A rape of hearts and minds
The event happened 30 years ago but for many who witnessed it, the memory is still raw.
As former history professor at Jaffna University Santasilan Kadirgamar began speaking about the four dark days and nights of 1981, he and many in the small but packed auditorium of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) auditorium earlier this week relived the anger, shame and despondency that spread among the liberal and, why only the liberal, among most right thinking Sri Lankans after the Jaffna Public Library was burnt down.
Besides the library and the 97,000 books and priceless manuscripts, what was also put on fire between May 31 and June 4 in 1981 was Tamil-Sinhala amity.
“The events of May/June hardened the attitudes on both sides and propelled the drift towards extreme Tamil nationalism and the emergence of Tamil youth militancy and a ruthless response by the state and its security forces,” Kadirgamar said.
He later added: “Jaffna is the primary city of the Lankan Tamils and their cultural centre… Jaffna, known for its quiet ways of life and non-violent forms of dissent and struggle, was never the same again.”
Some would say Sri Lanka was never the same again. The arson and violence of 1981 was followed by the carnage of anti-Tamil riots of 1983; followed by the 26 years of civil war that only ended in May, 2009.
Perpetrators of the crime were never brought to book though successive governments later condemned it. A member in the audience said a commission was instituted to look into the act of wanton violence but, evident from the fact that very few seemed to be aware of it, the commission would have done nothing or little to heal the wounds.
Outwardly, the library looked just fine when I visited it a year ago. (I went there again in late 2010 but it was a cursory visit.)
I was surprised at the former head librarian’s first request. “You need to take your shoes off (before entering) as this is a temple of knowledge,” former head librarian S Thanabaalasinham had told me.
As we got chatting, the bespectacled man tried hard not to talk about those violent 1981 nights. “We can’t replace them,” Thanabaalasinham said about the thousands of rare books and Palmyrah leaf manuscripts destroyed when the library was burnt down. He had side-stepped many questions by saying that he wasn’t in Jaffna at that time.
Kadirgamar said in his lecture – subsequently published in the Economic and Political Weekly – said those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
Well, it almost happened in December last year when a group of tourists from south Sri Lanka went on a rampage inside the library after being denied entry as a national seminar was being held inside. The military and police personnel deployed all around the area did nothing much, it was said.
The events of 1981 were covered and followed by international journalists and rights activists. It, “…effectively internationalised the conflict in the country. Journalists, human rights activists and academics from various parts of the world began visiting Jaffna,” Kadirgamar said. Visitors included professors and journalists from India as well. Unfortunately, nobody could predict, and far from prevent, the deadly events the burning of the Jaffna library hastened, even unleashed.
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