Remembering the Jaffna Public Library

A city’s public library is the eye of the city by which the citizens are able to behold the realness of their heritage, and behold the still greater greatness of their future.

                                                                                                                    – K. Nesiah (Education and Human Rights in Sri Lanka)

Original from 2001 at

On the 2nd of June every year, Tamils all over the world wake-up with sorrow and grief – over an event that took place twenty-one years ago. It started with the citizens of Jaffna waking up, that many years ago on this fateful morning, to an absolute horror.

On the night of 1st June 1981, the splendid Jaffna public library, housing 97,000 rare books and manuscripts, was burned to the ground. The shock experienced by the men, women and children of Jaffna that morning is indescribable. That day all Tamils lost a piece of themselves. It was the most magnificent piece of architecture (leave aside the treasure it contained) ever created in Thamileelam.

Jaffna Public Library after burning

This act of arson was carried out, not by a bunch of nameless hooligans, but by a posse of two hundred officers of the Sri Lankan police force, taken to Jaffna by two senior Sri Lankan Cabinet Ministers (Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake, both self-professed Sinhala supremacists), ostensibly to oversee an election.

These two Sinhala Cabinet Ministers, who watched the library burn from the verandah of the nearby Jaffna Rest House, subsequently claimed that it was an ‘unfortunate incident’, where a ‘few’ policemen ‘got drunk’ and went on a ‘looting spree’, all on their own. This ‘justification’ has been echoed, and re-echoed, by many Sinhala leaders and the Sinhala media.

Let us look back.

Even in isolation of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other raids on Tamils and their properties in the island, this was certainly not the work of ‘drunken-looters’. Looters looking for merchandise don’t burn libraries, even when they are drunk. They do scorch shops and homes after pillaging them, which they did the previous night in the Jaffna bazaar. But, on that night of June first of 1981, they surely weren’t looking to steal books. They were going about decisively and purposefully to wipe out the most treasured cultural possession of the Eelam Tamils – the Jaffna Public Library. And, more importantly, they were under the direct supervision of two Sinhala cabinet ministers of the Sri Lanka government, who had traveled all the way from Colombo to be there.

Saraswati Goddess of Learning

Saraswathi statue outside Jaffna Public Library

For Tamils this is only an example, albeit the most glaring, in the grand scheme of genocide in Sri Lanka. Living in a country that constitutionally displays a penchant for Nazi style mono-ethnicity and ethnic purity (in a flag, an official language, and a state religion) for the last fifty years, and having lived through multiple state-sponsored pogroms to eradicate the identity of all others (the Non-Sinhala-Buddhists), there can be no doubt that this was an act of genocide.

Cultural destruction is an integral part of genocide, and literary-works of the target groups is prime game. The practice of ‘book-burning’[i] by the Nazis in the early thirties, as a prelude to the holocaust, is well documented. Frequent public street-side burning of books by the Nazis, primarily those of Jewish writers, such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, eventually led to the attack on the Berlin library on 10 May 1933. On this fateful day in 1933, under orders from Doctor Goebbels (Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment!), Nazi gangs raided the Berlin library and burned truckloads of books. Unlike their Sri Lankan counterparts, however, they didn’t burn the building!

Burning of books (or a library full of books) is not the only similarity between the Sinhala government(s) and that of the Nazis.

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

The resemblance of the Nuremburg Laws[ii] (1935), which defined the requirements for citizenship in the Third Reich, to that of the Sri Lankan Citizenship Acts of 1948 and 1949 is truly remarkable. The anti-Tamil pogroms of 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977-1979, 1981, and 1983 are exact replicas of the Kristallnacht of 9-10 November 1938.

The pogrom of 1983 especially, where the killing of 13 Sinhala soldiers by the LTTE was blamed as the trigger for the pogrom, has an uncanny resemblance to the events preceding Kristallnacht. Goebbels blamed the assassination of the third Secretary of the German embassy in Paris (Ernst Vom Rath) by an aggrieved Jew as the catalyst. Like President Jayewardene he too claimed the events to be “spontaneous outbursts.”[iii]

Evidently, governments engaged in genocide act similarly. The resemblance is even closer when the groups involved claim an Aryan ancestry!

Even if one were to ignore all of these, and just look at the library-burning as an isolated rare event, the subsequent conduct of the Sri Lankan government(s) on this matter leaves no doubt about real Sinhala chauvinist objectives of this act.

Gamini Dissanayake

First and foremost, no judicial inquiry was ever held into this dastardly act. The racist nature of the atrocity (Sinhala police officers burning down an important Tamil institution) is such that, an inquiry should have been held, at least for the sake of appearances. Basic human decency demands at least this. The Sri Lankan government couldn’t care less.

Given the fact that the policemen taken to Jaffna from Colombo committed the act (the two cabinet ministers attested to this), conducting an inquiry and establishing culpability would have been relatively easy. Punishing the offenders would have not only served to deter similar events that occurred subsequently, but also would have created a tremendous goodwill to counter the deteriorating Sinhala -Tamil relationship.

Secondly, that this omission was deliberate, and not an error in judgment by the Sinhala government, was shown by ensuing events. Nadesan Satyendra, writing on the eleventh anniversary of the library burning (1992) recounted:

“And when the Tamil leader of the opposition sought to bring a motion of no confidence against the Sinhala Ministers who had been present in Jaffna on those fateful days, the ruling Sinhala political party pre empted the move by bringing a motion of no confidence on the Leader of the Opposition! It was reportedly the first and only time that a motion of no confidence had been moved by a ruling party, on the leader of the opposition in any parliament, anywhere in the world. A point of order raised against the no confidence motion was overruled by the Speaker.”

The Sinhala government then went on to change the rules so that a Tamil could never be even a leader of the opposition in a Sri Lankan parliament!

Thirdly, the periodic public promises to rebuild the library were never kept. Tamils understand that these promises as simple lip service meant for international consumption, with no intent to ever recompense. Why would they? – After all, the initial act itself was premeditated and intentional.

A delegation of the Movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality, which visited Jaffna soon after the library was burnt, said:

‘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.’

                                                                                                                    –        Report of the Movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality [1981]

The Jaffna library was an institution built lovingly by the citizens of Jaffna and well-wishers, with no government assistance whatsoever.

V. S. Thuriarajah, an architect, recounted in a 1996 letter to the Sinhala controlled Ceylon Daily News:

“In 1933, a well-wisher named K. M. Chellappah, out of his desire to share knowledge with others was conducting a free library in his house. Appreciating the idea of Mr. Chellappah, some lovers of learning got together, formed a committee and met on June 9, 1934 to establish a Library. Isaac Thambiah, who was the High Court judge of Jaffna at that time, was elected chairman and K. M. Chellappah was elected secretary.

Due to the effort of this committee, on August 1, 1934, a library was opened in a small rented room on Hospital Road, Jaffna, in front of the electrical station. At inception, this library had only 844 books and about 30 newspapers and magazines, yet it was patronized by all citizens, young and old, with yearning for knowledge. The library grew a large number of books and more space was needed. In January 1935, it was shifted to a rented building on Main Street, Jaffna. In 1936, the present municipal building and Town Hall was built (it was razed to the ground). This library was shifted to a building near the Town Hall.

At that time the membership fee was only Rs. 3/-. With this subscription, lending of books started. The popularity of the library was such that there was a demand for a permanent building with all modern facilities.

A conference was held under the chairmanship of the first Mayor of Jaffna Sam Sabapathy, to find ways and means of collecting funds to build a new library. It was decided to conduct a carnival, music and dance recitals by Indian artistes, sale of lottery tickets etc. Large sums beyond the expectation of the organisers, was collected. A library committee was formed in 1953, Rev. Fr. Long, who was the rector of St. Patrick’s College at that time, was also a member in this committee (it should be noted here that Fr. Long died of a heart attack [in Australia] when he heard of the burning of the library).

Statute of Fr. Long outside Jaffna Library

The contribution made by Fr. Long was so great that his statue was erected in front of the library by the public. The library committee invited a leading specialist in library science, Prof. S. R. Ranganathan from Delhi, to advise on the formation of the library to international standard. It also invited K. S. Narasimman, who was at that time the architect to the Madras government, an authority in Dravidian architecture.

A master plan was drawn and the front wing was to be built as stage one and the rear wing to be built later as stage two. The foundation was laid for stage on March 29 1953, in the presence of several educationists and well wishers, not only from Jaffna, but from all over the island and from India.

The first stage of the building was completed and on October 11, 1959, the building was ceremonially opened by the then mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah. A children’s section was opened on November 03, 1967. Asia Foundation donated books worth Rs. 9,500/-. At that time this amount was a large sum.

An auditorium was opened in the first floor in 1971 for the purpose of holding lectures, seminars, literary and cultural performances. Valuable books and centuries-old ola manuscripts were collected from the time of Mr. Chellappah in 1933.

There were about 97,000 valuable books, old newspapers and magazines up to the torching of the library on June 01, 1981.”

The government of Sri Lanka, which gets involved in building Buddhist monuments, temples and convention centers, never contributed even a penny.

Tamils may have been willing to forgive and forget in 1981, which we doubt. They certainly will not in the year 2001.



1. Burnings of books that didn’t gel with the “Nazi ideals” were frequent, some due to the their authors being Jewish, such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, but many of them by non-Jews such as Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, and Helen Keller (a particularly offensive person to the Nazis since she successfully overcame her handicaps).

2. The Congress of the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NAZI) convened in Nuremburg, Germany on September 10, 1935. Among the many items of business on the Nazi agenda was the passage of a series of laws designed (a) to clarify the requirements of citizenship in the Third Reich, (b) to assure the purity of German blood and German honor and (b) to clarify the position of Jews in the Reich. These three laws passed on September 15, 1935, and the numerous auxiliary laws which followed them are called the Nuremberg Laws.

3.The official German position on these events, which were clearly orchestrated by Goebbels, was that they were spontaneous outbursts. The Fuehrer, Goebbels reported to Party officials in Munich, “has decided that such demonstrations are not to be prepared or organized by the party, but so far as they originate spontaneously, they are not to be discouraged either.” (Conot, Robert E. Justice at Nuremberg. New York: Harper & Row, 1983:165)

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