Tuesday, June 1, 2021

shameful attack on culture - biblioclasm - burning of Jaffna Library - 40 years ago !

Jaffna (யாழ்ப்பாணம்)   is the capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is the administrative headquarters of the Jaffna District located on a peninsula of the same name.  .. .. and this post is on a sad event that occurred this day 40 years ago !  In 1884, per the OED, William Lewer wrote, of the Spanish conquerors in the new world “made bonfires of the Maya and Aztec manuscripts..  May these bishops expiate their crimes in the purgatory of biblioclasts!’’ 

Ever heard of ‘the Battle of North’ – unlikely that you would ever find this in any History related searches – clue is – it relates to Sri Lanka !!

The inaugural flight by Air Ceylon on 10 Dec 1947 was from Ratmalana Airport to Madras via Palaly.  After independence the airport provided domestic flights to Colombo (Ratmalana) and Trincomalee, and international flights to south India (Madras and Tiruchirappalli.  Now there is - Jaffna International Airport   (IATA: JAF, ICAO: VCCJ), formerly known as Palaly Airport,  also a military airbase The airport is located in the town of Palaly near Kankesanthurai, 7 nautical miles (13 km; 8 mi) north of the city of Jaffna.  The airport was originally built by the Royal Air Force during World War II, after which it functioned as the country's second international airport.  

Mallakam Sri Baskaran Cricket Ground, Jaffna also known as Mallakam Cricket Ground,  has been constructed recently and the  ground has been  named after late philanthropist Sri Baskaran as a tribute for donating his land on a 60 year lease.  The cricket ground was officially declared open on 14 March 2021 with the motive of developing interest in cricket among the youth in the Jaffna peninsula.  On that day, an exhibition T20 cricket match was played  between two intra Jaffna based teams. 


The burning of the Jaffna Public Library  took place on the night of June 1, 1981, when an organized mob of Sinhalese individuals went on a rampage, burning the library. It was one of the most violent examples of cultural attacks, of  ethnic biblioclasm (burning of books)  of the 20th century . At the time of its destruction, the library was one of the biggest in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts.

It was a priceless treasure-trove,  built in many stages starting from 1933, from a modest beginning as a private collection. Soon, with the help of primarily local citizens, it became a full-fledged library. The library also became a repository of archival material written in palm leaf manuscripts, original copies of regionally important historic documents in the contested political history of Sri Lanka and newspapers that were published hundreds of years ago in the Jaffna peninsula. It thus had become  a place of historic and symbolic importance to all Sri Lankans.  The first major wing of the library was opened in 1959 by then Jaffna mayor Alfred Duraiappah. The architect of the Indo-Saracenic style building was S. Narasimhan from Madras, India. Prominent Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan served as an advisor to ensure that the library was built to international standards. The library became the pride of the local people as even researchers from India and other countries began to use it for their research purposes.

Alas – that had a sad ending !  ..  on Sunday, May 31, 1981, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), held a rally in which three Sinhalese policemen were shot and two killed. That night police and paramilitaries began a pogrom that lasted for three days. The head office of TULF party was destroyed. The Jaffna MP V. Yogeswaran's residence was also destroyed. Four people were pulled from their homes and killed at random. Many business establishments and a local Hindu temple were also deliberately destroyed.

On the night of June 1, according to many reports, police and government-sponsored paramilitias set fire to the Jaffna public library and destroyed it completely. Over 97,000 volumes of books along with numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed.  It was reported that  several high-ranking security officers and two cabinet ministers were present in the town of Jaffna, when uniformed security men and plainclothes  mob carried out organized acts of destruction. After 20 years the government-owned Daily News newspaper, in an editorial in 2001, termed the 1981 event an act by "goon squads let loose by the then government". .. ..and few more years later, in 2016, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the leader of the United National Party tendered  an official apology in Sri Lankan Parliament too – but the damage done is irreparable.   

The library housed documents of invaluable worth, such as the only existing copy of the Yalpanam Vaipavama, a history of Jaffna written by Tamil poet Mayilvagana Pulavar in 1736. The library held miniature editions of the Hindu Ramayana epic, yellowing collections of extinct Tamil-language newspapers, microfilms of important documents, and records of the Morning Star, a journal published by Christian missionaries during the colonial rule of the island. Moreover, it housed close to 100,000 Tamil books and rare, old manuscripts and documents. Some of the precious documents were written on dried palm leaves and stored in fragrant sandalwood boxes. Documents in the library included historical scrolls on herbal medicine and the manuscripts of prominent intellectuals, writers, and dramatists – and they wound up in ashes.

For Tamils, the devastated library became a symbol of "physical and imaginative violence". The attack was seen as an assault on their aspirations, the value of learning and traditions of academic achievement. The attack also became the rallying point for Tamil rebels to promote the idea to the Tamil populace that their race was targeted for annihilation.    


Jaffna Public Library being rebuilt, with partly burned right-wing. At the front is a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, as it stood earlier too. 

Thus the burning of the Jaffna Public Library was not a simple arson attack. It was a ferocious harbinger of the coming devastating war, which started in 1983 with the so-called Black July and ended in May 2009, resulting in approximately 200,000 deaths and what is still the second highest number of enforced disappearances in the world. The library burning was an attempt to rob the Tamil community of pride and dignity. It aimed at wiping out their heritage.  

It is insignificant – the Battle of the North is an annual cricket match played between Jaffna Central College and St. John's College, Jaffna, two schools in northern Sri Lanka, from the year 1904 !  

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
1st June 2021.
Pictures from twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Mr Sampathkumar, forty years later, has peace really been guaranteed for the Tamil speaking Srilankans? What is your assessment? What kind of steps by the Government and the public would still be needed if there is any doubt about the guarantee?

    ReplyDelete