Easy to Bulldoze—Fall of Patna’s Government Urdu Library and Legacy
Government Urdu Library, Patna, demolished. Photo credit: Rupa Jha
As 2022 ends, the noose of demolitions has tightened over Patna city’s heritage right before people’s eyes. India’s only state-funded government Urdu library, on the iconic Ashok Rajpath road, has been razed. The building next to the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library and the Bihar Urdu Academy, Patna’s Government Urdu Library, or the Bihar Urdu Library, was a centre of literature since before Indian independence. Known to stock a wide range of newspapers and magazines since its inception in 1938, the Bihar Urdu Library’s boasted a collection of more than 40,000 rare manuscripts and books.
The full-blown scenes of its state-funded demolition were visible from the main road but largely ignored. Assurances are that the government will move the Urdu Library collection into a new building. However, that would not restore the only site of remembrance for the tall figure of the national movement who was behind this library. The only ones making noise about demolitions are those who celebrate them for making way for upcoming flyovers and the metro project. This time, even the Urdu press is silent about the destruction of the Bihar Urdu Library.
According to a report prepared by the Bihar Assembly Library Committee, only 51 libraries survive in Bihar of the 541 that existed in the 1950s.
On average, the government of Bihar allocates 0.01% of its budget to libraries. This stinginess alone gives an idea of how important learning is to the authorities. The capital Patna has already lost a large segment of its multicultural past and heritage. Considering the losses, we must save whatever is left of the city’s past. Libraries, a crucial and irreplaceable gateway to history, should be preserved at all costs. However, the condition of existing libraries, especially those with Urdu books and manuscripts, is heartbreaking.
Not just books and literature, language itself is at risk today as right-wing forces attack India’s linguistic diversity. Bihar is home to more than 87 lakh Urdu speakers, but this large population has no library apart from one established by the barrister Dr Syed Mahmood, the first education minister of Bihar.
Even the Bihar Urdu Library was one of his many contributions to the region. Its significance and role extended to India’s struggle for independence. Son-in-law of the great freedom fighter and lawyer Mazhar-ul-Haq, Mahmood, was expelled from the Aligarh Muslim University for anti-British political activities. He left to study law at the University of Cambridge, obtained a PhD from Germany and returned to India to devote himself to the freedom struggle.
An active member of the Indian National Congress during the Home Rule movement, the Non-Cooperation movement and the Khilafat movement, Mahmood became deputy general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, along with Jawaharlal Nehru. A strong voice of opposition to the Muslim League, he and Dr MA Ansari laid the foundation of the Muslim Nationalist Party within the Congress party. Mahmood was its general secretary until 1937 when he became the minister of education, development and planning in the Sri Krishna Sinha-led Bihar government.
On multiple occasions, Mahmood disagreed with the Congress party on communalism and casteism. Deeply disheartened by the growing divide between Urdu and Hindi speakers, he launched the bilingual newspaper ‘Raushni’ to combat the division at the social and political levels.
During his term as minister, he established the “Dehat Sudhar” department, which employed youngsters who participated in the struggle for independence and were forced into unemployment because of British suppression. The British government brought this department down as soon as Mahmood resigned, along with other ministers, due to the Second World War.
He wanted to establish a library in each district of Bihar. However, he was forced to confine the plan to Patna city due to opposition from the Muslim League and the British. Instead of a trail of district libraries, Mahmood gave the city its first and only government Urdu library.
The building of the Bihar Urdu Library at Ashok Rajpath was silently bulldozed to make way for the city’s infrastructure. It was the only site to remember one of the tallest figures of India’s Independence struggle. Its demolition and the silence of city dwellers mark the fact that no one cares about history any longer.
The city government had also decided to bulldoze a section of the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library or the Sultan Palace, but fortunately, widespread protests saved it. Now, without a sound, the building of Bihar Urdu Library has been knocked down.
Instead of celebrating and preserving the contribution of a figure who devoted his life and career to the nation, the Bihar government led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has, in the 75th year of India’s independence, diminished his name and reduced his contributions to rubble. The Bihar Urdu Library was struggling to survive without a chairperson and other officials.
The government has said will move the Library into a new building. For sure, ministers and officials would inaugurate the new premises, but the legacy of Mahmood would stand erased in this process. This is because the original building could have been restored, revived, and renewed if only the State government had paid heed to such calls.
The library’s demolition cannot be divorced from the continuous socio-political attacks against Muslims. India’s Muslims are actively termed as intruders and outsiders, held responsible for India’s partition, and their contributions sidelined or eliminated. That is why the demolition of the Bihar Urdu Library would be seen as a project very much in line with the Sangh Parivar’s agenda of side-lining Muslim contributions and heritage. No matter how much the Chief Minister and his Janata Dal (United) portray themselves as friends of the minority community, their actions reveal their true intent.
The notions of development espoused by the Chief Minister of Bihar are shallow. Bihar’s new roads are being built over the grave of Patna’s multicultural heritage. Rather than opening new state-funded public libraries or improving existing ones, the government is hell-bent on destroying, demolishing and erasing what remains standing. These stories and legacies from a deliberately ignored past cannot be recreated without their historical setting.
The author is a theatre artist, activist and student of preventive conservation. The views are personal.
Get the latest reports & analysis with people's perspective on Protests, movements & deep analytical videos, discussions of the current affairs in your Telegram app. Subscribe to NewsClick's Telegram channel & get Real-Time updates on stories, as they get published on our website.