Posted on May 27th, 2019


No one had heard of the Jaffna Public Library until it was burnt down in 1981. Then it suddenly became the greatest library in South and Southeast Asia.

The Jaffna Public Library began as the private collection of K.M Chellappah, of Atchuvely,  who worked in the district court in Jaffna. He started lending books from his home in 1933. This collection of 844 books and 30 magazines was transferred to a small room at Hospital Road, in 1934,  then in 1936, to a rented house  owned by the Puthur Mallawarayar family  on Main Street near the Town Hall. Books could be borrowed on a payment of a nominal sum of Rs. 3 as membership fee. It had a starting capital of Rs. 1,184 and 22 cents largely from the efforts of Chellappah.

Chellapah circulated an appeal in English and Tamil for A Central Free Tamil Library in Jaffna”, and approached labourers, unions, teachers, authors, business people and prominent retirees for support. He insisted that the library would house not just a Tamil collection, but would also hold books in other languages. The idea caught on, and soon a seminal meeting of interested individuals passed a resolution agreeing that a Central Free Tamil Library Association be formed with the original subscribers and others who are present at this meeting as original members of the Association”.

A committee was formed on June 9, 1934 with the District Judge as Chairman Rev. Dr. Isaac Thambiah as Vice-chairman, K.M. Chellappah & C. Ponnambalam as Joint Secretaries. The committee decided to collect or buy as many ancient ola leaf manuscripts as possible from the villages of Jaffna and other areas where Tamil culture thrived.

In 1938 yet another committee was formed to set up a library in Jaffna.  Jaffna mayor A. Sabapathy was Chairman and Rev.  Fr.  Timothy Long, Rector of St Patrick’s College Jaffna was Vice Chairman.  . In 1949 it was decided to build a modern spacious building for the library.

The foundation stone was laid on 29.3.1954, by Fr Long, British High Commissioner Sir Cecil Sayers, US Ambassador Philip K. Crowe and First secretary of Indian High Commission, Siddhartha Chari. These foundation stones can be seen even today. The first stage of the building was completed and the Jaffna Public Library declared open on 11 October 1959 by the then Mayor, Alfred Thuraiappah.  A Children’s section was opened on 3 November 1967. Asia Foundation donated books to the childrens section.. The Reference section had 30,000 books by 1981. There was an American section which contained the books and journals earlier housed in the American Information Centre in Jaffna.

The building was designed by V.M Narasimhan, Government architect of Madras. The architecture was in Indo-Saracenic style.  S.R Ranganathan came from Delhi to develop the library to international standards.

Rev. Fr. Timothy Long made a tremendous contribution to the library.   Fr. Long worked tirelessly to obtain funds for the library. He even asked the cartoonist Collette to do a sketch of him with a begging bowl. The one million rupee Library fund was entirely Fr. Long’s idea.I was just eight years of age and I remember well the fabulous Yarl Vinotha Carnival that was held in 1952 to raise funds. It was a great success and brought in Rs. 68,000 – a huge sum then – for the Library fund,” recalled Charles Santiapillai, former Professor of Zoology, and University of Peradeniya.

Fr. Long contacted the American Ambassador, Mr. Philip K. Crowe and British High Commissioner, Sir Cecil Sayers, who provided funds generously. Fr. Long was also able to successfully negotiate with Mr. W.G.F. Gunstone of W.H.Smith & Sons, and got books at special discount varying from 25% to 50%. The Asia Foundation also donated books.

Fr Long was able to secure for my late father, Mr. S.F. Santiapillai who taught Latin and English at St. Patrick’s College, a Fulbright Scholarship in 1955 that enabled him to go to the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio (USA) for advanced training in library science, said Santiapillai.  In recognition of the untiring efforts of Fr. Long, the grateful public honored him by erecting his statue in front of the library.

On the night of 31 May 1981, while Jaffna slept, this library was set on fire.There was a run up to this. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) decided to contest the District Development Council (DDC) elections to be held on June 4, 1981.

On May 31, 1981, the TULF held a massive election rally near the Nachchimaar Amman Temple in Jaffna.  Two unidentified gunmen shot at the police and fled the scene, killing three Sinhala  policemen. The two hundred police personnel present rioted and burnt boutiques, shops, houses, cars and ‘commercial establishments’. These attacks were the worst that the people of Jaffna had experienced so far, reported the media.

That night police and paramilitaries began a pogrom that lasted for three days, said Wikipedia. The head office of TULF party was destroyed. The Jaffna MP V. Yogeswaran‘s residence was also destroyed. Four people were pulled from their homes and killed at random. Many business establishments, a Hindu temple  and the office of the Eelanaadu, a local newspaper, were also destroyed. Statues of Tamil cultural and religious figures were destroyed or defaced, said Wikipedia

On the night of June 1, 1981, the Jaffna public Library was burned. The burning of the library lasted the entire night. Yogendra Duraiswamy, then GA, Jaffna, requested the Navy base in Karainagar and the Municipality for bowsers of water to extinguish the fire. He found that the Municipal Office was closed and the water tower locked. The city was virtually deserted. Although the Navy’s browser arrived at the scene, its capacity was inadequate to douse the roaring fire. No one had dared to come out that night. None of the TULF politicians were present.

The library burned down but the national newspapers did not report the incident. the UNP government of J.R.Jayewardene did not hold an inquiry to establish responsibility either.   To date, no one has been indicted for the crime.  Since there was no inquiry, there was much speculation as to ‘who done it.’ The following assortment have been charged, each separately, with burning the Jaffna public library:  Cyril Mathew, Gamini Dissanayake, Police, Army, LTTE,   UNP government.

The library was burned by police and thugs brought into Jaffna mostly from Kurunegala, by Ministers Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake to help to rig the Jaffna DDC elections and to commit such violence as deemed necessary, said Devanesan Nesiah, among others.

U.B. Wijekoon squashed this.  He said he was the only Government minister in Jaffna on that day and others like Minister Gamini Dissanayake whose names have been mentioned in connection with the Jaffna library burning, arrived only after the incident took place.

The burning was not pre-planned said U.B. Wijekoon, then District Minister for Jaffna. To the best of my knowledge, It was a spontaneous act, carried out by policemen stationed there on election duty”, Wijekoon said.

Tassie Seneviratne, Former Senior Superintendent of Police,   supports this. A police sergeant who was attached to the Jaffna Police Station told me, some years later, that he poured petrol from a barrel and ignited the fire with a match stick, said Tassie. This police sergeant had regretted this ha years later and had confessed to Tassie as well as another DIG.   Tassie had not asked who else had been involved.

Police officer K.Krisnadasan  writing in 2015, says it was the army, not the police. He was on duty that day in Jaffna. ‘About 7.00 – 7.30 pm from the station premises we noticed heavy smoke emerging from the Jaffna Public Library building and we knew that the library building had been set on fire. DIG instructed me to take a Police party and rush to the library immediately.’

I then promptly rushed with a police party comprising of 2 Sub Inspectors and about 10 Constables on foot as the library building is only about 250 yards from the Police Station. As we approached within a few yards from the library building, I noticed about 20 Army personnel in uniform inside the building. They were pulling down the books from the shelves and throwing them into the fire.

On seeing the police party one officer came out followed by a few other army personnel pointing their AK47 rifles towards us and shouted in a rough tone in Sinhala and ordered us to get back to the Police Station. The police party then received instructions from the DIG to return. After we came back to the Police Station, we saw the whole building going up in flames.

 After my return to the Police Station, I made an entry in the Register/Investigation Book regarding what I had seen. DIG/NR too made an entry in the Officers’ Visiting Book.  The DIG tried his best to contact the Army top brass who were in Jaffna, to inform of the situation, but to no avail. It was not advisable for the police to take any further action. What I have reported is what I saw. I only visited the scene after the fire has started to engulf the building, concluded Krisnadasan.

This means that the army, instead of setting fire to the library and leaving the place, as any sensible arsonist would have done, stayed on happily to make a bonfire of the books and confront anybody who came. The fire would have been visible miles away. When the police appeared they came and stood before them boldly and chased them away.  We often see scenes like this in films.

Edward Gunawardena in his book Memorable tidbits including the Jaffna library fire” published in 2013, says the Jaffna Library was set on fire by the LTTE. The world knows nothing of the rigid caste structure that dominates Jaffna, Edward said.  The library was not an institution to be admired and venerated by the non Vellala Tamils. What better target for destruction, he asked.

Gunawardene was well placed to make his observations. He had been sent from Colombo to strengthen the police force to control the simmering violence in Jaffna. He had voiced his views in the news paper in 2006, and had appeared before Sharvananda Commission to give evidence. Nobody, NGO or otherwise has contested his conclusion that the burning was done by the LTTE, said Upali Cooray.

Others have also considered this possibility. What was the LTTE doing while the Jaffna library was burning” someone asked on social media. Came the reply, In 1981, LTTE was not as strong as it became in later stages. They were just using hit and run tactics. So I don’t think that LTTE could have done anything to prevent the burning,”

Others vehemently opposed the charge that the LTTE did the burning. This is the first time such a report has been put forward , commented Tassie Seneviratne. Will the Tigers, fighting for Tamil Elam, destroy the strongest and most precious cultural possession of the Tamil people — the records of the very cultural claims they were making.  Inconceivable, said Tassie.

Would separatist insurgents anywhere burn down the very symbol and pride of their people on ‘caste’ grounds and still retain its support and image as a savior, asked Lalin Fernando. LTTE had fought with tremendous courage that drew admiration even from its foes and finally died fighting to the last man.

In a letter to the Daily News a reader  also contested the notion that the LTTE burnt the Jaffna public library. Police officer Krisnadasan said it is highly unlikely that LTTE would have set fire to the library building in order to implicate the Forces and the Government.

Critics wanted to know from Edward, why he waited so long to come out with this statement. Why did he not convey it at the time to the DIG or IGP. This was not a ‘tit bit’ to be kept for his book. Also what was Edward doing in Jaffna at this time. Why did he not report or at least visit Jaffna police station. Was he under cover. Was he on a special assignment, if so where is his report to the IGP. Gamini Gunawardene, former DIG, joined the discussion. He also thought that Edward should have made a written statement in the relevant police register and also informed the IGP.

Edward repliedthat he had reasons for not informing. He was in a vulnerable position at the time. He was a hunted man, a scapegoat in waiting”. It would have been foolish to volunteer a statement and open myself for further grilling and even detention.

Furthermore, the significance of some of the things I saw, observed, and came to know dawned on me only much later. No police investigator would have been prepared to listen to me, of the caste factor in Jaffna society, the anti-Hindu stance of the LTTE, the Indian interests in the politics of the region or the role of RAW in the disruption of the DDC elections. I have highlighted all these in my book with quotations from the writings of Tamil journalists. It is the indirect and circumstantial evidence buttressed by the strong motive that has made the case against the LTTE irrevocable” concluded Edward.

The culprit, obviously, is not any of the above, but the government of Sri Lanka .That is why the government did not appoint a commission of inquiry. In 2001, a Daily News  editorial said  that the burning of the library was done by goonsquads let loose by the government  Minister Champika Ranawaka  said when visiting Jaffna on 2010, said it was the work of ‘goondas’.

President Rajapaksa is quoted as having said “The UNP is responsible for large scale riots and massacres against the Tamils in 1983, vote rigging at the DC elections and the burning of the Jaffna library”.  The embassy of USA said in a statement issued on 12.3.2016 that the library was set ablaze by Sri Lankan state security forces and state sponsored mobs in 1981. In 2016, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe apologized in Parliament for the burning of the Jaffna library during UNP government of 1981.

The Government should appoint a commission to go into the truth about burning of the Jaffna Public Library, by appointing a high level judicial panel even at this late stage, said Krisnadasan, writing from Australia in 2015. The truth will never be discovered unless the various stories are independently examined. It is not too late to revisit the scene independently and objectively, and establish the facts, taking into account the versions of all concerned,

The burning of the Jaffna public library was excellent propaganda for the Tamil Separatist Movement. They made full use of it. The burnt out shell of the library is preserved for tourists and visitors to see. It is next to the new Jaffna Public Library.

Rebecca Knuth, Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Hawaii featured the Jaffna Public library in her book Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction”(2006). She attended the IFLA annual conference 2006 at Seoul, and made a presentation on the subject. Here are three of her utterances, taken from the abstract of her speech.

  • The collection became well known internationally and was popular with Sinhalese and Tamil intellectuals, as well as the general public.”
  • It became the major repository for all known literary source materials of the Tamil people”
  • Indeed, one could think of the Jaffna Library as a national library even though a Tamil nation had not yet come into being.”

The burning of the Jaffna library is mentioned in fiction too. Here is Nayomi Munaweera’s description in her book Islandof a thousand mirrors” 

Sinhala policemen and paramilitaries storm the old Tamil Library (sic) rip books from shelves, set fire to [them]. The conflagration shoots high into the sky… for weeks afterwards, torn blackened pages fly over the lagoons and marshes, the onion and chillie fields. They lodge in branches of palmyrah trees, float into houses, entangle in barbed wire fences and in the limbs of   gods soaring over the kovils,”

Sritharan Someetharan, made a documentary of the burning,  called Burning Memories, Born just 19 days prior to the burning of the library, Someetharan was deeply impacted by the event from an early age, said the interviewer .” Though the documentary was released in 2007, it was not screened in Sri Lanka until 2011. It has been shown in film festivals in India, England, France, Canada, and America and elsewhere.” He has also made a film on Taraki” Sivaram, a pro-Tamil Sri Lankan journalist. .”  (Continued)

One Response to “THE JAFFNA PUBLIC LIBRARY Part 1”

  1. Christie Says:

    First of all I remember there was a Commission appointed to probe the Jaffna Library issue headed by Justice Sansoni.

    From what I have come across it was another well planned event by India and Indian Colonial Parasites that is Tamils like the 1983 killing of unarmed soldiers.

    The Jaffna Library was burned to show the world that Sinhalese are uneducated, uncivilized Barbarians to the world. This was done by Indian interests with their massive coverage of the international media.

    It housed a lot of docs and bools about the work of American Baptist missionaries and their work. By burning them Indian colonists that is Tamils managed to get consoled by the World Council of Churches and get them to hate Sinhalese.
    Those days when ever I brought up the Indian terrorists issue with the Uniting Church priests in the West one thing they said was you burnt the Library.

    All those Indian Parasites who got asylum and refuge in the West always mentioned about the burning of the Jaffna Library.

    It was another Indian and Indian Parasites’ job well done.

    Some of the documents and books

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