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Burning of Jaffna library

Burning of Jaffna library
Burnt shell of the library
Location Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Date May 31 to June 1, 1981 (+6 GMT)
Target Primarily Sri Lankan Tamil
Attack type
Burning, Shooting
Weapons Fire, Guns
Deaths 4
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrators rioters

The burning of the Jaffna library (Sinhalese origin went on a rampage on the nights of May 31 to June 1, 1981, burning the Jaffna Public Library. It was one of the most violent examples of ethnic biblioclasm of the 20th century.Term[›][1] At the time of its destruction, the library was one of the biggest in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts.[2][3]


  • Background 1
  • The riot and the burning 2
  • Reaction 3
    • President Ranasinghe Premadasa 3.1
    • President Mahinda Rajapakse 3.2
  • Government investigation 4
  • Reopening of the Library 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


The library was 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 Contest[›]political history of Sri Lanka and newspapers that were published hundreds of years ago in the Jaffna peninsula. It thus became a place of historic and symbolic importance to all Sri Lankans.[4][5]

Eventually 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.[4][5]

The riot and the burning

Damaged dome with holes made by shelling

On Sunday May 31, 1981, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a regionally popular democratic party, held a rally in which three majority Sinhalese policeman were shot and two killed.Political situation[›]

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 eyewitnesses, police and government-sponsored paramilitias set fire to the Jaffna public library and destroyed it completely.[1] Over 97,000 volumes of books along with numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed.[5] Among the destroyed items were scrolls of historical value and the works and manuscripts of philosopher, artist and author Ananda Coomaraswamy and prominent intellectual Prof. Dr. Isaac Thambiah. The destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture, and those of locally reputed physicians and politicians.[5]

The office of the Eelanaadu, a local newspaper, was also destroyed. Statues of Tamil cultural and religious figures were destroyed or defaced.

  • About Jaffna Library in Tamil
  • Official website of the Jaffna library
  • Jaffna library vandalized 2010
  • Documentary on the burning of the library by Someetharan
  • History of the Jaffna public library
  • Burning Books - Reported by Kevin Sites

External links

  • Rebecca Knuth (2003), Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. New York: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-98088-X
  • Rebecca Knuth (2006), Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction. New York: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-99007-9
  • Nicholas A. Basbanes (2003), A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-008287-9

Further reading

  1. ^ a b c d e f g
  2. ^
  3. ^ Wilson, A.J. Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, p.125
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ a b c d e f
  6. ^
  7. ^ Nancy Murray (1984), Sri Lanka: Racism and the Authoritarian State, Issue no. 1, Race & Class, vol. 26 (Summer 1984)
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b c d
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^


  • ^ Term: Biblioclasm, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the deliberate destruction of books, a cultural offence of the first magnitude. Some of the ancient calamities are destruction of the Alexandria library in Egypt. A well-known historic event was the destruction of thousands of books made from the bark of trees and bearing the wisdom of Mayan culture, which were burnt in 1562 in Mexico, because a Spanish friar wanted to "cleanse" the natives of "devilish" thoughts. The late 20th century China's Red Guard wiped out artifacts and books in the takeover of Tibet in the 1960s. Pol Pot destroyed many books in the genocide of Cambodia in the 1970s. On August 25, 1992, the Serbs extended "ethnic cleansing" to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, resulting in 1.5 million books and manuscripts being incinerated in one night.[18]
  • ^ Contest: In the post-colonial era the history of immigration patterns of various ethnic communities from India to Sri Lanka has become a dimension that fuels the ethnic conflict. Sinhala nationalists maintain that as they descend from the original “Yaksha” clans of Sri Lanka (later mixed with immigrants from India about 2600 years ago), they have special rights to scarce resources, jobs and other opportunities. Government policies that have favored this interpretation has run into opposition from the minority Tamils who during the colonial period enjoyed an un-proportionately greater share of available opportunities. As a response, Tamils too began to emphasize their history of earlier immigration from India. The library 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 nation.[19]
  • ^ Nancy Murray:  Director, Bill of Rights Education Project with American Civil Liberties Union.[20]
  • ^ Political situation: Sri Lanka’s nation-building program became intimately linked with a Sinhalisation of the state directive. It was expected that the minorities would be assimilated into this new Sinhalese Buddhist nation-state. Moreover, the 1956 election marked the beginning of an era of ethnically based party politics.[21] One form of extremism and violence led to the other and by 1981 there were some minority radical Tamil youth who were legitimizing terrorist attacks against the state as a response to alleged state violence.[22]
  • ^ Reaction: Some majority 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. Thus the attack on the library was used to send a message of point of no return for negotiations and indicated a willingness to engage the political process with further violence. Thus radical elements within both the communities took over the direction of further conflict management and marginalizing those moderates who wanted to resolve the conflict peacefully.[1][9]


See also

As an effort to win back the confidence of the Tamil people[5] and also to mollify international opinion, in 1998 under president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the government began the process to rebuild it with contributions from all Sri Lankans[14] and foreign governments.[15] Approximately US $1 million was spent and over 25,000 books were collected. By 2001 the replacement building was complete but the 2003 reopening of the rebuilt library was opposed by the rebel LTTE. This led to all twenty-one members of the Jaffna municipal council, led by Mayor Sellan Kandian, to tender their resignation as a protest against the pressure exerted on them to postpone the reopening.[16] Eventually the library was opened to the public.[17]

In 1982, one year after the initial destruction, the community sponsored Jaffna Public Library Week and collected thousands of books. Repairs on parts of the building were in progress when the Black July pogrom-induced civil conflict began in 1983. The library building was damaged by bullets and bombs. In 1985 after an attack on a nearby police station by Tamil rebels, soldiers entered the partially restored building and set off bombs that shredded thousands of books yet again. The library was abandoned with its shell and bullet pocked walls, blackened with the smoke of burnt books.[1]

Jaffna Public Library being rebuilt, with partly burned right wing. At the front is a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning

Reopening of the Library

According to Orville H. Schell, Chairman of the Americas Watch Committee, and Head of Amnesty International's 1982 fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka, the UNP government at that time did not institute an independent investigation to establish responsibility for these killings in May and June 1981 and take measures against those responsible.[13] But since 1991 all governments have taken responsibility for the destruction of the library[9] although no one has been indicted for the crimes yet.

Government investigation

He concluded in that speech that as a cumulative effect of all these atrocities, the peaceful voice of the Tamils is now drowned in the echo of the gun; referring to the rebel LTTE's terrorism.[12]

"Burning the Library sacred to the people of Jaffna was similar to shooting down Lord Buddha"

He was also further quoted as saying in reference to a prominent local Tamil poet, reminding the audience that

"The UNP is responsible for mass scale riots and massacres against the Tamils in 1983, vote rigging in the Northern Development Council elections and [the] burning of the Jaffna library"

In 2006 the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse was quoted as saying,

President Mahinda Rajapakse

He was accusing his political opponents within his UNP party, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, who had just brought an impeachment motion against him, as directly involved in the burning of the library in 1981.[9]

"During the District Development Council elections in 1981, some of our party members took many people from other parts of the country to the North, created havoc and disrupted the conduct of elections in the North. It is this same group of people who are causing trouble now also. If you wish to find out who burnt the priceless collection of books at the Jaffna Library, you have only to look at the faces of those opposing us."

In 1991 the then president of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe Premadasa publicly proclaimed that

President Ranasinghe Premadasa

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 educate the Tamil populace that their race was targeted for annihilation.[1][5]

Of all the destruction in Jaffna city, it was the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library that was the incident which appeared to cause the most distress to the people of Jaffna.[10][11] Twenty years later, the mayor of Jaffna Nadarajah Raviraj still grieved at the recollection of the flames he saw as a University student.[1] He was later killed by unknown gunmen in the capital Colombo in 2006.

Reaction[›][9] in Sri Lanka's Parliament, July 1981.M.P., Mr. W.J.M. Lokubandara-
"If there is discrimination in this land which is not their (Tamil) homeland, then why try to stay here. Why not go back home (India) where there would be no discrimination. There are your kovils and Gods. There you have your culture, education, universities etc. There you are masters of your own fate"
member is United National Party A direct quote from a [1]The national newspapers did not report the incident. In subsequent parliamentary debates some majority Sinhalese members told minority Tamil politicians that if Tamils were unhappy in Sri Lanka, they should leave for their 'homeland' in India.
"an unfortunate event, where [a] few policeman got drunk and went on a looting spree all on their own"
of the Jaffna Rest House (a government owned hotel), claimed that the incident was verandahTwo Cabinet ministers, who saw the destruction of government and private properties on the


[8].goon squads let loose by the then government in 2001, termed the 1981 event an act by editorial newspaper, in an Daily News After 20 years the government-owned [7]

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