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Jaffna Library burns - May 31st 1981

On 31st May 1981, the crucible of Tamil literature and heritage - the Jaffna Public Library - was set ablaze by state security forces and state sponsored mobs.

Over 95,000 unique and irreplaceable Tamil palm leaves (ola), manuscripts, parchments, books, magazines and newspapers, housed within an impressive building inspired by ancient Dravidian architecture, were destroyed during the burning that continued unchecked for two nights. The library was one of the largest in Asia.

The destruction took place under the rule of the UNP at a time when District Development Council elections were underway, and two notorious Sinhala chauvinist cabinet ministers - Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake - were in Jaffna. Earlier on the 31st May, three Sinhalese police officers were killed during a rally by the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front).

Nancy Murray, a western author, wrote at the time ''uniformed security men and plainclothes thugs carried out some well organised acts of destruction”.

"They burned to the ground certain chosen targets - including the Jaffna Public Library, with its 95,000 volumes and priceless manuscripts…no mention of this appeared in the national newspapers, not even the burning of the library, the symbol of Tamils' cultural identity. The government delayed bringing in emergency rule until 2 June, by which time the key targets had been destroyed."

Virginia Leary wrote in Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka - Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists, July/August 1981, that “the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library was the incident, which appeared to cause the most distress to the people of Jaffna."

The Movement for Inter-racial Justice and Equality said in a report, after sending a delegation to Jaffna,

"If the Delegation were asked which act of destruction had the greatest impact on the people of Jaffna, the answer would be the savage attack on this monument to the learning and culture and the desire for learning and culture of the people of Jaffna... There is no doubt that the destruction of the Library will leave bitter memories behind for many years."

In 2001, then mayor of Jaffna Nadarajah Raviraj stated that the burning “is in my memory”.''Still I feel like crying after 20 years,'' he said.

Mr Raviraj was assassinated in Colombo in November 2006. Still no-one has been held accountable for his murder.

Speaking to reporters last year retired chief librarian S Thanabaalasinham recalled the burning. "It was completely destroyed,” he said. “And at that time, nobody knows who was inside the library."

He said that 97,000 volumes had been burnt, including "valuable books of Hindu philosophers, irreplaceable ancient texts, scrolls written on palm leaves".

"The history of the Tamil people" was incinerated he said.

In 2010 the library was once again vandalised by a group of Sinhalese tourists. The Sinhalese group had attempted to gain access to the library whilst it was closed for an All Ceylon Medical Association seminar that weekend. Denied entry the “tourists reacted by running amok” said the BBC, “breaking some of the shelves and throwing books on the ground”.

They also went on to vandalise a statue of veteran Tamil politician S J V Chelvanayagam, remembered across the Tamil nation for spear heading the Vaddukoddai resolution.

During her visit to the Jaffna Library in November last year, Ambassador Samantha Power announced the United States will fund the restoration of ancient Tamil manuscripts in Jaffna.

She told Jaffna Library staff “we plan to partner with you as you seek to complete the task of preserving what you have,” adding that the ancient manuscripts give the next generation a “window to the past”.

Cultural Vandalism and Genocide

The term genocide is only a recent one, having been coined in 1945 by Raphael Lemkin, lecturer on comparative law at the Institute of Criminology of the Free University of Poland and Deputy Prosecutor of the District Court of Warsaw. Since then, it has become a crucial term for understanding events, particularly ethnic violence, in the world.

Lemkin defined genocide as "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves."

He said that the objective of such a plan would be disintegration of the political
and social institutions of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

For Lemkin, "genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group."

Whilst genocide has come to be associated with the concentrated killings of large numbers of people, such as in a few bloody month in Rwanda recently or during the years of the Holocuast of WW2, Lemkin's concept is just as valid if it happens over decades.

Furthermore, the destruction of a people's culture, whilst not given particular attention in the massive bloodletting which has characterised the well known instances of genocide, remains an integral part of the crime as Lemkin saw it.

"An attack targeting a collectivity can also take the form of systematic and organized destruction of the art and cultural heritage in which the unique genius and achievement of a collectivity are revealed in fields of science, arts and literature," he wrote. "The contribution of any particular collectivity to world culture as a whole forms the wealth of all of humanity, even while exhibiting unique characteristics."

"The [perpetrator] causes not only the immediate irrevocable losses of the destroyed work as property and as the culture of the collectivity directly concerned (whose unique genius contributed to the creation of this work); it is also all humanity which experiences a loss by this act of vandalism."

"In the acts of barbarity, as well as in those of vandalism, the asocial and destructive spirit of the [perpetrator] is made evident,” said Lemkin. “This spirit, by definition, is the opposite of the culture and progress of humanity."

(Adapted from Tamil Guardian edition 06 June 2001)