The burning of the Jaffna Public Library was probably one among the first of increasing acts of violence against the Tamils in this country that peaked in July 83 and a memory of July 83 much talked in its 25th anniversary should also include a reflection of this important incident in the history of the ethnic conflict. This is a small note from my experiences with the Jaffna Public library.
'Burning memories' is the title of a 49 minute documentary that Someetharan of Jaffna/Batticaloa has produced on the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Sommetharan in the past worked for North East Herald, Thinakkural Jaffna and studied visual media in Chennai. He had apparently worked on the documentary for three years. The documentary is available in multiple languages including Tamil and English. The production according to a review published in the Kalachuvadu (Kalachuvadu is a left leaning social, literary, political magazine published from Tamil Nadu. Read the review here) is to be welcomed for its efforts but regrets that the documentary does not provide enough scientific analysis of the incident. It notes that it is frequently repeated in the documentary that 97,000 books were burnt in the incident but does not provide an analysis of the kind of books/manuscripts were burnt and the nature of the irreparable loss. The review also notes that mostly 'moderates' have been interviewed and that given the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka that Someetharan has engaged in ceratin level of self censorship. I haven't seen the documentary yet. I am looking forward to watching it. The criticism aside I am very happy that somebody is using the medium of visual media to document incidents in the history of the conflict. A 'documentary' culture is pretty much non existent in Sri Lanka and this production should be welcomed.
More information re the documentary can be found here:
I was born 4 years after the library was burnt in 1981 and i very well remember the blackened library that stood in front of the Jaffna Central College until efforts to refurbish it started taking place after CBK came (more on this in the next section).
I was back home in Jaffna last June and i went to the Public Library twice when i was there. I like the spacious library a lot - i have always enjoyed the peace that comes with the vacuum that adjoins spacious tall buildings. I used it a lot during the final few months in the lead up to my Advanced Level exams. The library now does not have a lot of books. A few thousands possibly. The first time i tried to go to the library when i was there this time i was stopped at an army centry point and i was asked to surrender my NIC and to collect it on the way back. I know that this can be a dangerous thing to do and turned back. The area is a 'high security zone' (this phrase is misleading any part of Jaffna can become a high security zone whenever the military wants it to be) and apparently there was some top military brass having a meeting somewhere close by. The other time i took the Vembadi road which has become one way now. Have to take a lengthy road back to return.
The significance of the Jaffna Public library burning is to be understood by the weight that the Jaffna people attach to education. As has been widely commented on, education was one of the key areas that the peninsula's economic base rested on. There is a statue of Godess Saraswathi that is still found at the entrance to the library. She is regarded as the Goddess of Education in Hindu religious belief. Users of the library have to remove footwear before entering the library. This might be possibly to keep the floor which is white tiled clean. But i cant help thinking that it is also in a a sense a show of respect to the place. In the second sentence in this paragraph i use the word 'was' in the past tense. Jaffna no more enjoys a pride of place as an educationally advanced district. It is one of the seven out of the eight districts in the North and East which 'enjoy' the disadvantaged district status. Most of our students rely on the district quota and the disadvantaged quota for access to university education. One of the main causes for the conflict was standardisation. Today the Jaffna community seeks standardisation in the form of quotas and would be happy if the district quota is increased. The decline of standards in education in Jaffna is a direct resultant of the war and the burning of the library symbolically kick started the decline.
I also remember the politics behind the effort to refurbish and restore the Public Library. I identify with those who stood for the burnt library to stand as a memory of a part of history that should not be forgotten. That never happened. They could have constructed a new one if they wanted. CBK was adamant and wanted to force this act of benevolence down the Tamil peoples throat while she was waging a war for peace. I also recall the debates about the act of opening the refurbished library. I agree with those who felt that there should be no opening ceremony as such. I couldn't appreciate any extravagance associated with opening the library to public use again. The Jaffna Municipal Council is the proprietor of the library and the Mayor wanted to open it. Some were opposed to this for a really ugly reason - that he belonged to a lower caste. Anadasangaree at that time head of the entire TULF also wanted to open it himself. The LTTE also got involved and the scene became uglier. Anadasangaree's website provides a statement of the UTHR here which gives a brief of the incidents that took place: http://anandasangary.com/?p=201. I went through this link after i typed up this post and find that my views on the whole issue mostly resemble that of the LTTE. This is entirely coincidental.
The library was later opened for public use without anybody opening it.