Burning of Jaffna Public Library

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Burning of Jaffna library
Burnt shell of the library
Location Jaffna, Sri Lanka
DateJune 1, 1981 (+6 GMT)
TargetPrimarily Sri Lankan Tamil
Attack type
Burning, shooting
WeaponsFire, Guns
Non-fatal injuries

The burning of the Jaffna Public Library (Tamil : யாழ் பொது நூலகம் எரிப்பு, Yāḻ potu nūlakam erippu) was an important event in the Sri Lankan civil war. An organized mob of Sinhalese origin went on a rampage on the night of June 1, 1981, burning the 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]

Tamil language language

Tamil is a Dravidian language predominantly spoken by the Tamil people of India and Sri Lanka, and by the Tamil diaspora, Sri Lankan Moors, Douglas, and Chindians. Tamil is an official language of two countries: Sri Lanka and Singapore and official language of the Indian state Tamil Nadu. It has official status in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry. It is used as one of the languages of education in Malaysia, along with English, Malay and Mandarin. Tamil is spoken by significant minorities in the four other South Indian states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India.

Sinhalese people ethnic group

The Sinhalese are an Indo-Aryan-speaking ethnic group native to the island of Sri Lanka. They constitute about 75% of the Sri Lankan population and number greater than 16.2 million. The Sinhalese identity is based on language, historical heritage and religion. The Sinhalese people speak the Sinhalese language, an Indo-Aryan language, and are predominantly Theravada Buddhists, although a small percentage of Sinhalese follow branches of Christianity. The Sinhalese are mostly found in North Central, Central, South, and West Sri Lanka. According to the 5th century epic poem Mahavamsa, and the Dipavamsa, a 3rd–5th century treatise written in Pali by Buddhist monks of the Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese are descendants of settlers who came to the island in 543 BCE from Sinhapura, in India, led by Prince Vijaya.

Jaffna Public Library

Jaffna Public Library is located in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. It is one of Jaffna's most notable landmarks, and is run by the Jaffna Municipal Council. The library was built in 1933 and burnt in 1981. During the early 1980s, it was one of the biggest libraries in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts. In 2001, rehabilitation of the library was completed, with new structure being built and new books received, although its old books and manuscripts were not replaced. It is Sri Lanka's second main public Library only rivaled by the Library in Colombo



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 Context[] 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]

Peninsula A piece of land that is bordered by water on three sides but connected to mainland

A peninsula is a landform surrounded by water on the majority of its border while being connected to a mainland from which it extends. The surrounding water is usually understood to be continuous, though not necessarily named as a single body of water. Peninsulas are not always named as such; one can also be a headland, cape, island promontory, bill, point, or spit. A point is generally considered a tapering piece of land projecting into a body of water that is less prominent than a cape. A river which courses through a very tight meander is also sometimes said to form a "peninsula" within the loop of water. In English, the plural versions of peninsula are peninsulas and, less commonly, peninsulae.

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]

Alfred Duraiappah Sri Lankan politician

Alfred Thangarajah Duraiappah was a Sri Lankan Tamil lawyer, politician, Mayor of Jaffna and Member of Parliament.

India Country in South Asia

India, also known as the Republic of India, is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh largest country by area and with more than 1.3 billion people, it is the second most populous country as well as the most populous democracy in the world. Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the northeast; and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, while its Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.

Librarian person who works professionally in a library, and is usually trained in librarianship

A librarian is a person who works professionally in a library, providing access to information and sometimes social or technical programming to users. In addition, librarians provide instruction on information literacy.

The riot and the burning

Damaged dome with holes made by shelling Jaffnalibrary dome.jpeg
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[]

The Tamil United Liberation Front is a political party in Sri Lanka which seeks independence for the Tamil-populated areas of Sri Lanka.

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.

Pogrom The deliberate persecution of an ethnic or religious group either approved or conducted by the local authorities

A pogrom is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews. The Russian term originally entered the English language in order to describe 19th and 20th century attacks on Jews in the Russian Empire. Similar attacks against Jews at other times and places also became retrospectively known as pogroms. The word is now also sometimes used to describe publicly sanctioned purgative attacks against non-Jewish ethnic or religious groups. The characteristics of a pogrom vary widely, depending on the specific incidents, at times leading to, or culminating in, massacres.

V. Yogeswaran Sri LAnkan politician

Vettivelu Yogeswaran was a Sri Lankan Tamil lawyer, politician and Member of Parliament.

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

Hindu temple house of worship in Hinduism

A Hindu temple is a symbolic house, seat and body of god. It is a structure designed to bring human beings and gods together, using symbolism to express the ideas and beliefs of Hinduism. The symbolism and structure of a Hindu temple are rooted in Vedic traditions, deploying circles and squares. It also represents recursion and equivalence of the macrocosm and the microcosm by astronomical numbers, and by "specific alignments related to the geography of the place and the presumed linkages of the deity and the patron". A temple incorporates all elements of Hindu cosmos—presenting the good, the evil and the human, as well as the elements of Hindu sense of cyclic time and the essence of life—symbolically presenting dharma, kama, artha, moksa, and karma.

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.

Nancy 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 an act by goon squads let loose by the then government. [8]


Two cabinet ministers, who saw the destruction of government and private properties from the verandah of the Jaffna Rest House (a government owned hotel), claimed that the incident was

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

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. [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 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]

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 promote the idea to the Tamil populace that their race was targeted for annihilation. [1] [5]

President Ranasinghe Premadasa

In 1991 the then president of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe 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,

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

He was also further quoted as saying in reference to 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 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]

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

In 2016, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the leader of the United National Party apologized for the burning of the Library which happened during an UNP government. He was interrupted by the shouting of Joint Opposition MPs for which he claimed [13]

We are giving jobs to people. We are opening industries. By the time President Maithripala Sirisena celebrates his second anniversary of assuming office, we will have completed a massive amount of development work in the North. The Jaffna Library was burnt during the time of our government. We regret it. We apologise for it. Do you also apologise for the wrongs you committed?

Government investigation

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. [14] [9] although no one has been indicted for the crimes yet.


Jaffna Public Library being rebuilt, with partly burned right wing. At the front is a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. Jaffnalibrary1-edit1.jpg
Jaffna Public Library being rebuilt, with partly burned right wing. At the front is a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning.

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. By 1984, the library was fully renovated; however, the library was damaged by bullets and bombs. The military forces were stationed in the Dutch fort and the rebels positioned themselves inside the library creating a no man's land as the fighting intensified. 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.[ citation needed ] The library was abandoned with its shell and bullet-pocked walls, blackened with the smoke of burnt books. [1] [15] [15]

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 [16] and foreign governments. [17] 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 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. [18] Eventually the library was opened to the public. [19]

See also


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Further reading

Coordinates: 9°39′44″N80°0′42″E / 9.66222°N 80.01167°E / 9.66222; 80.01167