A Burning: 31 Years Later

The Jaffna Public Library, before it was burnt in 1981.

31 years ago, today, the Jaffna Public Library, situated in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, was burnt to the ground. It was collateral damage of a long and bitter ethnic conflict which ultimately claimed many other things of value, including several thousands of human lives, property, homes, landmarks of culture and religion, of civilisation.

Eye-witnesses of the incident recounted that on 31 May/1 June 1981, officers of the Sri Lanka Police and government-sponsored paramilitias rioted through the town of Jaffna. One of their acts of violence was setting fire to the Jaffna Public Library and ultimately destroying it completely. This was done, it would seem, in retaliation to the murder of two Sinhalese Police Officers, who were shot and killed during a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF, a regionally popular democratic party) rally on 31 May. At the time of its destruction, the Jaffna Public Library housed over 97,000 books and manuscripts, some of which were very rare artefacts of Tamil literature.

I live in a home full of books. I always have. Every single room in our house – in every house we have ever lived in as a family – has its fair share of books. Every member of our family has their own extensive collection – my brother has his Science-Fiction novels and comic books, my mother has her feminist literature and political histories, I have my rows and rows of Dave Eggers, Aravind Adiga, Audrey Niffenegger, Salmah Rushdie. My grandfather, the oldest son of a hard-working school-master from Matale, came from a family that valued books and education (every single child in that family of nine, including two girls, went to University they say proudly), but didn’t have access to many. He made a new life for himself, a new identity, he perhaps made himself what his father never was; he spent the rest of his life reading, buying books, having book shelves built, surrounding himself with books: fiction (he thought Jane Austen was the best writer that ever lived), cinema, theatre and literary criticism (maybe next to Bertolt Brecht), histories of art, language, politics, religion, the world. He lived through books, often referring to a line of this or a sentence from that to articulate himself and his own ideas, to enrich his own anecdotes and stories. He often drew inspiration from the lives of the writers he loved, the writers he read, the writers he looked up to. In times when they had no money, my grandparents sometimes went as far as pawning my grandmother’s Indian silk saris, but their books – some of great value, some rare early editions – were never sold. These he passed on to his own children, and them, in turn to us.

We were taught to revere books – not in the way you’re taught at school in Sri Lanka (worship it with both hands if you drop it on the floor) – but in a way that transcended the differences in our ages, tastes and ideologies. Today, we’re all voracious readers, we read different things; but we read in bed, in the toilet, at the table, sitting in traffic, on the internet. We send things we think are worth reading to each other, we write things we like showing each other, we pass emails around and these threads continue for days on end, sometimes.

I say all this not in an attempt to appear superior – but in an attempt to lay some groundwork for what I am about to say next. My grandfather was Sinhalese, but he was a man who loved books. More importantly, he believed in what they represented. I remember even now, the look in my grandfather’s eyes when he spoke of the burning of the Jaffna library. It was the look of a man who had lost something like a part of his soul – a broken, defeated look. And even today, so many people – both Tamil and non-Tamil – simply people who believe in books, who believe in what they mean, who believe that the act of burning books is a cowardly, cruel act of violence against the best of mankind, must walk around with that feeling of absolute despair, a sense of personal and common mourning. This was when I learned that the burning of the Jaffna library was my loss too. It was something that we were all entitled to, that should have belonged to us all – and the tragedy belonged to us all, too.

The Jaffna Public Library housed thousands and thousands of books and manuscripts. Some were rare, original palm-leaf manuscripts which documented Tamil political and ethnic history, and therefore were vital to the overall narrative of Sri Lankan political and ethnic history, which, as we know, is now a hugely contested, Sinhala-dominant narrative. These manuscripts were not just integral in that they documented vital parts of Sri Lanka’s past, and our communities’ shared history, but they were culturally significant too, as artefacts of literature, as well as proof of the artistry and skill of our ancestors, who produced these beautiful hand-crafted manuscripts with great care. They told an important part of our story and stood as testament of the aesthetic quality of our traditional arts and crafts. The library also held the only original copy of Yalpana Vaipava Malai that documented the rise and fall of the Tamil and Hindu dominated Jaffna kingdom in the north of the island.

The library housed newspapers that were published hundreds of years ago in the Jaffna peninsula, and these too documented Tamil society and culture in a significant way. Furthermore, the library was known as being a beautiful work of architecture. All these things were forever lost that day.

When you destroy books, you destroy more than paper. You destroy words, you destroy ideas, entire ideologies. You destroy imagination. You destroy someone’s work – someone’s passion and commitment. You destroy time – time spent writing it, time spent reading it. You destroy the vitality of questions, the longing of those who ask those questions to have them answered. You deny someone that uplifting feeling like someone else understands them – some other person out there ‘gets it’. You destroy relationships, memory, history, identity, culture, nationality, ethnicity, family, love, compassion, knowledge. When you destroy stories, you destroy something new, something that could be – new ideas, new directions, pathways, alternatives. You destroy the power to resolve, transform and transcend peacefully, meaningfully. You destroy the power of reflection, of thought, of articulation. To destroy books is to attack a society’s intellect, its intelligence. Books represent the the very crux of our evolution, our progression and our growth as a species. Books represent what is good about us. It is a mark of the so-called ‘civilisation’ that we value so highly. To destroy books is horrendous. It is abhorrent. It means we are just animals – it means we are not intelligent, we are not evolved, we are not civilised.

The burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 was not just a repulsive act of violence, hatred and cruelty. It was not merely an act of book-burning. It was a deliberate erasing of Tamil culture, history and identity, and therefore a deliberate alteration of Sri Lankan culture, history and identity. It was an act of ethnic cleansing. It was a crime against humanity.

This deplorable act has never been officially condemned or atoned for by any Sri Lankan government. Several politicians in power have vaguely taken responsibility for it, usually in the hope that it will result in winning the trust of the Northern Tamil electorate, but no one has ever been indicted or punished for the crime. No one has ever launched a genuine and independent investigation into the matter. No one has asked for the forgiveness of the Tamil people, or indeed the Sri Lankan nation, for this blatant robbing of what was ours.  No one has ever attempted to truly condemn this as an act of the ugliest brand of racism, an uncivilised and disgraceful act that successfully erased an important element of our nation’s identity, nor has it ever been condemned as a an act of the highest order against the values of knowledge and education, the importance of culture, the immense integrity of books and the intellectual property they represent.

Instead, it became yet more ammunition in a detestable game of political oneupmanship. In 1991, the President in power at the time, Ranasinghe Premadasa, publicly blamed his political opponents who had just brought an impeachment motion against him. Sri Lanka’s present President, Mahinda Rajapakse, blames his political opposition, the political party that Premadasa belonged to, the United National Party (UNP).
Subsequently, starting from 1982, efforts to rebuild the library were continuously interrupted by the war and the open warfare that took place in the north of Sri Lanka between the separatist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) and the armed forces of the Sri Lankan government. Finally, in 2003, in an event surrounded by political controversy, the Jaffna Public Library was reopened to the public.
31 years later, it remains significantly gruesome and violent, even among the rest of the bloodshed and devastation that Sri Lankans were forced to endure because of the civil war. It remains the kind of thing that makes me angry – though I myself can claim no memory of it, though I know that it is just one of many, many utterly evil things that occurred.
I would like to commemorate what we lost that day – not simply as a nation, but as a people. As a nation, we lost an important landmark of our culture and history, an iconic monument of Tamil culture, of Sri Lanka and of the North, an erstwhile hub of art and culture. We lost a treasury of irreplaceable books, but we also lost an important part of who we are. We lost an unknowable piece of ourselves, as it went up in flames along with those books. We lost our humanity, in committing this premeditated act of senseless violence. We lost an opportunity: the opportunity to have learned, to have acknowledged, to have made connections that might have been stronger than the ones we built later on the back of this loss and destruction, against the backdrop of further deepened bitterness and mistrust. We lost an innocence, a chance to reconcile – for how could things ever be the same again? How could we ever go back? We forced ourselves onto a trajectory that could only propagate more violence and more misunderstanding. We were accelerated onto a path from which we could not look back – we went on to burn more, kill more, die more.
Let us mark this tragedy today – 31 years on – a tragedy for us all. May no act of violence such as this ever rob us of our decency, our humanity, our chance to be better, again.
‘Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them.’
Kurt Vonnegut, in a letter written as a response to the Board of an American school that ordered his books (prescribed as reading material to the students of the school) be taken out of the library and burned.  

8 responses to “A Burning: 31 Years Later”

  1. Well wrote, Subha.

    Two senior UNP politicians – both now dead, one at the hands of the LTTE – sat on the Jaffna Resthouse veranda and drank while the flames from the burning library lit the sky.

  2. Great Piece. 1981, the president was JR correct?

  3. @Lanka: Yes, you’re right of course, thank you for pointing out the glitch in my post! Edited now.

  4. Subha, wonderful piece. Could I publish the intro and link it back to this blog of yours ? Further, would like to connect with you for any other contributions to my independent website which I am financing at present. isrilankan.com

  5. @Gaya: Yes, please do! Thank you for the comment. You can contact me on s.menike@gmail.com.

  6. Unfortunately the, ‘powers that be’ now use the library as a sightseeing destination, a showcase for to visitors to Jaffna, so that outsiders can see what a wonderful job they’ve done in making the library ‘rise’ from the ashes. Never mind the fact that troops of mostly southern, disinterested, noisy visitors disturb the quiet of the exam stressed students and long suffering readers. The library staff just…..endure. Therein lies a whole other story, one which I hope someone will write.
    Subha , Bandu has a whole essay on it, but only in his head at present. .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: