Sri Lanka, thirty one years after: Burning of the Jaffna Public Library, May 1981

Destroying a Symbol: the checkered History of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Public Library 
by Rebecca Knuth: 

Despite (or, in some cases, because of) modern revulsion for book burning, the destruction of libraries in the last century has continued unabated. My new book, Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction probes the dynamics of library destruction and devotes significant attention to the disturbing phenomenon of ethnic biblioclasm.. Seeing themselves as defenders of a beleaguered people, extremist groups (such as religious nationalists), execute book and library destruction as a high-stake, high-affect tactic in battles over clashing belief systems. With their own community sanctioning their actions, perpetrators operate with relative impunity. Extremism, however, breeds extremism. In Sri Lanka, the destruction (by the Sinhalese) of the Jaffna Public Library, the Tamil minority’s primary cultural institution, led to full-scale civil war. The shattered library served and still serves as a symbol of violation and ethnic violence..

The Jaffna Public Library began as the private collection of the scholar K.M. Chellapha, who began lending books from his home in 1933. In 1934, a committee set up a formal library, with Chellapha as secretary. Initially, 1000 books, newspapers, and journals were kept in a single room, but soon the collection was shifted into a building on Jaffna’s main street and was opened to subscribers. The library was so popular that a cross-section of prominent members of the community began raising
funds to build a permanent, modern building. A noted architect designed the new building, and prominent Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan served as an advisor to ensure that the library was held to international standards. Educated members of the community donated books. The main building opened in 1959. The children’s section and an auditorium were added later. The collection became well known internationally and was popular with Sinhalese and Tamil intellectuals, as well as the general public. It became the major repository for all known literary source materials of the Tamil people. By 1981, it had almost 100,000 Tamil books and rare, old manuscripts and documents, some written on dried palm leaves and stored in fragrant sandalwood boxes.

Burnt shell of the post event library
Some books were literally irreplaceable: the Yalpanam Vaipavama, a history of Jaffna, was the only existing copy. The library held miniature editions of the Ramayana epic, yellowing collections of extinct Tamil-language newspapers, and microfilms of important documents and records of the Morning Star, a journal published by missionaries in the early twentieth century (“Civilization and Culture…” 2003). It held historical scrolls, works on herbal medicine, and the manuscripts of prominent intellectuals, writers, and dramatists.  Indeed, one could think of the Jaffna Library as a national library even though a Tamil nation had not yet come into being...

The Sinhalese claimed power in Sri Lanka on both demographic and ideological grounds. Their destiny as an ethnic group was inseparable from their religious beliefs. Though Buddhists are generally perceived as pacifists, the Sinhalese believed that their charge of preserving the “true” Theravada Buddhism justified violent measures. Post colonial antiWestern sentiments fueled Buddhist nationalist claims that the Sinhalese jatiya (race or nation) had been weakened by the influence of Christianity, modern lifestyles, and foreign commerce. Throughout the 1970s, ethnic conflict was aggravated by the breakdown of traditional norms and the population’s frustration with inflation and economic problems.

Authoritarian measures used to maintain control pitted the government not only against the Tamils but also against civil society, liberalism, and moderation in general. United National Party (UNP) politicians and merchants hired gangs of “thugs” (a term that was common parlance in Sri Lanka) and used state-owned buses to transport them to sites where they broke up political meetings and protests and harassed opposition parties, trade unions, workers, and public employees. The thugs threatened judges, artists, and writers. They beat up Sri Lanka’s best known dramatist Ediriweera Sarachchandra, who had satirized the decay of cultural values brought on by the government’s policies. No one was ever prosecuted or arrested for these attacks. Rather, paramilitaries and the police were empowered by legislation that outlawed “terrorism,” which was the word used to describe dissent in any form.

A renewed sense of national pride grew alongside of an opposition to pluralism. Buddhist nationalism was constructed in direct opposition to the Tamils who were viewed as as “parayo”--foreign inferiors who had to be controlled or cast out if catastrophic disorder was to be avoided. Buddhist extremists promoted the notion that Buddhism was under attack by the Hindu Tamils, who dominated the northern part of the country and the city of Jaffna. “Threat” was magnified by the existence of  millions of Tamils in nearby India. The Sinhalese propaganda recast the Sri Lankan Tamils as longstanding enemies and the Sinhalese as chronically having had to fend off Tamil invasions. The violence that erupted was cyclical: when the Tamils balked at Sinhalese-only and other discriminatory policies, whether through peaceful protests or isolated terrorism, the Sinhalese government and people responded in a “mood of savage paranoia”.

The Sinhalese targeted the Tamils in violent riots in 1956, 1958, and 1977. These riots were similar to pogroms in that they were semi-organized and instigated as a frenzied response to atrocity stories and rumors that spread quickly and elicited first horror and then retribution. Systematic discrimination plus mob violence in turn radicalized many Tamils. During the 1970s, a budding culture of resistance, expressed first through literature, became increasingly politicized. In 1973, at its 12th Convention, the major Tamil political party, the Federal Party, invoked the recognized principle of the right to self-determination and resolved that the Tamils were fully qualified to be regarded as a separate Nation by virtue of their language, culture, history, and territory. In the second half of the 1970s, civil disobedience by Tamils increased. Youth groups embraced terrorism as a method of self-defense and viewed themselves as engaging in a holy war against the Sinhalese state. They confronted the government with guerilla tactics and through murder and robbery. They were not well organized, but the desire for a separate state had moved from the “lunatic fringes” into the center of Tamil political calculations and events were building to a showdown.

Flashpoint arrived in Jaffna in 1981 during long-awaited elections in which Tamils hoped to redress a lack of political representation. The Sinhalese UNP party, however, was determined to control the results and sent a contingent of police, paramilitaries, and thugs to intimidate Tamil voters. On Sunday, May 31, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) held a rally at which three Sinhalese policeman were shot, two fatally. That night the Sinhalese police and paramilitaries began a pogrom that lasted three days. The TULF headquarters was burned, as were the offices and press of the Tamil language newspaper. Statues of Tamil cultural and religious figures were defaced and demolished. A Hindu temple and over one hundred Tamil-owned shops and homes were looted and torched. Four Tamils were taken from their homes and killed. Late on the first night, eyewitnesses saw uniformed police and Sinhalese gang members set fire to the Jaffna Public Library. Two Sinhalese Cabinet members who watched it burn from the verandah of the nearby Jaffna Rest House claimed that it was “an ‘unfortunate incident,’ where a ‘few’ policeman ‘got drunk’ and went on a ‘looting spree,’ all on their own”.

National newspapers did not cover the event or the pogrom that accompanied it. Sinhalese politicians expressed no regrets and used subsequent parliamentary discussion to drive home the message sent by the library’s destruction: if the Tamils were unhappy, they should leave Sri Lanka and return to their homeland, India. The Tamils reacted to the loss of the building and collection with intense grief. Immediately afterwards, a journalist found a “heartbroken” local lecturer wandering through rooms thickly carpeted with half-burnt pages: He quoted him as saying “The Sinhalese were jealous of the library”. Twenty years later, the mayor of Jaffna, Nadarajah Raviraj, still grieved at the recollection of the flames he saw as a college student. For the Tamils, the devastated library became an icon of the “physical and imaginative violence” of Sinhalese extremists...

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Also see: Sri Lanka's historic Jaffna library 'vandalised' (November 2010):

A comment by Rohini Hensman: An excellent article, I like it very much. There are just two nuances where I would have put things differently. The author says that 'one could think of the Jaffna library as a national library, even though a Tamil nation had not yet come into being.' But I think it WAS a national library in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic Sri Lanka, and the loss of it was a loss for Sri Lankan culture as a whole. There is not the gulf between Sinhala and Tamil that has been created by nationalists on both sides. For example, of the major Tamil epics, several (I think five) are Buddhist ones, contrary to the usual view that all Buddhists are and always were Sinhala-speaking. Also I would not use 'the Sinhalese' in such a sweeping way ('the Sinhalese claimed power')- many Sinhalese did not see Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese nation!..

Books on the burning of books:
Rebecca Knuth (2003), Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. New York: Praeger.
Rebecca Knuth (2006), Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction. New York: Praeger.

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