Burning of Jafna Library - Cultural Genocide of the Tamil people

The burning of the Jaffna library, one of the biggest and finest in Asia, on the night of May 31st 1981 is an act of cultural genocide of Eelam Tamils that adds to the long list of sad sagas faced by Tamils. On that fateful night the Sri Lankan state’s military and Sinhalese mobs set ablaze this grand library as part of the genocide against Tamils. Some 97,000 volumes of books, excluding rare and important Ola manuscripts, went up in flames. These included works of Ananda Coomaraswamy, the famous Tamil Indophile and eminent intellectual Professor Issac Thambiah. In the violence that followed over next two days, statues of Tamil cultural and religious icons were destroyed or disfigured.

The library was built in many stages starting from 1933, from 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 that showed the evidence of 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 Eelam Tamils.

Eventually the first major wing of the library was opened in 1959. 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 Tamil people and researchers from India and other countries began to use it for their research purposes.

Braving its first destruction in 1981, the Tamil community pooled thousands of books, to rebuild the library when the civil war caught up in 1983. In 1985 again, the semi-built library bore assault of Sri Lankan Army.

Of all the destruction of important Tamil landmarks, the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library was the incident, which appeared to cause the most distress to the Tamil people. After the occupation of Jaffna by Sri Lankan forces in 1996 efforts were made to rebuild the symbolic and important library. But the loss inflicted was irreplaceable and the damage had already been done. Many Tamils argue the library should have been kept as a memorial.

The library was reopened in 2003, twenty-two years later, the Mayor of Jaffna Nadarajah Raviraj still grieved at the recollection of the flames he saw as a University student. 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” perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state. The attack was seen as an assault on their aspirations, value of learning and traditions of academic achievement.

Not much has changed for Tamils in Sri Lanka today. The cultural genocide of Tamils continue unabated today.  Tamils continue unabated and with new vigor.