Burning of Jaffna library

4 09 2009

The burning of the Jaffna library (Tamil: யாழ் பொது நூலகம் எரிப்பு) was an important event in the Sri Lankan civil war. An organized mob went on a rampage on the nights of May 31 to June 2, 1981, burning the Jaffna public library. It was one of the violent examples of ethnic biblioclasm of the twentieth century.Term[›][1] The library at the time of destruction was one of the biggest in Asia containing over 97,000 unique books and manuscripts. [2][3]


The library was built in many stages starting from 1933, from a modest beginnings 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 hundred of years ago in the Jaffna peninsula. It thus became a place of historic and symbolic importance to the local minority Sri Lankan Tamil people.[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 one 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

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

Four people were pulled from their homes and killed at random. Many business establishments and a local Hindu temple were also deliberately destroyed.

On May 31, night according to many eye witnesses saw police and government sponsored paramilitias set fire to the Jaffna public library and destroying it completely.[1] Over 97,000 volumes of books along with numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed.[5]Among the destroyed 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 medical physicians and politicians.[5]

Nancy MurrayNancy Murray[›] wrote in a journal article in 1984, that several high ranking security officers and two cabinet ministers were present in the town of Jaffna, when uniformed security men and plainclothes[6] mob carried out organized acts of destruction.[7] After 20 years the government owned Daily News, newspaper in an editorial in 2001 termed the 1981 event as an act by goon squads let loose by the then government.[8]


Two Cabinet ministers who saw the destruction of government and private properties on the verandah of the Jaffna Rest House (A government owned hotel) claimed that the incident was

“an unfortunate event, where few policeman got drunk and went on a looting spree all on their own”

The national newspapers did not carry information about the incident and in subsequent parliamentary debates some majority Sinhalese members reminded minority Tamil politicians that if Tamils were unhappy in Sri Lanka, they should leave for their homeland in India.[1] A direct quote from a United National Party member is

“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”

– Mr.W.J.M. Lokubandara, M.P. in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, July 1981.[9]Reaction[›]

Of all the destruction in Jaffna city it was the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library was the incident which appeared to cause the most distress to the people of Jaffna.[10][11] Twenty years later 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.

For Tamils the devastated library became a symbol of “physical and imaginative violence” of majoritan extremists. The attack was seen as an assault on their aspirations, value of learning and traditions of academic achievement. The attack also became the rallying point for Tamil radicals to convince the Tamil populace that their race was targeted for annihilation.[1][5]

President Ranasinghe Premadasa

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

“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”

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]

President Mahinda Rajapakse

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

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

He was also further quoted to say referencing a prominent local Tamil poet, reminding the audience that

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

He concluded in that speech that as a cumulative effect of the 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]

Government investigation

According to Orville H.Schell, Chairman of the Americas Watch Committee, and Head of the 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.

Reopening of the Library

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 on 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 smoke of burnt books.[1]

As an effort to win back 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 dollars 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 leading to all twenty one members of the Jaffna municipal council led by Mayor Sellan Kandian to tender their resignation as a protest to the pressure exerted on them to postpone the reopening of the library.[16] Eventually the library was opened to the public.[17] (See photo here)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Destroying a symbol“. IFLA. http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla72/papers/119-Knuth-en.pdf. Retrieved 2007-02-14.
  2. ^ Fire at Kandy public library“. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2007/02/070202_kandy_library.shtml. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  3. ^ Wilson, A.J. Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, p.125
  4. ^ a b History of the Public Librray“. Dailynews. http://www.dailynews.lk/2002/12/12/fea01.html. Retrieved 2007-04-13.
  5. ^ a b c d e f The reconstruction of the Jaffna library by Dr. Jayantha Seneviratne“. PRIU. http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/features/20020130jaffna_library.htm. Retrieved 2006-04-17.
  6. ^ Chronology of events in Sri lanka“. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/country_profiles/1166237.stm. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  7. ^ Nancy Murray (1984), Sri Lanka: Racism and the Authoritarian State, Issue no. 1, Race & Class, vol. 26 (Summer 1984)
  8. ^ EDITORIAL, DAILY NEWS“. Daily News. http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/EditorialReviews/erev200106/20010608editorialreview.html. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  9. ^ a b c d Over two decades after the burning down of the Jaffna library in Sri Lanka“. The Independent. http://www.independentsl.com/cgi-bin/newsscript1.cgi?record=1034. Retrieved 2006-03-15.
  10. ^ Peebles, Patrick (2006) [2006]. “chapter 10”. The History of Sri Lanka. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 133 & 134. ISBN 0313332053.
  11. ^ Ponnambalam, Satchi (1983) [1983]. Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle. London: Zed Books Ltd.. pp. 207 & 261. ISBN 0862321980.
  12. ^ Mahinda promises compensation for high security zone“. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2005/11/051104_mjaffna.shtml. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  13. ^ Burning of the Jaffna Library“. Amnesty International‘s 1982 fact finding mission to Sri Lanka. Tamilnation.org. http://www.tamilnation.org/indictment/indict016.htm.
  14. ^ Building a bridge of peace with bricks and books“. The Sunday Times. http://sundaytimes.lk/970601/news3.html. Retrieved 2006-03-15.
  15. ^ French government donates books to the Jaffna library“. Museum Security. http://www.museum-security.org/03/020.html. Retrieved 2007-05-03.
  16. ^ Jaffna library opening put off as Mayor, councilors resign“. Tamilnet. http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=8343. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  17. ^ Story of Jaffna Library“. The Hindu. http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2006/stories/20030328000505900.htm. Retrieved 2006-03-15.
  18. ^ Fragile Guardians of Culture By Nicholas A. Basbanes“. Los Angeles Times. http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byform/mailing-lists/exlibris/2004/01/msg00087.html. Retrieved 2007-04-16.
  19. ^ History from the LTTE“. Frontline. http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2103/stories/20040213000206000.htm. Retrieved 2007-04-15.
  20. ^ Nancy Murray: Hyper-Nationalism and Our Civil Liberties“. Democracy Now. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=03/04/07/0249214. Retrieved 2006-03-15.
  21. ^ The Failure of State Formation, Identity Conflict and Civil Society Responses – The Case of Sri Lanka. Brad.edu. 1999. http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/confres/assets/CCR2.pdf. Retrieved 2006-04-16.
  22. ^ How it Came to This – Learning from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars By Professor John Richardson“. paradisepoisoned.com. http://www.paradisepoisoned.com/PDFs/Preview21.pdf. Retrieved 2006-03-30.