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Tuesday, 21 October 2014
Sri Lanka - Burning Memories - Documentory - The Jaffna Treagedy PDF Print E-mail
The Jaffna Public Library began as the private collection of the scholar K.M. Chellapha, who began lending books from his home in 1933. In 1934, a committee set up a formal library, with Chellapha as secretary. Initially, 844 books, 30 newspapers and periodicals were kept in a single room, but soon the collection was shifted into a building on Jaffna’s main street and was opened to subscribers. The library was so popular that a cross-section of prominent members of the community began raising funds to build a permanent, modern building to house the library. The architect of the Indo-Saracenic style building was Mr. Narasimhan from Madras, India, and well-known Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan served as an advisor to ensure that the library was built to international standards. In due course the first major wing of the library was opened in 1959 by then Jaffna mayor Alfred Duraiappah.

The collection became well known internationally and was popular with Sinhalese and Tamil scholars. Researchers from across the globe used the library for their research purposes. It was the major repository of literary source materials of the Tamil people and Tamil language. By 1981, it had over 97,000 books and rare, old manuscripts and papers. Some books were irreplaceable like the “Yalpanam Vaipavamalai”; a history of Jaffna, the library possessed the only existing copy. The library also held miniature editions of the Ramayana, anthologies of long vanished Tamil newspapers, and microfilms of important documents. It also held works on herbal medicine, historical scrolls, and the manuscripts of prominent thinkers, authors, and playwrights. It was a place of historic and symbolic importance to the local minority Sri Lankan Tamil people .The library was the pride of people of Jaffna.

On the night of Sunday May 31, 1981 police and paramilitaries who were supposed to be on electioneering duty went on rampage and destroyed the head office of TULF party, the office and press of ‘Eelanaadu’, a Tamil newspaper was burnt to the ground. Statues of Tamil cultural and religious figures were destroyed or defaced. Hundreds of shops and a Hindu temple were also completely demolished. Four people died during the pogrom that went on for three days.

According to many eye witnesses’ policeman and government sponsored thugs set fire to the Jaffna Public Library thus destroying it completely. Over 97,000 volumes of books along with several culturally important and irreplaceable palm leaf manuscripts were burnt, including scrolls of historical significance. Several high ranking security officers and two cabinet ministers were present in the town of Jaffna, when uniformed security men and plainclothes mob carried out organized acts of violence.
In the summer of 82, a year after the library’s initial destruction, the community sponsored the “Jaffna Public Library Week” and worked together to collect thousands of books. The Municipal Council of Jaffna did not want to repair the building. A decision was made to allow it to remain as a memorial to the ethnic vandalism it experienced, and construct the second stage of the master plan. The construction work on this building was nearing completion in 1983 when violence against Tamil intensified in July of the same year. The Second stage was opened on fourth of June, 1984.

On the night of May 9 th, 1985 Sinhalese soldiers entered the lending room and set off bombs that shredded thousands of books. The library was further damaged by bullets, shells, and bombs during the course of the war. The library was finally forsaken. Its scarred walls blackened with the smoke of burnt books, haunted the city.

In an effort to win back the trust and confidence of the Tamil people, the government under international pressure for a negotiated end to the war, began renovating the library in 1998. The media minister publicly lamented the destruction of the library as an “evil act,” the product of hatred and misguided politics on the part of the previous government. One million dollars was spent and Twenty Five Thousand books in the Tamil and English languages were collected. By 2001 a replacement building was finally built. The opening was to serve as a step for healing the wounds of two decades of warfare, but political conflict over its opening highlighted the mistrust that lingered.


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