On June 3, 1981, the well-known Tamil scholar and etymologist Rev. Fr. H.S. David died in his sleep. A day earlier, he had watched from his room at St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, his beloved Jaffna Public Library, with its 95,000 books, rare palm-leaf manuscripts and a vast collection of journals, magazines and newspapers, burn to the ground.  The shock had evidently proved to be too much for the 74-year-old scholar. 

This act of biblioclasm (book-burning) was a loss of staggering proportions. Some works such as YalpanaVaipava Malai (a history of the kingdom of Jaffna), written by the Tamil poet Mayilvagana Pulavar in 1736, were virtually irreplaceable since the library had just one copy! Over 10,000 manuscripts were consumed by the fire, many of them rare palm leaf ones, stored in special sandalwood boxes.  There were also hard-to-replace books on herbal medicine, miniature editions of the Ramayana, copies of old Tamil newspapers and much else besides. 

The parallel that people immediately drew was to the Nazi book-burnings of 1933 when on May 10, right-wing student groups across Germany tossed into the flames some 20,000 books by Brecht, Einstein, Freud, Mann and Remarque among others. Many of the targets were Jewish intellectual and cultural figures. It was cultural carnage on a scale that the modern world had not witnessed. 

Jaffna being the centre of Sri Lankan Tamil culture and the library in particular recognised as a valuable repository of Tamil literature, its burning down too inevitably came to be interpreted as an act of cultural genocide and as a signal that the Tamil and Sinhala communities of Sri Lanka could never live together. 

The background to the burning of the Jaffna Library can be traced back to the fractious relationship that the majority Sinhala and the minority Tamil communities of Sri Lanka shared. The British had managed to keep the lid on ethnic tensions, but their exit had set off a chain of events, the last act of which is bookended by the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981, and the final decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.

Sri Lankan independence in 1948 had kicked off a concerted effort by the majority Sinhalese to dominate the politics of the island and marginalise the Tamils. The 1956 Language Act which stipulated that Sinhala was the sole official language of the island was but the first action in what eventually led to a violent civil war that raged for close to 30 years. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people died in the civil war. Among its more prominent victims were former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa. 

The island of Sri Lanka has a colonial history dating back to the early 16th century when the Portuguese first captured sections of the island. The Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch in the mid-17th century. In 1815, the British captured the entire island and from 1833, they began administering the island from Colombo. The Tamils, who were largely predominant in the northern part of the island had throughout remained a separate community. During British rule, they had begun migrating to the Sinhalese-dominated areas of the south, but retained their culturally distinct characteristics. Owing to their better education, they were soon better represented in government services, a fact that the Sinhalese resented. 

Under the Buddhist revivalist, AnagarikaDharmapala (1864-1933), a Sinhalese nationalism took birth that claimed the entire island for the Sinhalese and sought to oust the Tamils even though archaeological evidence indicated that the Tamils have been on the island for close to two thousand years, almost as long if not more than the Sinhalese themselves. Dharmapala unlike some of his more catholic counterparts in other British South Asian colonies like India or Burma was not a unifier. He often referred to the Tamils as hadi Demalu, the dirty Tamils. This strain of Sinhalese nationalism ensured that the anti-colonial struggle in Sri Lanka was a fractured one with both communities jostling for concessions from the British and often back-stabbing each other.

In the midst of the anti-colonial struggle and in the same year as the Nazi book-burnings (1933), a prominent citizen of Jaffna, K.M. Chellappa wrote an open letter to the citizens of Jaffna proposing the idea of a free library.  Funds and book donations soon followed and in the same year, a library with 844 books was opened in a rented house in the heart of Jaffna city. The library soon grew and in March 1934, the foundation stone for a larger building to house the burgeoning library was laid. The building built in the Indo-Saracenic style was designed by a well-known architect of Madras (now Chennai), V.M. Narasimhan. The project took several years to take off and the new building was inaugurated only on October 11, 1959 by the then-Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah.

The library collection had by then grown to 16,000 books. Besides Tamil and English books, the library also possessed Sanskrit, French and Latin books, as well as a wonderful collection of palm-leaf manuscripts. In 1967, a children’s section was added. The library was soon reckoned to be one of Asia’s finest and was a national treasure, something that many Sri Lankans, both Tamil and Sinhala, were proud of. 

But, politics on the island was headed in a different direction. By the late ’50s, things in Sri Lanka seemed set for a showdown between the two communities as reconciliation proved virtually impossible in the light of Sinhalese majoritarian policies. In the initial phase, post-independence, moderate Tamil politicians attempted repeatedly to get the Sinhalese-dominated government to grant what in their view were fair concessions in order to ensure a united Sri Lanka. 

Among their demands were a federal structure, more autonomy for the Tamil areas and a place for the Tamil language in the official polity. With mainstream Sinhala politicians turning a deaf ear to these demands, in time, stances hardened on both sides.

In 1971, the government implemented the standardisation policy which set higher benchmarks for Tamils to enter universities, and in 1972, Sri Lanka became a republic with Buddhism, the religion followed by the Sinhala majority being given pride of place by the Constitution. The fissures now deepened. In 1975, a 21-year-old VelupillaiPrabhakaran assassinated Alfred Duraiappah and the following year, he founded the LTTE, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil moderates were soon sidelined by a more militant section, many of them youth. The conflict was now taking a more violent turn. 

The library soon grew and in March 1934, the foundation stone for a larger building to house the burgeoning library was laid. The building built in the Indo-Saracenic style was designed by a well-known architect of Madras (now Chennai), V.M. Narasimhan. The project took several years to take off and the new building was inaugurated only on October 11, 1959 by the then-Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah.

In 1979, a new system of local government was introduced by the President, Junius Jaywardene. It was proposed to elect District Development Councils (DDC) to carry out some of the development functions then being carried out by the Central government. The Jaffna DDC elections were scheduled for June 1981. Given the violent undercurrents that ran through the island, the police, paramilitary and army presence in Jaffna was strengthened. 

On 31 May 1981, two Sinhalese policemen were killed at a rally of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a popular regional party contesting the DDC elections. The same night, police and paramilitary began a pogrom in Jaffna. The TULF office was destroyed as was the office of the Eelanadu, a popular Tamil newspaper. On the night of 1 June, the library was attacked. The library front consisted of many statues of prominent literary and cultural figures. Almost all of them were destroyed or defaced. It appeared to be a deliberate, pre-planned move. The presence in Jaffna of two self-proclaimed Sinhala supremacists, both government ministers, Cyril Mathew and GaminiDissanayake, only lent credence to this theory. That police personnel from the station, a mere 300 yards from the library stood by while the library was attacked, further strengthened the culpability of the government in the eyes of Jaffna residents. 

In a poem entitled “Murder”, the Tamil poet, M.A. Nuhman vividly recreates the scene:

Last night

I dreamt

Buddha was shot dead

By the police,

Guardians of the law.

His body drenched in blood

On the steps

Of the Jaffna Library.

Devastating as the loss of the library was, the local populace attempted to rebuild the library almost immediately. In February 1982, a new foundation stone was laid, the building was repaired and in June 1984, the library was re-opened. But by that time, the Tamil rebels and the government were engaged in a bitter face-off. Barely had the Tamils recovered from the events of 1981, when in July, 1983, 1,000 Tamils were killed in pogroms throughout the island.  

Then in 1985, the library was attacked once again in clashes between Tamil rebels and the army. It soon became a sanctuary for the rebels and remained so for many years, as Jaffna slipped out of the control of the government. The Tamil Tigers in those years led a brutal campaign for independence that continued up to 2009. For a time, the Indian army too was involved in an attempt to end the conflict in Sri Lanka. Throughout this time, Jaffna remained a key point of the conflict. It remained in Tiger hands till 1995 when it slipped back into government control.  

The new public library building in Jaffna became functional in 2003.

In 1994, a new government headed by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga came to power and attempted yet again to reconcile the two communities. As part of this process, it identified the Jaffna Library for restoration. Given that the ethnic conflict still raged in the island, many Tamils remained suspicious. There was even a demand for a new library building and leaving the burnt-out shell of the old building as a Hiroshima-style memorial that symbolised the sufferings of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. But the government went ahead with the restoration of the old building anyway and the new library building became functional in 2003. 

The library has close to 30,000 books today, a far cry from the 95,000 plus that it had before its burning in 1981. It has also become the venue for many high-level meetings. Among others, Narendra Modi met Tamil leaders there. In time, it might perhaps reclaim its old place.

The scars of the ethnic conflict remain even today. Sri Lanka and in particular, Jaffna are living reminders of Heinrich Heine’s ominous sentence: “Those who burn books will in the end burn people.”