16 June, 2021

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The 1981 Incendiary War On Knowledge

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

The first day of June 1981 was one of the darkest days in Sri Lanka’s cultural history. It was on that day that the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), obviously with the knowledge and consent of rulers in Colombo, set ablaze the Jaffna Public Library, which was painstakingly built in 1931 and remained as an icon of the Tamil community’s love for knowledge and education. With more than 90,000 volumes of books and rare documents it was an invaluable treasure trove of learning and information. That despicable crime committed by the SLA was, in a sense, the incendiary prelude to the vicious pogrom unleashed on the Tamil community in July 1983.

Burning libraries, books and authors in public are not new to history. In fact, it was Julius Caesar who, quite accidentally set fire to the library in Alexandria during his battle against the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy XIII in 48 BC. His intention was to burn the harbour, without being aware that it was in its surroundings that the library of Alexandria was placed. Who can forget the Nazi book burnings in 1930s? Even very recently, Islamists in Timbuktu in Mali were all out to burn rare Arabic books and documents collected over centuries, because to the Islamists that knowledge tantamount to heresy (See, Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2018); and the Syrian Army bombed and destroyed the library in Daraya on the fringe of Damascus (Mike Thomson, Syria’s Secret Library, Great Britain: Orion, 2019) in its attempt to starve its people and break their resistance against the Assad regime.

Similarly, the burning of Jaffna library was the incendiary war on the Tamil community for its refusal to remain second class citizens in Sri Lanka’s majoritarian democracy. However, there was also an element of envy in this targetted incendiarism. From the time of independence, all Sinhala dominated governments in Colombo were determined to break the dominance of this community in public professions and education. Even within the Tamil community, it was the Jaffna Tamils who had a head start in English education during colonial times, and education remained as their leading industry. They were therefore able to enjoy the lion share in higher education and public professions. The Sinhala Only Bill, passed in 1957, and the University Standardization scheme introduced in 1971 – all in the name of affirmative action, were really intended to beat the Jaffna dominance. Unable to beat them on a level playing field, those two measures were brought in by Sinhala governments to reverse the situation. That reversal has now created a new imbalance, but in favour of the majority community.

Viewed from this angle the burning of the library was meant to hit the nerve centre of Jaffna Tamils chief industry. The attack on a repository that had no way of defending itself was therefore more an act of envy than a strategy of war. It also reflects an uncivilized attitude towards knowledge not only by the attackers and their military commanders but also the politicians in power who approved it. It will remain as one of the darkest chapters in the cultural history of the island.

That attitude however seems to have resonance today after forty years when one looks at the aversion the current rulers in the country have towards independent and expert knowledge on various issues bedevilling the country, but which goes against the rulers’ inhouse knowledge. The management of the pandemic is one area where this attitude is amply reflected.  The advice from independent experts in epidemiology on how to manage and control the pandemic effectively differs fundamentally from that offered by the trade union of medical officers and government doctors. The regime ignores expert advice and plays politics with trade unions.  How does one rate a Minister of Health, who believes in Holy water as panacea for pandemic? How does one rate the efficiency of a government health administration when it is prepared to allow dubious concoctions as cure for the pandemic and ignore advice of experts? Wasn’t the same aversion towards expert scientific knowledge that forced cremation of Muslim Covid-dead, which went against that community’s religious rites?

The same attitude is again reflected in the President’s ban on import of chemical fertilisers without consulting any agronomist or scientist. Earlier, he also banned import of palm oil and was forced to back track when manufacturers pointed out the adverse effect it had on industries. Practically in every branch of government policy and administration mediocre seems to rule the day.  When it is realised that the President also comes from a military background and that it was the military which burnt the house of knowledge in Jaffna one is forced to conclude that a society ruled by militarists will have no place for scientific expertise and critical thinking.     

*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia

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Latest comments

  • 21
    3

    Thank you Dr. Ameer Ali.

    Folks like Prof: Carlo Fonseka, an LSSP man in his heyday, and a Policeman[ Ex:DIG] Edward Gunawardena tried to make out that it was the LTTE that was responsible for setting fire to the Jaffna Library.
    Are they implying that Ex:Ministers Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Mathew belonged to the Military wing of the LTTE?

    • 15
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      Put the blame on LTTE is very effective way to touch the hearts and minds of the Buddhist Sinhala and induce them to burn them and and their properties in a daylight in Colombo streets. This is similar to the blame of a Muslim doctor doing operation in Sinhala hospital to Sinhalese women and Muslim boutique owner mixing something to kill Sinhalese eaters in Ampara and organising Saharan to carry out the Bombs in Churches and western hospitals. This is the beauty of Politics and Religion.

    • 4
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      Yes, burning libraries and destroying archives is an old colonial project. Today the national archive in Colombo is being looted by Netherlands and former colonial powers under the guise of Aid Projects.
      When Jaffna Library was burned by JRJ;s thugs it was the Cold War and JRJ wanted to give the US a military base in Sri Lanka… US was destabilizing the country, just as it did with the Easter Sunday attacks claimed by CIA’s ISIS – to set up a military base now to fight China in its Hybrid Trade War !
      US wanted Trinco Habour in 1981 and so the CIA was involved in the 1983 operations. Just read Vincent Bevin’s book “Jakarta Method.” How the CIA staged massacres in universities in Indonesia to destroy Communists. So Indians who were close to Communist USSR Russia in the Cold War went on overdrive to set up LTTE and the other armed Tamil militant groups. Yes the US deepstate and its minions always seek to capture and game the historical narrative as they covered up the Tulsa Massacre of Black community in 1921 – one hundred years ago.

  • 2
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    Knowledge?

  • 9
    4

    Thank you, Dr. Ameer Ali for

  • 11
    2

    Ameer Ali, I hadnt realised that the SL Army was involved in burning the Jaffna Library, unless, of course, they were actually disguised as so-called “para-military” forces identified as the culprits.
    —-
    I wonder how often such an uncivilized assault has been perpetrated out on a nation’s/people’s culture. One of the most famous examples, of course, is that of Savonarola, the Italian Dominican priest, in Florence, 1947, which has come to be linked with the term “bonfire of the vanities”. Savonarola even burnt musical instruments and art works.
    —-
    The burning of the Jaffna library is a hideous stain on the reputation of the government at that time — people like Cyril Matthew seem to have had carte blanch from JR for such acts.

    • 4
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      Correction: “carte blanche” from JR to carry out such acts.

    • 3
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      Manel, Savonarola’s dates. You’ve said 1947, when you were alive and kicking.
      .
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girolamo_Savonarola

      .
      His “dates”: 1452 – 23 May 1498
      .
      Didn’t the painter Botticelli destroy most of his work because of him?
      .
      Panini Edirisinhe

      • 3
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        Thank u, Panini. Of course that was a typo. The year was 1497.

        Not the only typo, either. “Perpetrated out on” should, of course, not have the “out”.
        —-
        You may be right about Botticelli. I seem to recall some such connection.

        In a lighter vein, rather distant from the serious nature of Dr Ameer Ali’s article here, is something I recall from my first visit to Florence in 1962. I had just emerged from the Uffizi Gallery with my companion when our path was blocked by a group of American tourists listening to a guide.
        Pointing to ground in front of them, she announced, “And this is where Savonarola burnt the burnt the books!”
        “Gee!”, piped up one of the ladies, “He shouldnt a done it!”

    • 6
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      Manel
      It was the police in civvies.
      *
      “It was a police sergeant who was attached to the Jaffna Police Station who told me that he poured petrol from a barrel and ignited the fire with a match stick at the Jaffna Public Library. “
      [https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/burning-of-the-jaffna-public-library-whodunit/]
      *
      Sorry to say that this is not the first time that Dr AA fails to pay attention to accuracy of information.

  • 9
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    Thank you Dr.Ameer Ali for remembering another act of barbarity committed by the savage foot-soldiers of the ruling class- ravaging and burning down the Jaffna library, our cultural icon and heritage, in 1981. (BTW, ‘Sinhala Only’ Bill was introduced on 5th June 1956. )

  • 4
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    This event coupled with the black July after two years converted Tamils as permanent allies of UNP.

    Soma

    • 11
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      soman

      “This event coupled with the black July after two years converted Tamils as permanent allies of UNP.”

      You may be right, however what made you the greatest admirer/supporter of Pandaranayakam/Sirimao/SLFP//Mahinda/Gota/SLPP/Weerawansa/ ………………………………. ? Give it a try.

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        NV
        You are comparing a herd of buffaloes to a pack of heyenas.

        Soma

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          soman

          You have been assuring me that because they are strong ( have record of delivery) Gota, Kamal(a), Shavendra, and their 15,000 fellow generals are capable of dealing with any disaster, future LTTE threat, …………. single handedly,…..

          Will you now tell us how efficiently and admirably these dimwits have delivered in terms of protecting people from Corona, marine disaster, ….. and from themselves?

          Please one down your bravado.
          Have you noticed people are cleaning the seashores while a dumass naval personnel holding an AK 47 supervising the workers as if they were part of a Chain Gang.

          Where are the 225 dimwits who never cared to take action against the government for doing the wrong thing or not doing the right thing? Where are your saffron gang?

  • 2
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  • 4
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    Its not only library how many times the popular Poopalasingam book.shop and the parade were burnt down,finally Canadian govt had to give a gift of fire engine but the Telecom not advanced that time.
    Right from the independent leaders after leaders who destroyed the country,even our head of state knows what the future hold so hid his US passport ,then the EC commission said that’s not their business to check so Gota got away with it.Gota knows very well how to get the job.done he would anything he got men to do that.
    Look at the Sinhala only mess,the international schools mushrooming in local levels,with huge sum of money.
    Indians doing well they keep the English medium and easy access for job market ,these are the blunders of our good thinking politicians we have no vision, all about quick bugs and their families wealth,even selling the vehicle permits it’s not illegal but where are the morals,by having Mc Donalds and high ways that doesn’t make us to be Singapore,but heading for Somalia or Afghanistan
    But Santhosam is all sorts,it is pathetic
    Ban the pirith nool and blessings for politicians,only for ordinary,prelates should away from politics,

  • 3
    1

    Isha Agro movement in India by Sadguru and volunteers helping farmers and gives them advice how to do natural farming without chemicals,they train them how to do natural fertilizer pesticides ,the technics,how intercrops reduce the fungus and disease,how to save the water by trenches and reduce the flow of the water and put it back on water levels,so many farmers and converting and save money and so happy to progress,and explain we have to bring back the circle of species that helps the farmers,that brings the cycle leave it naturally and don’t poisoning it’s very interesting to watch on YouTube but 1st year may be hard because the soil is full of chemicals so micro cycle is gone ,hope our agri officials look into it help our farmers,but they emphasis the importance of cow ,and most of them not only get fertilizer and bio gas for cooking,
    Hope we all united and do betterment for our future generations regardless ,and stop our mothers and sisters to go to ME and create income for our households,god bless save our nature beauty of mother Lanka

  • 3
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    June 02nd is the 34th anniversary of the brutal murder of 30 Samanera monks (novices), an elderly monk and three civilians at Aranthalawa by LTTE Tamil terrorists. LTTE Tamil terrorists ambushed the bus they were travelling and slain them using swords and machetes.

    • 8
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      EE
      How can we progress and move on for betterment for the nation,we even end up get help from Bangladesh,
      But sadly we haven’t learned from the past mistakes,the Aluthgama incident,burnt down the pasta factory,traumatised the Kurunagala doctor etc
      By putting Budhas statue with flashing colour lights behind the head of the statue every corner and junction doesn’t make good Buddhists country
      Thankfully he haven’t born here but king Asokan done a lot for the barbarians,look at the behaviour of your 3rd class modayas in and out side parliament

    • 8
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      Eagle Eye,
      Undeniably a horrendous act of terror. LTTE should have never retaliated in kind to the many such acts of terror committed on the Tamil civilians during state backed pogroms and other occasions of anti-Tamil riots as well as innumerable occasions of unspeakable brutality by the state’s military. Retaliation in kind was LTTE’s demise. LTTE should have stuck to fighting with the state’s military.

      Nothing can justify the Aranthalawa event. Nothing can justify any act of terror committed by LTTE cadres on the civilians. Similarly, nothing can justify the acts of state terror in SriLanka, including, perhaps the least of all, the burning of the Jaffna Public Library.

      It’s unfortunate that you continue your deception to divert attention, and justify the acts of terror committed by the state, its military, and the state backed hoodlums.

  • 7
    1

    Late Gamini and Cyril carried out the carnage of Jaffna library on the orders of J.R. whilst Gamini was personally in Jaffna that night, giving orders to Army -men to carry out this arson. As you have explained the situation is becoming worse at present under the presidency of Gota. who has entrusted even appointing, most of Armed Services men with only army training and experience only in the battle field ; to manage the administrative jobs; instead of specially qualified and fully trained Public servants such as Physicians, Administrative ,Accounting, Engineering and other scientists etc being over looked to fill in their legitimate posts.

  • 3
    14

    “The Sinhala Only Bill, passed in 1957, and the University Standardization scheme introduced in 1971 – all in the name of affirmative action, were really intended to beat the Jaffna dominance.”
    —–
    BS!
    Sinhala was the official language of Sinhale before Europeans colonized the country. During British rule, English was made the official language. After Sinhalayo gained Independences they reversed the decision taken by British for the benefit of majority of people in the country. When English was the official language, Tamils had no problem but when Sinhala, the language of Native Sinhalayo was made the official language, Tamils had a problem.
    Standardization was introduced for the benefit of students from areas where education facilities were poor. British did not improve education facilities for Sinhala Buddhists. At the time Sinhalayo gained Independence, about 60% of Grade 1 schools were in Yapanaya. More than 60% of the places in Medical College, Engineering Faculty and Science Faculty were occupied by Vellala Tamils from Yapanaya. Standardization helped Tamils who lived outside Yapanaya to enter University. Standardization also beat the Colombo dominance.

    • 3
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      EE
      Who ever that would be of 60% they all ceylonees,now big food manufacturing put the label for local market.in English singalam and Mandarin exclude Thamil

    • 7
      2

      Eagle Blind Eye

      “BS”

      We know its your middle name.

  • 0
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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

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  • 3
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    EE
    Who ever that would be of 60% they all ceylonees,now big food manufacturing put the label for local market.in English singalam and Mandarin exclude Thamil

  • 5
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    Thank you Dr.Ameer Ali for the informative and factual accounts given in your article as usual wherein you have reflected your inner heart and brought forth the sad memories to the fore.

  • 5
    1

    “SYSTEMATIC RACISM” in Sri Lanka started with the Sinhala Only policy of Bandaranaike has today become a monstrous “SYSTEMIC RACISM”. Unfortunately, none of the religious leaders including the Mahanayakes, Cardinal, Moulavies, Hindu Priest, and Civil Society Leaders are openly standing against the “Systemic Racism” that’s prevailing today. Either they are scared of being killed or branded as a “Traitor”. Until and unless the youth of the land take the leadership and stand against the “Systemic Racism” that’s spreading today, Sri Lanka is going to be named a Failed Nation.

    • 2
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      Buddhist1,
      “SYSTEMATIC RACISM” in Sri Lanka started with the Sinhala Only policy”.
      —–
      When British introduced ‘English only’ policy discarding Sinhala; language of Native Sinhalayo it was not racism and Tamils had no problem with that. But when Sinhalayo reversed the British policy and introduced Sinhala which was the official language of Sinhale before colonial rulers changed that as the official language after Sinhalayo became an independence nation it is racism.

      • 5
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        Eagle,
        “But when Sinhalayo reversed the British policy and introduced Sinhala which was the official language of Sinhale “
        You still haven’t explained why Ratwatte signed the Kandyan Convention in Tamil.

  • 1
    3

    It was an English library built by British and mostly had English books. How could an English library be considered a Tamil icon ?

  • 1
    1

    Incidents like the burning of the library and the 1983 riots are always remembered. Why are incidents like the anniversary of this massacre never remembered? (Friday 11th June). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1990_massacre_of_Sri_Lankan_Police_officers
    Has this site ever published a word about it? Is it something to do with race? Don’t all lives matter?

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