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The Burning of the Jaffna Public Library by the Police in 1981 – 1

By Sundra Ganesan

In 1933, the same year the Nazis burnt large numbers of books that they considered ‘anti-German’, the idea of setting up a library in Jaffna was born.

The Jaffna Public Library (JPL) would have celebrated its golden jubilee in 1983 had it not been burned down in 1981. Instead, June 2012 marked the 31st anniversary of the tragedy.

1933 was a difficult time in Sri Lanka. The economy was slow and unemployment was very high. Amid the gloom, one K.M. Chellappah, who worked for the District Court in Jaffna, circulated an appeal in English and Tamil for ‘A Central Free Tamil Library in Jaffna’, and approached labourers, unions, teachers, authors, business people and prominent retirees for support.

He insisted the library would house not just a Tamil collection, but would also hold books in other languages. The idea caught on, and soon a seminal meeting of interested individuals passed a resolution agreeing that ‘a Central Free Tamil Library Association be formed with the original subscribers and others who are present at this meeting as original members of the Association.’

With support in cash and kind flowing in from many quarters, the library was inaugurated on 1 August 1934 in a rented building on Jaffna’s Hospital Street. The initial collection was 844 books and 30 newspapers and periodicals. Professor S.R. Ranganathan, who at the time was the head of the library at Delhi University and considered the ‘Father of Library Science’ in India, advised the organization of the collection and the library.

Early success

Yet, it was a British clergyman named Father Long who helped to determine the library’s early success. He helped form the Jaffna Library Society, and secured cooperation from as far afield as the British Library and the library at Delhi University. Father Long also came up with a plan to establish a central library in Jaffna town, and to open branch libraries in all of Jaffna’s towns, village and colleges. In addition, there would be mobile libraries to cater to those areas the branches could not reach. The central library moved several times as the collection grew, but after some disagreement over a permanent location, construction began in the centre of Jaffna town in 1953. The new building opened on 11 October 1959.

The library went from strength to strength, winning the support of successive Jaffna mayors and also raising funds through lotteries, carnivals and plays. The Jaffna Library had become more than an institution – it was a movement. By 1960, the library had amassed 16,000 books, a major collection of magazines in Tamil and English, and a large collection of manuscripts. Among these were remarkable historical materials such as early colonial accounts of Ceylon and commentaries on Tolkappiyam, the oldest grammar text in the Tamil language.

In 1959, the library occupied 15,910 square feet and was bigger than the Colombo Library of the Metropolitan Sabha. It had a reference section, a section dedicated to novels, a children’s section, an acquisitions section, a lending section, a conference hall, and an exhibition hall with art galleries. It also had 33 staff and more than 17,000 members, and enjoyed the support of prominent Tamil scholars such as P. Kumaraswamy and Arumuka Navalar, a revered Saivaite scholar whose collection of manuscripts was housed at the library.

The burning

In the late 20th century the South of Ceylon saw the revival of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. In response, the Tamils in the North maintained a group consciousness by identifying themselves with their language, culture, territory and Hindu faith. The tensions culminated by the 1980s into an ethnic conflict that created tremendous hatred between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. On 1 June 1981, Sinhala police forces set the JPL on fire. Writing several years later, the scholar Nancy Maury recorded the extent of the damage:

With several high-ranking Sinhalese security officers and two Cabinet Ministers, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake (both self-confessed Sinhala supremacists) present in the town of Jaffna, uniformed security men and plainclothes thugs carried out some well-organized acts of destruction. They burned to the ground certain chosen targets – including the Jaffna Public Library, with its 95,000 volumes and priceless manuscripts, a Hindu temple, the office and machinery of the independent Tamil daily newspapers Eelanadu.

The Sinhalese police did not allow even a single sheet of paper to be rescued from the fire. Extremely rare items were lost, among them the only existing copy of the Yalpana Vaipavamalai (a history of Jaffna), miniature editions of the Ramayana, and microfilms of the Udhaya Tharakai, a bilingual journal published by missionaries in the early 20th century. The burning devastated all those associated with the library; Reverend David, an important scholar, reportedly died of shock upon hearing the news the next morning.

Following the burning, A. Amirthalingam, Leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front and leader of the opposition at the time spoke in the Sri Lankan Parliament to name those who had masterminded the carnage and substantiated his statement with strong evidence. Yet, the government, then under the presidency of J.R. Jayewardene, showed no interest in holding a serious inquiry.

In Tamil Nadu, newspapers did not report the burning for several days, probably due to censorship by government officials in Jaffna.

The Hindu noted on 6 June 1981 that “A public library with its entire collection of books has been burnt,” and on 13 June it quoted Amirthalingam saying the library had held “95,000 volumes, some of which were rare and centuries old.” The Dinamani, a Tamil daily from Chennai, reported the burning on 3 June 1981, but that report was overshadowed by coverage of the riots and subsequent curfew in Jaffna, where many other buildings had also been set on fire. Only on 5 June did the newspapers give any significant attention to the loss of the JPL. But the coverage could never transmit the scale of the loss, and many Tamils outside Jaffna remained unaware of the massive blow to Tamil heritage.

But the disaster was destined to come to the public’s attention eventually.(TO BE CONTINUED)