The burning and rebuilding of Jaffna Public Library

At midnight on 31st May 1981, the prestigious Jaffna Public Library was set ablaze by Sri Lankan security forces and state-sponsored Sinhala mobs. The library housed over 97,000 rare books and manuscripts, positioning it as one of the largest in Asia and the foremost repository of Tamil literature and culture.

Library’s Origins

The library was inaugurated on 1st August 1934 in a rented building on Jaffna’s Hospital Street after an appeal for “A Central Free Tamil Library in Jaffna”, was made several years earlier. Initially the collection consisted of 844 books and 30 newspapers.

The central library moved several times as the collection grew, and construction of a permanent site began in the centre of Jaffna town in 1953. The new building opened on 11 October 1959. By 1960 the library had expanded and amassed over 16,000 books with a significant collection magazine and manuscripts in both Tamil and English.

Set ablaze

In the late-19th century, post independence, the south of Sri Lanka 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 faith. 

The postcolonial state was largely dominated by Sinhalese chauvinist Buddhists who rallied on their own ideology that Sri Lanka was “inherently and rightfully” a purely Buddhist and Sinhalese state. The tensions mounted by the 1980s into an ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

In 1981, during long-awaited elections, Tamils hoped to remedy a lack of political representation. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) emerged to best represent the Tamils and sought for an independent state. The Sinhalese ruling party, UNP, were determined to control the results, and ordered a group of police, paramilitaries, and thugs in state owned vehicles to intimidate Tamil voters. On Sunday May 31st 1981, a rally was held by TULF, which witnessed the shooting of three Sinhalese policemen, two fatally.

This framed picture depicts the library in 1981, after it was destroyed in a fire that Sri Lankan Tamils suspect was set by government police.

Violence ensued that evening, as Sinhalese police and paramilitaries began a pogrom that lasted three days. The TULF headquarters were burned, as were the offices and press of the Tamil language newspaper, Eelanadu. Tamil-owned businesses and places of worship were looted and torched, statues of Tamil cultural and religious figures were destroyed and defaced. Four Tamils were even dragged from their homes and killed. 

Ruins of the old Jaffna Public Library remain January 1, 1991 in downtown Jaffna, Sri Lanka. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Then late on the first night, eyewitnesses saw uniformed police and Sinhalese gang members set fire to the Jaffna Public Library. All the while, two notorious Sinhala chauvinist cabinet ministers – Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake (who were in Jaffna for the council elections), watched the library burn from the veranda of the nearby Jaffna Rest House. They later described it as an ‘unfortunate incident’, ‘where a few policemen got drunk’. 

National newspapers failed to cover the burning of the pogrom, only to be reported by India media days later on 5th June. But the press never managed to relay the scale of the loss, and many Tamils residing outside of Jaffna remained unaware of the incredible loss to their Tamil heritage. The library was attacked in an aggressive act of biblioclasm, the deliberate destruction of books. 

Sinhalese politicians expressed no remorse as they continued to drive home messages of ‘if the Tamils were unhappy, they should leave Sri Lanka and return to their homeland, India.’

Caught in crossfire

After the initial destruction, the community began to rebuild and replenish the library. In May 1982, thousands of books were collected and repairs on some parts of the building were nearing completion. As tensions boiled over a war broke out in 1983 between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE which dampened hopes of reopening. The building was damaged in cross file by bullets, shells and bombs. A brief reopening in 1984 was short lived as it was struck again in 1985.

Repair

During peacetime, in the early 2000s, the locals and the government were keen in the reconstruction of the library, however, there were conflicting views: either to restore the library building to its former glory or to keep the burned-out building as a memorial and raise a new building nearby instead. Many Tamil locals, intellectuals and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) were for the latter. The Sri Lankan government, eager to erase all traces of the tragedy and embarrassment and to win over the Tamils in the north decided to ignore calls of a memorial and repair the old building. Through conflict and postponing dates of re-inauguration, the restored building was reopened in 2003.

Librarians catalogue new books on November 13, 2003 in Jaffna Public Library in northern Sri Lanka. (Photo by Luis Ascui/Getty Images)

The burning of Jaffna library was the first attempt at erasing the history and existence of Tamil people. Whilst they can burn books, they can’t destroy ideas nor a memory, these live on in the people.

“I think that, when libraries are targeted, the idea is to destroy entire culture, and to deny learning… We love our books, and we lost most precious ones…What was lost will remain lost to the people of Jaffna. We can add new books, but nothing can replace the old books, what was lost will remain lost forever.”

Rohini Pararajasingam, the University of Jaffna’s former chief librarian (quoted 2014).