This day, 25 years back, the splendid Jaffna public library, housing 97,000 rare books and manuscripts, was burned to the ground by rampaging Sinhalese Buddhist Mobs.
The destruction of the Jaffna Public Library, the minority Tamil Hindu’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.
By Rebecca Knuth
Tamil and Sinhalese conflicts emerged after decolonization. When the British took over control of the region they called Ceylon in 1796, they administered the Tamil areas as a separate entity. But by 1815 they had conquered the whole island and set up a centralized government in Colombo.
The British enforced supremacy for the English language and Christianity. In the late nineteenth century, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was revived in the south, and in the north the Tamils maintained group consciousness by retaining their own language, culture, territory, and Hindu faith.
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.
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.
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.
With privileged-minority status assured by the British, the Tamils, although only one-fifth of the population, were well represented in the government until independence in 1948. Before leaving Ceylon, the British established both Sinhalese and Tamil as national languages.
But the postcolonial government was increasingly dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists who operated on the “fact” that Sri Lanka was “inherently and rightfully” a purely Buddhist and Sinhalese state. In the face of intense competition over economic opportunities, education, and political power and representation, Sinhalese officials saw their role as rectifying perceived inequities by directing resources away from the Tamils and towards their own ethnic group. In their eyes, decreasing Tamil influence was a necessary part of fostering Buddhist cultural renaissance.
Language policy became a vehicle for cementing pre-eminence as Sinhalese-only policies undermined the Tamils’ ability to secure and retain government and professional positions. Politicians diverged from this path at their peril: In the late 1950s the Buddhist prime minister declared Sinhalese to be the only official language; upon vacillating in the face of Hindu protests, he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk who considered him to be a traitor to the faith. Buddhism became the state religion.
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 anti-Western 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 rumours 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, 31 May , 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. For Tamils who had come from the “arid, hardscrabble north” and risen to prominence in the professions and civil service through a devotion to education, the attack was an assault on their aspirations, value for learning, and traditions of academic achievement.
The attack convinced many that the Sinhalese intended to extinguish Tamil culture and race in Sri Lanka. Group loyalty solidified, and the secessionist militancy of Tamil radicals was affirmed. After the attack on the Jaffna library, the Sinhalese government accelerated its long-standing pattern of muzzling those who favored compromise.
For moderates within both groups, the burning of the library brought home the horrors of ethnic conflict, with its renunciation of liberal traditions in the face of concerted efforts to maintain violent emotional reactivity. The attack on the library ultimately benefited all those, Tamil and Sinhalese alike, who wished to foreclose a robust civil society and arrest public debate.
The demise of the Jaffna Library facilitated a power shift among the Tamils. Radicals gained power and attacked not only the Sinhalese majority but also Tamil liberals, who until that point had maintained at least some influence. In an increasingly polarized atmosphere, both Sinhalese and Tamil extremists seemed bent on negating any definition of Tamil identity that centered on a pluralistic culture of learning.
Moderate Tamil liberals, as a result, were forced into exile. Some of those who remained and witnessed the ensuing civil war would become profoundly despairing. In 1990, a Jaffna poet, Sivaramani (2001), made a bonfire of her poetry and then committed suicide. Her poem, “A War-Torn Night,” mourns the brutalization of Tamil culture and renunciation of critical thinking.
The pogrom of 1981 was followed by violent outbreaks in 1983. Tamil guerillas ambushed an army patrol and triggered another anti-Tamil riot in which Buddhists massacred hundreds of Hindus. Then, in turn, the fanatical Tamil Liberation Tigers launched terror campaigns with bombings and executions.
Armed Hindu groups attacked Buddhist holy sites and shot Buddhist monks in line-ups. In one incident, 173 people were killed. Counter-executions and retaliatory cycles of violence led to full-scale civil war in which an estimated 65,000 people died and 1.6 million were displaced. Jaffna was controlled by the Tamil Tigers from 1990-95. It was captured by the Sinhalese government in 1996, whereupon Norway brokered an uneasy cease fire.
In May, 1982, a year after the library’s initial destruction, the community had sponsored Jaffna Public Library Week and worked together to collect thousands of books. Repairs on parts of the building were near completion when war broke out in June, 1983, and the library building was damaged by bullets, shells, and bombs.
Partially restored rooms were reopened in 1984 only to be caught in the crossfire yet again in 1985. When Tamil rebels attacked a police station near the library, a librarian was able to negotiate safe passage for the staff and students. But that night Sinhalese soldiers entered the lending room and set off bombs that shredded thousands of books. The library was finally abandoned and its shell- and bulletpocked walls, blackened with the smoke of burnt books, haunted the city.
In 1998, the government began renovating the library in response to international demands for a negotiated end to the war. It was an effort to win back the confidence of the Tamil people. The media minister publicly lamented the destruction of the library as an “evil act,” the product of hatred and misguided politics on the part of the previous government. One million dollars was spent and 25,000 books in the Tamil and English languages were collected. By 2001 a replacement building was finally built. The opening was to serve as a step for healing the wounds of two decades of warfare, but political conflict over its opening highlighted the mistrust that lingered.
(Reproduced with permission from Destroying a Symbol: Checkered History of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Public Library - Rebecca Knuth University of Hawaii USA)