‘We have buried the 4,500 precious books in a pit’

The Library before and after burning.

TCN revisits Madarsa Azizia and its library after it was attacked during Ramadan

Sufi Parween, Twocircles.net

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A goldmine of Islamic literature, spread over 4,500 books, including rare manuscripts, is now reduced to a heap of soot and ash. A few burnt pages are the only giveaway that the powdery, flaky heap was once a stack of weighty tomes that belonged to the library of Madarsa Azizia, the 113-year-old Islamic institution in Bihar Sharif, a town in the Nalanda district of Bihar.

The pile of burnt books, including 300 copies of the Quran, and 250 manuscripts on art, medicine, and philosophy written by the madarsa alumni, is now buried in an eight-foot-deep pit. “The books may have been put to fire but they are still holy or priceless. We couldn’t just throw them away. So, we have buried them near the library,” says Mohammad Shahabuddin, an elderly frail man who is the caretaker of library.

The Entrance gate of madarsa azizia (Photo: Sufi Parween)

On March 31 this year, a week into Ramadan, a mob of Hindu extremists, who were part of a Ram Navami procession, put the library to fire, that spread to the washroom, a few classrooms and the madarsa office.

As the madarsa was closed on account of Ramadan, there were no casualties. But about two months into the violence, signs of that fateful day linger on. The windows and doors of the library, classrooms and office are still covered with a thick layer of soot, and the air filled with the acrid smell of smoke. The library and classroom floors were cracked by the heat of the fire, the four fan blades shrunk down and some fell apart.

Burnt material of the library (Photo: Sufi Parween)

The madarsa has 10 teachers, two non-teaching staff and 18 rooms including an office, the library, a kitchen, a bathroom and classrooms, all spread over three acres.

The administration has been slow to help, repairing only the bathroom, installing two water tanks, and restoring pipe connections. To beef up security, barbed wires are being installed around the boundary wall of the madarsa.

The main gate of library.(Photo: Sufi Parween)

Principal Maulana Shakir Qasmi demands that “the government should repair whatever can be repaired and rebuild the library”. The madarsa has not availed help from private individuals or charities.

‘Parents too scared to send children back’

The attack has shaken the confidence of students, most of whom have not rejoined the madarsa after Ramadan and Eid holidays. Of the 500 students who are enrolled in the madarsa, less than 100 have resumed classes. The 120 students who were residing in the hostel have not returned. “The parents of our younger, junior students (from Class I to VIII) are too scared to send them back. Our undergraduate and postgraduate students have returned,” says Qasmi. The students, seemingly out of fear, refused to speak to TCN.

Their academic future is at stake, as their marksheets, examination copies and certificates were stored in the library, and are now gone.

Burnt material of the library(Photo: Sufi Parween)

‘“We are requesting the Bihar madrasa board to re-issue the marksheets in order to save the future of the children,” he says.

They are also planning to source the course books and other study material from the government as well as contemplating upon their digitization in order to safeguard “against any possibility of permanent loss of records in the future.”

“The damaged structures will be rebuilt, but the loss of knowledge is irrecoverable,” says Syed Shah Saifuddin Firdausi, president of Soghra Waqf Board, that manages the properties of Bibi Soghra, a 19th century philanthropist who had endowed her estates to the cause of educating the poor. Madarsa Azizia was one of the institutions she built, in 1896. Earlier located in Patna, the campus was shifted to Bihar Sharif in 1910, and got government recognition in 1930. Some of its illustrious alumni include writer Maulana Masood Alam Nadvi, former Darul Uloom Deoband mufti Maulana Nizamuddin, former registrar of Veer Kunwar Singh University Dr. MM Kamal and former principal of Madarsa Aliah, Kolkata, Maulana Abu Salma.

Burnt classroom(Photo: Sufi Parween)

Arrested out on bail

Firdausi says that the madarsa was attacked in 2017, when during Holi, some miscreants had pelted stones and vandalized the building. This year, though, Firdausi alleges, that the “attack was part of a big conspiracy.” 

On April 1, a day after the attack, the madarsa authorities lodged an FIR against the perpetrators.  Some 180 people were arrested but many are now out on bail. They were the same set of people named in different FIRs, related to similar communally charged incidents of violence in Bihar during Ram Navami this year. The charge sheet is expected to be filed next month.

By making a pit of 8 feet at this place, 4,500 books were buried (Photo: Sufi Parween)

A teacher, who requested anonymity, said the incident has caused an unsaid unease between Hindus and Muslims in Bihar Sharif, a town of 4 lakh people, 34 per cent of which are Muslim. “Before this incident, our interfaith relations were warm. Our Madrasa and Shahi Masjid are in the east and the temple is in the west. They had no issue with azaan, nor do we have any problem with bhajans. This city is said to be the place of Sufi saints.  Whatever happened was hatched by outsiders,” he says.

The burnt library.(Photo: Sufi Parween)

How the composite legacy of this town is affected in the long run by the attack on the iconic Madarsa Azizia remains to be seen.

Sufi Parween is a fellow with the TCN-SEED mentorship programme