Destruction of Jaffna Public Library - 1981

Place: Jaffna | Date: 19810000

"...a large group of police (estimated variously from 100-200) went on rampage on the nights of May 31-June 1 (1981) and June 1-2 burning the market area of Jaffna, the office of the Tamil Newspaper, the home of the member of Parliament for Jaffna and the Jaffna Public Library... the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library was the incident which appeared to cause the most distress to the people of Jaffna... the 95,000 volumes of the Public Library destroyed by the fire included numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts... The government should lead a major national and international effort to rebuild and develop the Jaffna Public Library destroyed by arson by police in June 1981. Such an effort would evidence the respect the government for the cultural rights of the Tamils, help to remedy a serious injustice done to the Tamil community and contribute to restoring Tamil confidence in the government."

- Virginia Leary: Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka - Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists, July/August 1981

Burnt out shell of the Jaffna Public Library

"With several high ranking Sinhalese security officers and two cabinet ministers, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake (both self confessed Sinhala supremacists), present in the town (Jaffna), uniformed security men and plainclothes thugs carried out some well organised acts of destruction.

They burned to the ground certain chosen targets - including the Jaffna Public Library, with its 95,000 volumes and priceless manuscripts, a Hindu temple, the office and machinery of the independent Tamil daily newspaper Eelanadu.. Four people were killed outright. No mention of this appeared in the national newspapers, not even the burning of the Library, the symbol of the Tamils' cultural identity..." - Nancy Murray, the State against the Tamils in Sri Lanka - Racism and the Authoritarian State - Race & Class , Summer 1984

''More than 100 shops have been broken, burnt, looted; market squares in Jaffna and Chunnakam look as if they have been bombed in wartime; several houses have been looted and badly damaged; the house of the MP for Jaffna has been reduced to ruins; several deaths have occurred at the hands of the state armed personnel; the headquarters of the Tamil United Liberation Front in the heart of Jaffna has been destroyed; the public library in Jaffna - the second largest library in the island with over 90,000 volumes - has been reduced to ashes.

Even more reprehensible are the facts that these outrages should have taken place when cabinet ministers and several leaders of the security services were personally present in Jaffna directing affairs, and that a section of the security services, which had been sent there to maintain law and order, had been directly involved.'' - Statement of Sri Lanka Opposition Parties,in June 1981 quoted in Satchi Ponnambalam,Sri Lanka, the National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle, Zed, 1983

"Today its rooms are thickly carpeted with half burnt pages, fluttering in the breeze which comes through broken windows. Inspecting the charred remains, I met a heart broken lecturer from the local teacher training college. 'The Sinhalese were jealous of the library, he said. 'I used to come here every day to prepare lectures and tutorials. Now I shall have to go to Colombo and some of these books aren't available even there'." - Francis Whelen, New Statesman and Nation, 17 July 1981, visiting Jaffna soon after the destruction of the Library

''The TULF MPs took their battle into parliament. They moved a vote of no confidence in the government, on the grounds that the May-June 1981 violence in Jaffna had been state sponsored and carried out by Sinhalese Ministers and high ranking government officials present on the spot.

The government responded by going on the offensive. What followed was the most racially poisonous verbal vendetta in Sri Lanka's parliamentary history. In the debate that followed one Sinhalese MP called for the return of the traditional death penalty which 'tears the offender's body limb by limb'.

They sought to remove the (Tamil) Leader of the Opposition. To general amazement they brought in a motion of no confidence in him on the grounds that he did not 'enjoy the confidence of the Government'!.. The Speaker overruled a point of order that the motion was not within the powers of the House.'' - Satchi Ponnamblam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle, Zed 1983

"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....

If the sleeping Sinhalese wake up to see the Tamils trying to establish a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, then things may not be quite calm. It would be advisable for the Tamils not to disturb the sleeping Sinhala brother. Everybody knows that lions when disturbed are not peaceful." - Mr.W.J.M. Lokubandara, M.P. in Sri Lanka's Parliament, July 1981

"If we are governing, we must govern. If we are ruling, we must rule. Do not give into the minorities. We are born as Sinhalese and as Buddhists in this country. Though we are in a majority, we have been surrendering to the minority community for four years. Let us rule as a majority community". - Mrs. Wimala Kannangara M.P., Minister for Rural Development, in Sri Lanka's Parliament, July 1981

"Now, Sir... what should we do to this so called leader of the Tamils? If I were given the power, I would tie him to the nearest concrete post in this building and horsewhip him till I raise him to his wits. Thereafter let anybody do anything he likes - throw him into the Beire (lake) or into the sea, because he will be so mutilated that I do not think there will be life in him. That is war." - Mr.D.M. Chandrapala, Sinhala M.P. for Kundasale in Sri Lanka's Parliament, July 1981

"Since yesterday morning, we have heard in this honourable House about the various types of punishment that should be meted out to them (Tamil Parliamentary leaders).

The MP for Panadura (Dr Neville Fernando) said there was a punishment during the time of the Sinhalese kings, namely, two arecanut posts are erected, the two posts are then drawn toward each other with a rope, then tie each of the feet of the offender to each post and then cut the rope which result in the tearing apart the body. These people also should be punished in the same way..

...some members suggested that they should be put to death on the stake; some other members said that their passports shouldbe confiscated; still other members said that they should be stood at the Galle Face Green and shot. The people of this country want and the government is prepared to inflict these punishments on these people." - Mr. G.V.Punchinilame, Sinhala M.P. for Ratnapura in Sri Lanka's Parliament, July 1981.

''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.'' - Sri Lanka President Premadasa speaking at a Muslim College in Puttalam in October 1991 in the aftermath of the impeachment resolution against him sponsored by UNP dissidents led by Mr.Lalith Athulathamudalai and Mr. Gamini Dissanayake.

"A primary concern of the government should be the physical security of the minority Tamil population and the avoidance of future communal violence so frequently directed against Tamils in the past... In this regard the government should pursue a vigorous policy of investigation and prosecution of police officers responsible for the burning of many areas in Jaffna in May/June 1981". - Virginia Leary: Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka - Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists, July/August 1981

"It is regrettable that the government did not institute an independent investigation to establish responsibility for these killings (in May/June 1981) and take measures against those responsible. Instead, one police officer involved was promoted and emergency legislation was introduced facilitating further killings." - Orville H.Schell, Chairman of the Americas Watch Committee, and Head of the Amnesty International 1982 fact finding mission to Sri Lanka


  • From a letter from V.S.Thuriarajah, architect, to the Sri Lanka Government
    controlled Ceylon Daily News,
    17 July 1996

It was on the night of June 1, 1981 that the Jaffna Public Library with its priceless collection of books and some rare manuscripts was turned to ashes. Half a century of toil and dedication by several individuals and institutions that built up the reservoir of knowledge, was to be the target of some vandals.  Would it be realised that the loss is not just to the North of Sri Lanka, but to the whole of Sri Lanka and the international community of learning?.....  

....At this time, it is relevant to study the history of this world renowned library.  In 1933, a wellwisher named K. M. Chellappah, out of his desire to share knowledge with others was conducting a free library in his house. Appreciating the idea of Mr. Chellappah, some lovers of learning got together and formed a committee and met on June 9, 1934 to establish a Library.  Issac Thambiah, who was the High Court judge of Jaffna at that time, was elected chairman and K. M. Chellappah was elected secretary.

Due to the effort of this committee, on August 1, 1934, a library was opened in a small rented room on Hospital Road, Jaffna, in front of the electrical station. At inception, this library had only 844 books and about 30 newspapers and magazines, yet it was patronised by all citizens, young and old, with yearning for knowledge.  

The library grew a large number of books and more space was needed. In January 1935, it was shifted to a rented building on Main Street, Jaffna.  In 1936, the present municipal building and Town Hall was built (it was razed to the ground). This library was shifted to a building near the Town Hall.

At that time the membership fee was only Rs. 3/-. With this subscription, lending of books started.  The popularity of the library was such that there was a demand for a permanent building with all modern facilities. 

A conference was held under the chairmanship of the first Mayor of Jaffna Sam Sabapathy, to find ways and means of collecting fun ds to build a new library.  It was decided to conduct a carnival, music and dance recitals by Indian artistes, sale of lottery tickets etc., Large sums beyond the expectation of the organisers, was collected.  A library committee was formed in 1953, Rev. Fr. Long, who was the rector of St. Patrick's College at that time, was also a member in this committee (it should be noted here that Fr. Long died of a heart attack when he heard of the burning of the library).

The contribution made by Fr. Long was so great that his statue was erected in front of the library by the public.  The library committee invited a leading specialist in library science, Prof. S. R. Ranganathan from Delhi, to advise on the formation of the library to international standard. It also invited K. S. Narasimman, who was at that time the architect t o the Madras government, an authority in Dravidian architecture.

A master plan was drawn and the front wing was to be built as stage one and the rear wing to be built later as stage two. The foundation was laid for stage on March 29 1953, in the p resence of several educationists and wellwishers, not only from Jaffna, but from all over the island and from India.  

The first stage of the building was completed and on October 11, 1959, the building was ceremonially opened by the then mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah.  A children's section was opened on November 03, 1967. Asia Foundation donated books worth Rs. 9,500/-. At that time this amount was a large sum.  

An auditorium was opened in the first floor in 1971 for the purpose of holding lectures, seminars, literary and cultural performances.  Valuable books and centuries - old ola manuscripts were collected from the time of Mr. Chellappah in 1933.

There were about 97,000 valuable books, old newspapers and magazines up to the torching of the library on June 01, 1981. Alas! all these rare collections were set on fire by some insane human beings.  The burnt building remained without repair as a monument to the vandalism of man.

In 1981, the Municipality of Jaffna, under the leadership of the then Mayor, Rasa Viswanathan, obtained the advice of engineers to ascertain whether the building was structurally sound to renovate it. The engineers advised against the renovation as they were doubtful about the strength of the building. Then the Municipality decided to build stage two of the master plan.  The same year, I was appointed architect to design stage two of the building.

It was decided to keep the same details of Dravidian architecture found in stage one. The estimated cost of the building at that time was about 11 million rupees.  The Jaffna Municipal Council decided to start a fund-raising and book collection campaign in Colombo. The mayor appointed a committee with myself as its chairman.

The Colombo committee decided to organise a "Jaffna Public Library Week" from May 15 - 21, 1982 and a flag day on May 21, 1982. The press in Sri Lanka gave tremendous publicity to these events. On the first day, within an hour, a sum of Rs. 90,000/- was collected. Several businessmen, social service organisations, religious organisations and members of the public came in the hundreds and donated cash and books.  

It was like a week of solemn devotion and dedication that people of all walks of life disregarding differences of caste, creed, community or religion converged on Saraswathy Hall, as in a pilgrimage to hand over their gifts for the restoration of the house of knowledge.  Thousands of books were collected and sent to Jaffna.

With the funds collected the construction work on stage two commenced in June 1982. The building was nearing completion by June 1983, when the second calamity took place. The war broke out and this building received a severe beating by bullets, shells and bombs. What remains today is a structure with shell and bullet holes and blackened walls with the smoke of burnt books. ..... can anyone bring back the valuable ola manuscripts and books which have turned into ashes?