On March 31, a Hindu religious holiday and during Ramadan, an extremist mob set fire to a Muslim school, the Azizia Madrasa, and its library in the eastern city of Bihar Sharif. ‘India. More than 4,500 Islamic heritage printed books and manuscripts were lost and damaged in the fire. The mob also threw petrol bombs at a nearby mosque and left explosives outside the madrasa’s classrooms. Since the attack, district police commissioner Ashok Mishra said 77 people had been arrested. One person died in the violence and several are still injured.
Founded by a woman named Bibi Soghra about a century ago, the madrasa today has 22 classrooms, which accommodate up to 450 students. These madrasas form the core of Muslim communities and promote childhood development and education. Today, ashes from burnt books cover the floor of the school library. Footage shows an imam holding a manuscript with burnt edges and several destroyed handwritten books strewn across the grounds. The stories in these books are forever fragmented.
This communal violence comes in the wake of numerous recent laws targeting Muslims at the national and state levels in India. Still, these events did not generate as much public outcry as previous cases, raising concerns about whether it has become harmless to the general public and the Indian media. More recently, the National Council for Educational Research and Training (Ncert) removed entire chapters and sections on Mughal history from Indian school textbooks, thereby erasing three centuries of Indian history from public education and distorting the prospects of future generations. Prominent historians around the world have condemned this, but it’s unclear if it will have any impact.
Bihar has had at least two great learning sites in its long history. Since at least the fifth century AD, it has witnessed the rise of Nalanda, a Buddhist monastic university, or vihara, from which the area takes its name. The medieval historian Juzjani established an equivalence between the concept of vihara and madrasa in his description of Bakhtiyar Khalji’s conquest of Nalanda in the early 13th century. He noted that the Buddhist site boasted many books and recognized it as a place of deep knowledge, despite its conquest.
Bihar’s capital, Patna, is also home to the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, a world-class collection of rare books and manuscripts, especially in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, which opened to the public in 1891. A History of Timur and his successors with 132 complete books. the page paintings commissioned around 1584 are one of the library’s finest masterpieces. Yet in 2021, the Bihar government proposed to build a flyover that would involve razing a historic part of the library and jeopardizing the safety of the collection. Widespread disapproval halted this plan.
Whether it is a Buddhist monastery, a Muslim madrasa or a public manuscript repository, the Indian government and international parties must protect heritage regardless of religious affiliation. Unesco has stepped in to protect vulnerable heritage in many other times of crisis around the world, and the evidence – from the razing of Muslim monuments to the burning of libraries – argues in favor of intervention. Stewardship of the Archives at Risk Program and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, both supported by the Arcadia Fund, have paved the way for the digitization of collections at risk of being destroyed, neglected or degraded, but further institutional and governmental collaboration is needed to ensure that all archives at risk are documented.
When heritage such as the Azizia medersa disappears, the physical anchoring of an entire community ceases to exist in history. Globally, we might even lose the ability to answer questions about the distant past. For example, a calligraphic practice indigenous to premodern South Asia identified as Bihari apparently acquired this designation due to association with Bihar. Other reasons for this name have been advanced, but scholars still have no definitive evidence as to why or how this calligraphy became popularly known as Bihari. Is the name a modern myth or does it have some historical credibility? Given the script’s close relationship to Sufi practices and the long history of Sufism in Bihar, this may have been one of the reasons for the connection. Perhaps the answer lay in the rubble of the Azizia madrasah for a student from his community to unearth. Now this archive is lost forever.
The burning of a madrasa library finds other resonances in the arguments of contemporary artists who occupy cultural spaces far removed from contexts such as Bihar Sharif. Shubigi Rao, artist and curator of the 2022-23 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, states that “the destruction of the Madrassah Azizia [is] heartbreaking, like so many libraries that have suffered the same fate at the hands of those too ignorant and vicious to comprehend the magnitude and tragedy of such a loss. Rao’s practice has long been about “libricide” and it has The river of ink (2008) in response to the destruction of the Bayt al-Hikmah, or Baghdad Library looted during the 13th century Mongol invasions of West Asia. The work presents books drowned in ink on boxes to evoke the ashes and the memory of oblivion.
Meanwhile the centerpiece of Documenta 13, The Parthenon of forbidden books by Marta Minujin, featured a symbolic architectural homage to the many banned books around the world. In their destruction, such arson of libraries erases the knowledge of histories, just like banned or censored books all over the world – as the case of Mughal history in Indian textbooks.
Far from being an isolated event in a provincial town, the fire at the Azizia Madrasa library has global ramifications. It leaves one wondering what the future holds when governments and institutions show no signs of safeguarding the Muslim heritage in India. Libraries are not just piles of old books. They contain lives whose stories are waiting to be told.
• Vivek Gupta is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Cambridge