“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 weapons to fight and defeat communal-fascism.

On 22 March 2016, Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) hooligans burnt down the AKG Memorial Library and Cultural Centre at Thalookkara village in Malappuram district, Kerala. The library, with over 5000 books and other material such as musical instruments, was completely destroyed in the fire. 22 March is the death anniversary of communist leader A K Gopalan (popularly known as AKG), and on the very day when people were paying tributes to one of their most beloved leaders, the communal-fascist forces burnt down a library in his name. A gang of about fifty people broke the locks to barge into the library early in the morning, ransacked the furniture, doused everything with petrol and set it on fire. Two accused RSS activists – Satheeshan and Vinod – were arrested by the police the day after the attack. A total of five persons connected to the 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 attack on the library and the burning of books brought to light once again its hatred of critical thinking, debates and discussions. Perhaps it is instructive to note here that Unni R, 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. Small wonder that the Sangh Parivar is afraid of books!

The library was started as a Cultural Centre in 1974, and was renamed after AKG following his death in 1977. It was an important centre for theatre and music performances.The library was added to it in 2003. 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.

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 of books and financial contributions. The response was overwhelming.

Book collection drives were initiated all over Kerala, in various cities across 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 17 April, and the activists who arrived with the books were given a grand reception by the people of Thalookkara. More than 15,000 books and equipment were collected 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. These reading rooms and libraries, with their associated community of a reading public and the work of grassroots activists who run 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 in 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.

Considering the political significance of the popular libraries, it is 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 organizational presence have stood as the strongest bulwark against the attempts of the Sangh Parivar to reshape Kerala society in the communal mould.

A few days after the attack on the AKG Library, activists of ABVP, the students’ wing of the RSS, burnt a college magazine in Kozhikode. In most colleges of Kerala, there is the practice of the students bringing out an annual magazine. The Magazine Editor is a member of the Students Union and is elected directly by the students. In Zamorin’s Guruvayurappan College in Kozhikode, the college magazine brought out by the Union this year was titled “Vishwavikhyaathamaaya theri” (The 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 presented 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 were 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 RSS’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 4thedition of the 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.