamic culture.
“We just couldn’t throw them away,” said Mohammad Shahabuddin, the elderly library caretaker, in an interview with the authors. “We buried four thousand five hundred burnt books in an eight-foot-by-eight-foot-deep pit behind the library building.”
The violence in Pinjrawan Panchayat is just another tragedy in the spate of Islamophobic incidents — mob lynchings, hate crimes, and discriminatory government policies — that have become increasingly commonplace in India. But the attack and burning of the century-old Azizia library is evidence of a cultural war being waged against Muslims, carried out through the distortion and erasure of India’s Islamic heritage.
In 1996, historian and founding member of the Subaltern Studies project Gyanendra Pandey described the “new Hindu history” that was being created to reinforce Hindu nationalists’ idea that Muslims were foreign invaders in the pure land of India. By perpetuating this narrative, right-wing groups are able to paint sites of Islamic heritage as sites of desecration.
They are certainly carrying out their project successfully, and the country’s very history is being reshaped as a result. Experts say that 230 unique Islamic sites were destroyed during the 2002 riots in Gujarat alone, rivaling the destruction of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas and the Red Guard’s destruction of Tibetan monasteries. After winning the case in 2020 to build a Hindu temple on the site of the 16th-century Babri Masjid, which was demolished in 1992 by a Hindu nationalist mob, right-wing Hindu nationalist groups are calling for other heritage sites, such as Delhi’s Qutub Minar and the Taj Mahal, to be designated as Hindu sites and renamed “Vishnu Pillar” and “Tejo Mahalaya.” Cities, towns, and roads reflecting India’s Islamic past are being renamed as well. Sites of historical and religious significance, like the 16th-century mosque Shahi Masjid in the state of Uttar Pradesh, are routinely demolished to make way for urban infrastructure projects. In April of this year, a national education board removed the chapters on the Mughal Empire, a rule spanning 300 years of India’s history, from 12th-grade textbooks.
“What has been going on since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 is a conscious effort to erase the Muslim imprint on Indian history,” said Dr. Zafarul-Islam Khan, a well-known scholar and previous chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “After this wanton deletion of Muslims from India’s history and cultural spaces is achieved, their physical deletion and relegation to second-class citizens or even non-citizens will be easily possible. This is a century-old Hindutva project. If this process continues, Indian Muslims would become aliens in their own country. Who will care about people who have no history and made no contribution to the country?”
In April 2018, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), a government body on history, closed down its library that contained valuable sources on Islamic history and culture in India and included the personal library of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first education minister of India. Azad was an iconic Muslim member of the government that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru formed immediately after India’s independence in 1947. “No one now knows where that precious treasure has gone. The same ICCR also closed down its Arabic journal, Thaqafatul Hind, which was a bridge between India and the Arab World,” added Dr. Khan.
In order to make their claim of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) a reality, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters must not only ensure Hindu supremacy in the present, but also rewrite India’s syncretic past. But with these violent acts against India’s heritage, the demolished mosques, burned libraries, and forgotten city names, what do we lose of ourselves?
To historian Rana Safvi, who has spent decades documenting Islamic heritage in India, this is not only a tragedy for Muslims, but also a tragedy for the whole nation. The attack on the madrasa in Bihar shows that Hindu nationalists reduced madrasas and symbols of Islamic heritage to their religious identity, ignoring their historical role in nation-building.
“For them, a madrasa is a religious institution, and since majoritarianism is on the rise, it is a natural target,” Safvi said in an interview. “It was exactly because it was seen as a symbol of Muslims and so it would hurt their feelings. But madrasas haven’t only been patronized by Muslims.” She noted that the renowned Hindu reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, learned Arabic and Persian in a madrasa in Bihar’s Phulwari Sharif, less than 50 miles from Madrasa Azizia.
Authors like Ziya Us Salam and Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz have written extensively about the role of madrasas in mainstreaming education in India in their recently released book Madrasas in the Age of Islamophobia (2020). They argue that madrasas in pre-independence and in post-independence India “were not the monopoly of Muslims, or mere centers to learn to read the Quran.” Rather, they taught a vast range of subjects including mathematics, poetry, physics, and geography. Reflecting on the attack at Azizia, Safvi said, “The books that were lost here were not only religious texts but also valuable treatises on literature and culture. These books in Urdu and Persian are our collective heritage and burning them down means destroying memories of a pluralistic past too.”
“I think it’s really important to emphasize that Islamic heritage in South Asia is in danger,” Dr. Vivek Gupta, an art historian at the University of Cambridge, told Hyperallergic. “Not just part of it, but even things that are so-called ‘protected’ are in an awful state of danger. A whole range of cultural history is at risk.” The changes, to Dr. Gupta, are happening slowly and perhaps have become anodyne now, not even making the front pages of newspapers nor inciting protest anymore. “When monuments are destroyed, we lose access to our histories,” he said. “The Babri Masjid is no longer, and that was an important site that scholars can no longer study as architecture, just as documentation. When the government, or even the public, targets Muslim heritage, when they erase it, we can no longer start to tell its story.”
The charred pillars and walls of the Azizia library serve as a reminder of the violence by the Hindu nationalist mob. According to reports, the restoration will cost an estimated $365,088. But the library’s collection, an archive spanning centuries that may have held on its shelves the answers to many questions for scholars, is now lost forever.