Book Burning in 1933 and 1981

Nazi and Sinhalese goons: style comparisons

Jaffna Public Library gutted June 1981by Sachi Sri Kantha, May 30, 2013 

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Jaffna Public Library bibliocaust, seven years ago (in 2006), I contributed a four part series under the caption ‘Perversity of Pyromaniacs’ to this website. It could be accessed easily if you simply google the caption of this series. This year being the 80th anniversary of the Nazi bibliocaust (May 10, 1933), I revisit this tragedy and provide a comparison between the Berlin and Jaffna incidents. For convenience, I have prepared a PDF table consisting of 13 parameters.

Book Burning in 1933 and 1981 table

As a chronicler, it is my belief that the 1981 tragedy in Jaffna should never be forgotten because it was a clear example of Tamil genocide perpetrated by the Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) regime. The destruction of the Library happened before the LTTE’s rise as a prominent force and offers vital support for the LTTE’s anti-regime resistance.  Rather than repeating what I had presented in the past, I approach this theme here from a different angle.

How has the Jaffna book burning event been recorded in six books that have appeared since the event? I provide below the relevant descriptions from noted authors, in a chronological sequence. The best description for the events during May 31 to June 4 of 1981 in my book collection, was from journalist S. Sivanayagam (2005).  As such, I present scans of his book cover, and the page with his inscription to me nearby.  Sivanayagam (1930-2010) also presents a short sketch in a paragraph on the political career of A. Thiayagarajah, who was assassinated by PLOTE militants on May 24, 1981. This turncoat politician (who jumped parties from Tamil Congress to SLFP to UNP) is hardly remembered now by the two Sinhalese parties to which he aligned his political stars.  His only fame was that in the 1970 general election, while contesting as a Tamil Congress candidate, he defeated A. Amirthalingam (then the Federal Party candidate, who was the sitting member for Vaddukoddai constituency for 14 years) by a slender margin of 725 votes.  In Tamil, this Thiayarajah guy had a nickname ‘Pani Thiagar’; though he was an educationist, his nickname ‘dunce Thiagar’ was more apt for his political career.  One of his sons, I guess named Sambanthan, was a fellow student in my batch at the Aquinas University College in 1970-71.  In his book Sivanayagam also clarified a canard which was spread by the Sinhalese at the expense of the LTTE.

Notable among the six books is that of C.A. Chandraprema’s Gota’s War, which appeared last year.  While Professor K.M. de Silva in his adulatory biography of President J.R. Jayewardene (1994), tactfully refrained from mentioning the role played by the Sri Lankan army in the destruction of Jaffna in 1981, Chandraprema let the proverbial ‘other shoe to fall’!  He has stated that “The Rajarata Rifles regiment was deployed in Jaffna for the elections and Gota’s company was stationed at the Madagal army camp.”  Here is the blazing evidence from the horse’s mouth, released after 31 years, that indicates Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa could have been in the party to the pyromaniacs who burned Jaffna during May 31-June 1 in 1981.  According to the army records, Mr. Rajapaksa was not a rookie recruit to indulge in pyromania pranks.  At that time he was a ten year veteran.

The abbreviations used by the authors stand for the following: District Development Council (DDC), Government Agent (GA), Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), Kankesanthurai (KKS), People Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), then headed by Uma Maheswaran, Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) – the original headed by A. Amirthalingam, and not the current rump headed by opportunist collaborator V. Anandasangaree.  The words in bold font and italics are as in the originals.  I make a comment here on a factual error of C.A. Chandraprema in his recent book.  He wrongly mentioned that the then parliamentarian for Jaffna V. Yogeswaran belonged to ITAK.  In the 1977 election, Yogeswaran was elected on the TULF ticket.  Only Kasi Anandan among the TULF candidates contested under the ITAK ticket and lost.

(1)  A. Jeyaratnam Wilson: The Break-Up of Sri Lanka – the Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict, C.Hurst & Co, London, 1988.

“the ruling United National Party contested in the Ceylon Tamil areas with disastrous consequences. Gamini Dissanayake and the government’s notorious Tamil-baiting minister conducted the campaign in the Ceylon Tamil Jaffna peninsula. There were assassinations of government supporters and police personnel, and the police force, along with sections of the army, reacted with savagery. They burnt the Public Library of Jaffna, a repository of priceless documents. The President campaigned in the Eastern Province where one-third of the population were Ceylon Tamils, and violence erupted there too. Here was an Executive President of all Ceylon, not merely parts of it, making some of the most communal public statements against the TULF, and by implication the Ceylon Tamils, that were heard in the campaign. The President, in a letter to me, provided me with evidence of how he had miscalculated in his political strategy. His party was soundly defeated in the Ceylon Tamil Northern Province and in two-thirds of the Eastern Province where Ceylon Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims were the dominant elements in the population, and joined hands against the ruling party’s candidates.

The terrible and fateful burning of the Jaffna Public Library is an eternal blot on the ruling United National Party. As to why the President permitted two ministers in his government, whose antipathy to the Ceylon Tamil demands was well known, to campaign in the Tamil areas remains inexplicable. One of them, Gamini Dissanayake, explained to me that the President had requested him ‘to keep an eye’ on the other minister, but neither of them could control or prevent the violence of the security forces. There also occurred large-scale impersonation and loss of ballot boxes at the end of the election day, but these attempts at cheating and intimidating the Ceylon Tamil electors failed to deprive the TULF of a single seat in the Ceylon Tamil districts of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.” (p. 163)

(2)  Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K.Sritharan and Rajani Thiranagama: The Broken Palmyra – The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka – an Inside Account. The Sri Lanka Studies Institute, Claremont, CA, 1990 (revised version)

“The government inspired violence and attempts at cheating at the elections by themselves spelt a bad omen for the DDC’s. Some people were killed in this violence. The burning of the Jaffna Public Library and the Eelanadu Press were widely regarded as acts of cultural genocide. There were as usual members of the local population who would use public distress for personal gain. Once again university students threw themselves into the task of reconstruction by forming well-organised teams to collect funds and books.” (p.29)

(3)  K.M. de Silva and Howard Wriggins: J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka – a political biography volume II, from 1956 to his retirement (1989). Leo Cooper/Pen & Sword Books Ltd., London, 1994.

“The election campaign was peaceful and orderly except in Jaffna, where separatist activists first assassinated the leader of the UNP campaign in Jaffna, and proceeded thereafter to intimidate others prominently associated in the campaign into withdrawing there candidatures. They were expressing their determination to prevent UNP from establishing an electoral foothold in the Jaffna peninsula. The stage was set for a tragic sequence of events! To meet the threat posed by this mounting violence the police force was strengthened by a large contingent of policemen and police reservists sent from Colombo. These reinforcements checked the violence temporarily, but became themselves the target of violence. On the eve of the elections a terrorist group shot and killed some policemen who were on election duty. This incident provoked just the response the perpetrators of this violent act had anticipated and desired: the unfocused anger of the police and one of the worst incident of police reprisals in the encounter between them and the young political activists in Jaffna. The violence was inflicted on property more than persons, culminating in a mindless act of barbarism, the burning of the Jaffna Municipal Library.” (pp. 445-446)

(4)  T. Sabaratnam: The Murder of a Moderate – Political Biography of Appapillai Amirthalingam. Nivetha Publishers, Dehiwela, 1996.

“The incident at a public meeting at Nachimarkovil in Jaffna no the night of 31 March (sic, May) sparked a massive police and army attack in Jaffna. It was a propaganda meeting in support of the TULF, presided by the mayor. As the meeting was in progress, some militants shot the three constables on guard duty. Two died, the third suffered injuries.

Half an hour after the shooting, a posse policemen drove to the meeting site. They torched the temple, adjoining houses and two cards, commandeered a bus, drove to the Jaffna bazar and set fire to a row of shops on hospital street, after which they went to the home of Yogeswaran, set his jeep and his friend’s car on fire. Yogeswaran and his wife scaled the rear wall and escaped. The rampaging policemen then went to the TULF headquarters and torched it, set fire to the Public Library, which housed 95,000 volumes, some of them rare books and manuscripts. Mr. David, a famed etymologist, collapsed the next morning on hearing the news. A provincial newspaper office was also set on fire.

The violence continued from 1-3 June. It also spread to other parts of Jaffna. Shops and houses opposite Chunnakam and KKS police stations were burnt down. An army unit raided Sivasithamparam’s office in Nallur and one person was killed in the indiscriminate firing.” (p. 278)

Sri Lanka Witness to History book cover(5)  S. Sivanayagam: Sri Lanka: Witness to History – A Journalist’s Memoirs (1930-2004), Sivayogam, London. 2005.

“1981 will ever live in Jaffna’s memory as the year when one of the most heinous crimes was perpetrated on the Tamil people – the burning down of the Public Library by a set of Sinhala hoodlums imported into Jaffna by the government. It looked as if there was an unspoken thought on the part of the government: ‘Jaffna had to be taught a lesson’!…

The DDC proposals were the brainchild of Professor Jayaratnam Wilson and the electoral contest was one between the TULF and the ruling UNP. It became a matter of prestige for the government to prove the point that the ruling party enjoyed support in the peninsula, and towards that end was prepared to throw all State resources into the campaign. Five days after the [Neervely ] bank robbery, Minster of Fisheries Festus Perera was sent to Jaffna to select UNP candidates.

The man who was selected to head the UNP list was A. Thiagarajah, a retired Principal of Karainagar Hindu College and a former MP for Vaddukoddai. While he was returning from an election meeting on the 24th May, he was killed after being shot at by a lone gunman. He had survived an earlier attempt on his life at his Colombo residence in 1972, but failed to see the writing on the wall. Thiagarajah who jumped from party to party represented the Tamil Congress in parliament in 1970, but within months he joined the ruling SLFP. He continued in that party until 1977, but contested that year’s election as an Independent and lost. He was tipped to be the SLFP nominee at the District Development elections, but when the party decided not to contest the elections, he won nomination from the UNP, such was the unprincipled political behavior of both the UNP and their turncoat candidate! Ministers Festus Perera and U.B. Wijekoon paid their last respects to the slain politician, and a powerful battery of Ministers headed by Prime Minister Premadasa attended the funeral held under tight security.

Jaffna was soon getting frequent flying visits from government politicians from Colombo. Police muscle in Jaffna was being strengthened, according to Manik de Silva reporting for The Observer of May 26. Additional men were sent not only from Colombo but also from Kurunegala and other areas. As to how many of them were policemen or plain thugs remained a matter for conjecture. Appropriately enough, they were housed at the Durayappa Stadium. The National Security Council had also assigned a ‘support role’ to the armed services to ensure ‘a peaceful DDC polls’ on June 4. The Tamil DIG (Northern Range) P. Mahendran was temporarily assigned to Colombo and Edward Goonewardene, DIG (Metropolitan Range) was flown to take charge of Jaffna. Senior Ministers Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake, along with Minsiter Mrs. Wimala Kannangara had already taken up positions in a hotel in Jaffna. The omens were certainly not looking good. What followed were two nights of anarchy, arson and terror.

inscription by S. SivanayagamAll what was required for the arsonists to get to work was some provocation somewhere; and that was provided by a stupid Tamil gunman who fired at policemen covering an election meeting of the TULF. The meeting was at the Nachimar Kovil grounds in Vannarponnai. One policeman was killed and three others were injured. The slain policeman again happened to be a Sinhalese, a sergeant called Punchi Banda from Kurunegala. That triggered the horrendous happenings that were to follow. Enraged Sinhalese policemen housed at Durayappa Stadium, some of them in uniform and some in mufti, broke open A. Suppiah & Sons, a liquor shop, and having consumed large quantities of liquor went on a rampage. Obviously they needed Dutch courage to do what they were planning to do. First, they went to the Nachimar Kovil grounds, the venue of the meeting where the shooting took place. Some of them stormed into the temple, damaged religious objects and then tried to set fire to the wooden temple chariot outside. Others entered neighbouring houses, assaulted the inmates and set fire to a number of cars and houses in the vicinity. Worse was to follow.

About forty of them commandeered a bus, and drove to the TULF office at Main Street about four miles away. They shot at the lock, opened it, broke up the doors and windows, piled them up and poured petrol and set fire to the entire building. The entire building was gutted down. Next, they went to the house of the MP Yogeswaran, shouted abuse at him and broke open the house. The MP and his wife managed to scale the wall behind and escaped, but the house, along with his jeep were set on fire and burnt down. Continuing their drunken spree they threw petrol bombs at a timber depot in the bazaar area and other adjoining shops, making a huge bonfire of the area. Frantic telephone calls by TULF leaders and Government Agent Yogendra Duraiswamy to the powers that be had no effect.

If what happened on the night of May 31 was bad enough, how was one to explain the inaction of the government over the bigger disaster that followed on the night of June 1? On the morning of June 1, the Security Council in Colombo met and discussed the events of the previous night.  ‘The entire strength of the Jaffna police numbering 1000 lower ranks, 20 ASPs in charge of sectors and two DIGs, Messers Edward Goonewardene and P. Mahendran were out on the ‘field’ trying to bring the situation under control.’, said a report by Geoff Wijesinghe in the Observer of that morning. Government Ministers were at King’s House within the Dutch Fort, on the night of the happenings and were certainly aware of what happened. The President himself knew it all. But what was the tone of the speech he made in Colombo the same evening? Here is a report from the Ceylon Daily News dated June 2: ‘President J.R. Jayewardene told a massive gathering opposite the Tower Hall yesterday evening (June 1) that he regretted the senseless acts which a section of the people in the North had been indulging in. He called upon the national (author’s emphasis) political parties and their leaders to do their duty by doing what they could to stop the lawless acts in the  North spreading……’ I think’, said the President, the people who are responsible for the dastardly acts in the north have gone out of their senses. No other citizens should follow their example’.!! In making that speech, President Jayewardene was obviously guilty on three counts – (1) He hid from the Sinhalese listeners and readers in the south the true events that happened in Jaffna the previous night; (2) As President he should have commiserated with the people of Jaffna over the destruction they suffered, which he failed to do; (3) What was most Machiavellian was that he tried to paint the victims themselves as the arsonists!

With the President himself virtually disowning responsibility for the events of 31st May, what happened the next night was not surprising. Around 9 pm on June 1, a huge blaze engulfed the third floor of the Jaffna Public Library. The third floor was the one which contained the reference section with its precious tomes and rare ola manuscripts. Mindless thugs could have been the ones who threw petrol and set the fire, but it was evident that behind it was some mastermind who had studied the layout of the library. Soon the fire spread to the lending section and within hours the entire library with its 97,000 volumes and furniture was gutted down.

Another set of thugs numbering about fifty had gone to the offices of the Eelanadu, one mile away, carrying cans of petrol and heavy implements. They broke open the iron gates of the building, set fire to the machinery, a motorcycle, and several bicycles in the premises. Two employees of the paper fled the scene after sustaining burn injuries. The Eelanadu was an independent Tamil daily, Jaffna’s only newspaper, founded by K.C. Thangarajah in 1956. The destruction continued. Several shops in the town were burned down, but particular care was taken to give priority to bookshops. Statues of Tamil scholars in the bazaar area were beheaded. It was a carefully planned assault on everything that had cultural value – a vicious attempt at cultural genocide! All these happened while armed forces were present in the town. The Sun newspaper on the morning of June 2 had carried a photograph of soldiers from Colombo being airlifted to Jaffna on the 1st. Defence Secretary Col. C.A. Dharmapala, Cabinet Secretary G.V.P. Samarasinghe and Police Chief Ana Seneviratne were all in Jaffna tht day, not to mention the senior Cabinet Ministers Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake. Once the dreadful events of two nights came to an end, the government imposed a dusk to dawn curfew in Jaffna, and simultaneously imposed a country-wide press censorship; thereby keeping the country in the dark about the dark doings of their own agents. In the north, M. Sivasithamparam, MP and Kumar Ponnambalam issued a joint statement calling for a hartal and Jaffna observed a day of mourning. The government said the proposed DDC elections would be held however, so determined they were to win at least one seat in Tamil territory.

A few days before the elections, senior Tamil polling officers were replaced by government party supporters brought from Colombo. On the morning of the polls, TULF leaders were arrested for no apparent reason but were later released. Several ballot boxes were found missing and were not produced for counting. Later, one of the missing boxes was discovered in a hotel room occupied by a cabinet minister! Despite all these, the TULF won all the seats. Jayawardene’s rough experiment with democracy had failed. (pp.194-198)

Sivanayagam continued the story, in another page as well.

“Events that would have made page 1 lead headlines by any journalistic yardstick were not even reported in the Colombo Press! When the news did percolate through, it only made confusion worse confounded. One highly mischievous version of the burning of the Public Library that circulated among a section of the Sinhalese educated classes in the South is worth recalling. Obviously inspired by some imaginative but irresponsible academic, the story went thus: The Jaffna Public Library had among its volumes the ‘Paranavitane collection’, so the story went, alluding to the valuable private collection of the well-known Sinhala epigraphist-scholar that was earlier put up for sale. Paranavitane had in his writings disputed the existence of a separate Jaffna kingdom, and this the Tamil ‘Tigers’ knew; so they burned down the whole library! Bizarre as it sounds, what was more unbelievable was that this story won credence among some Sinhala academics, including a senior functionary in a high-profile research organization! Such was the power of the Press blackout and so unwilling was the mental state of even thinking sections in the South to accept the shame of the government’s perfidy. When I made inquiries, I realised how the entire superstructure of the rumour was built on the basis of one slim fact – that the Paranavitane collection was indeed in Jaffna, but it was the Jaffna University Library that had negotiated for its purchase.’

(6)  C.A. Chandraprema: Gota’s War. Ranjan Wijeratne Foundation. 2012.

“PLOTE killed Tiyagarajah on 24 May 1981. He had just finished speaking at a UNP propaganda rally in Vadukoddai and was about to get into his vehicle when gunmen shot him. This led to several UNP candidates withdrawing their candidatures due to fear. The terrorists then moved to scuttle the whole election. On 31 May 1981, one policeman was killed and two others injured when they were shot by PLOTE gunmen while on duty at a TULF rally in Kovilady, Jaffna. Enraged policemen went on the rampage that same night and the following night as well.

In the two days of reprisals, shops in Jaffna town, the office of the Eelanadu newspaper, and the house of ITAK parliamentarian V. Yogeswaran, the TULF headquarters, and the Jaffna library were set on fire. The DDC election was held on 4 June.

The Rajarata Rifles regiment was deployed in Jaffna for the elections and Gota’s company was stationed at the Madagal army camp. One of Gota’s platoon commanders at the time, Jayavi Fernando reminisces that at the eleventh hour the Jaffna GA had informed the government that he was unable to hold the election. The government decided to hold the election anyway and made arrangements to bring election staff from Colombo to Jaffna. But the election staff that had arrived by train from Colombo saw Jaffna burning in the two days of police reprisals, and went back to Colombo in the same train.” (pp. 93-94)

Coda: This Gota’s War book’s publisher is indicated as Ranjan Wijeratne Foundation.  But inside the book, there is no information about the contact address or phone/fax links of this Foundation.

No Responses to “Book Burning in 1933 and 1981”

  1. Vannithamby

    This is an amazing gift that has to be treasured by the Elam Diaspora Tamils and passed on to Generations to come. Only then the Dream of Independent Tamil Elam State could be brought into reality. Thank you Sri Kantha for for very informative article and the valuable historical attachments. May God Almighty give the best of blessings.