An Eye Witness Account: Burnt the Jaffna Library

by Dilip Kumar

(Dilip Kumar was, when these events took place, a senior student at St Johns College in Jaffna. He is now a resident of Scarborough, Canada)

Day One


(September 27, Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian) One the morning of the 1st July 1981 I woke up early and got ready to attend an accountancy class scheduled for 6 am. It was conducted by a person we referred to as 'Ghanam Master' at his residence on Temple road in Jaffna. I was in time for the class despite the early hour but found on my arrival, scenes of some confusion. I was told that the class had been cancelled because Sinhala policemen, both in and out of uniform, had ransacked and set fire to the home of the Member of Parliament for Jaffna Mr V Yogeswaran.

Together with my friend Rajkumar we proceeded on our bicycles to Mr Yogeswaran's house that we reached in about ten minutes. The scene before us took us a back. We saw the destruction of the MP's house which had been set alight and was still smouldering. The MP's car which was parked within the compound beside the house had also been damaged and set alight. It was still smouldering when we arrived.

I saw the MP Mr Yogeswaran at the gate to his house. He was wearing a pair of Khaki shorts and appeared very shaky. In answer to my question, he told me that there had been in all, around 10 to 15 persons in the house at the time of the incident. He said that on the previous night around 10 pm, a group of persons had come to his house and called out to him by name. He went out up to the gate at the top of the garden which had been shut and padlocked for the night. One of the persons in the crowd asked in Sinhala 'Yogeswaran mahataya innavatha '(Is Mr Yogeswaran in?). Mr Yogeswaran said that he realised that something was up. It was very unusual to have a group of Sinhala men call this late at night and ask if the owner was in, in a very intimidating tone. He therefore told them that the MP was not at home. The men apparently believed him and took him to be the night watchman because of his khaki shorts. They however grabbed his hands through the metal bars of the locked gate. He was able to pull his hands back and his hands were still bleeding when we met him. He said he had run towards the house screaming to his wife to get out of the house. They were both able to make their way through the rear fence of the house into their neighbour's property before the group of men forced their way in.

Mr Yogeswaran asked my friend and me if we could help him look for his wife's 'thali kodi'. This is a necklace of ceremonial and religious significance that a Tamil bride wears from the day she marries till the day her husband dies, if he predeceases her. It is made of solid gold and is often worth a considerable sum of money. Sadly, the house was a mass of smouldering timber and other material and we looked without any success. I do not know if the 'Thali' was ever recovered. We told him, both I and the few people who had come, to go away from the vicinity of his house to his father's house and not remain around here any longer. His father Dr Vettivelu was a well known GP in the town and lived not far from his house.

6.20 am

My friend Rajkumar and I got on to our bicycles and cycled towards the Jaffna library. What we saw was almost unbelievable. This beautiful building with its wealth of rare and irreplaceable first editions and manuscripts, some of them on 'ola leaves' was covered in dense smoke. We could not enter the library for the smoke. There were about 10 or 15 persons on the premises. There was only one tap outside the building and this was beside the statue of Saraswathi the Goddess of Learning, facing the building as one approached it. But there was nothing we could do. Apart from the distance from the tap to the smouldering library and the books, we did not have sufficient implements or manpower.

Yet, only 2 minutes walking distance from the library, was the Jaffna Municipality building and offices and the Municipal fire station with its fire trucks manpower and implements. It was of no use, the firemen were too scared to try to put out a fire that had been started by the policemen quite a few of whom were still around with their guns.

While I was still at the library, I saw a police jeep drive slowly around the library in a wide arc. They drove along the Kandy Road in front of the Municipality then turned left in front of the Rest House proceeding along the road by Jaffna Central College and then turning left on to Clock Tower Road. They were clearly making a 'show' of their presence. It was generally understood that two government ministers and their deputies and principal henchmen were still in residence at the Rest House.

7.15 am

As there was nothing we could do to help put out the fire in the library, my friend and I decided to leave and, as it was too dangerous to cross by the road along Jaffna Central College because of the presence of the intimidating and slowly patrolling jeep, we decided to cross by the road behind the library called the Muniyappar Road. As we got ready to take this road we saw 150 to 200 police officers in uniform and in civvies at the Duraiappa Stadium on Muniyappar Road. Each of them was carrying a travelling bag while some were still in sarong. Clearly, these men were getting ready to get back to the Sinhala south from whence they had come, having completed their dastardly deeds.

7.15 am

As we crossed from the library on to Muniyappar Road we heard loud jeering from the direction of the Duriappah Stadium where some of the police officers were apparently taking a nap after having worked so hard through the night wrecking and burning buildings and houses! There were a large number of police officers standing on the tiers of the stadium while yet others, were standing near the fence facing the road that surrounded the stadium. At first, we thought that the loud jeering was directed at us, but then we noticed that a passing motor scooter had been hit by a rock thrown at it by policemen from the stadium and that the scooter and rider had both gone sprawling on to the road. This was what provided 'entertainment' and merriment to these mindless semiliterate Sinhala police morons. I was a 19 year old student and had been brought up to believe in the rule of law. I thought that the police were there to enforce the law not to break it! I am certain that these policemen had been brought from outside Jaffna for a specific purpose. They were clean shaven and had close cropped hair and well built bodies. They appeared to be police trainees or policemen from outside the regular Jaffna police force.

8 am

I am still within the library premises but the others are gradually beginning to leave. There is a general belief that there is an unannounced curfew and that there was the possibility that the police would start taking pot shots at persons seen in the vicinity of the library. My friend Rajkumar and I decided to leave by the Muniyappar Road though it meant having to go past the stadium with its unruly policemen. We heard the policemen jeering at us but kept on going and did not look back.

8.15 am

As we rode past the Regal Cinema we made a left turn at the Shanthi Cinema and took a little known lane behind the Subas Café and through the Haron Cinema. I saw as many as 50 Jaffna people gathered along the route I took. They told me that the New Market was burning. My friend and I went through the Kottadi Road and saw that the heads of the statues of the great Tamil poetess and poet Ouvaiyar and Thiruvalluvar that had occupied a prime location in Grand Bazaar at the New Market and at the junction of KKS Road had been knocked off. A statue to Mahatma Gandhi head also been destroyed. The Old Market had been ransacked and looted by the police and I saw dried red chillies from the shops scattered on the ground as well as rice, kithul, dry fish and various other condiments. The Old Market that lay beside the New Market had been ransacked and looted.

10 am

My friend Rajkiumar told me that he was going back home as he was too scared. Jaffna Town looked like a ghost town. I continued on my own towards Kasturiyar Road and saw that the Bata shop on the corner of the New Market store and the Arrack Tavern on Kasturiyar Road had been looted by the police. I am pretty certain that they had used a heavy truck or an armoured car to get at these shops since I saw that the iron gates of these shops had been smashed and were lying on the road with a chain hanging from one of the gates.

11.30 am

I heard from passers by that the EelaNadu Press had been ransacked and burnt I proceeded towards KKS Road where the offices of the EelaNadu were and saw that the print works had been completely burnt. I was told that Mr Sivanathan, a director of EelaNadu, had suffered severe burns and had been taken to the Aanaipanthi Hospital. Mr Sivanathan is the father of a friend so I decided to go to the hospital and seen him.

4 pm

I went to the hospital and found that my friend's father had been badly burnt. All his hair had been burnt and he was practically bald. My friend Balakanna told me that his father had fainted due to inhaling excess smoke and that a co worker had bravely carried him to safety from the second floor to the ground floor, using a single drainpipe. Mr Sivanathan is today, a resident of Canada.


It had been a very long and traumatic day and I was mentally and physically, exhausted. Up to this point I have been able to recollect in great detail not only the incidents but also their exact nature. I have also been able to give the exact times. From here on, even though I have described the incidents exactly as they occurred, I cannot vouch for the exact times.

I therefore describe them as the 2nd Day and the 3rd Day

2nd Day

I got home late on the first night unhappy and dejected. What I had seen that day was to remain with me for a very long time. Today, 27 years after the incidents, as I write these notes they remain vivid in my mind as if they took place yesterday. I had fitful sleep that night a sleep that was interrupted by terrible nightmares.

My parents were working outside Jaffna where, my father was a Conservator of Forests and my mother, a sister of Charles Somasundrum who writes on matters concerning the Tamil nation, was a teacher. There was no older person to restrict my movements or advise me to remain at home and not get out. I took my bike and went to Jaffna town on the morning of the 2nd July 1981.

I saw more destruction. The historic and well known Poobalasingham Book Depot that stood near the bus stand had been burnt. This was a shop that not only dealt in books but also dealt in school stationary like exercise books, paints and painting paraphernalia, school text books, instrument boxes and the like. All this had been burnt or destroyed. It then struck me. These police morons were only carrying out the instructions of the two ministers, who were at that moment hiding at the Rest House, and big man at the top in Colombo, who were pulling their strings. These senseless politicians were clearly under the impression that the Tamil people could be stopped from advancing if their access to books or the means of bettering themselves were taken away.

Little did these small minded Sinhala politicians and their semi literate, mindless uniformed goons realise, that the Tamil people were at the top of the field in whichever discipline they had chosen, because they had the will and the determination. Given the opportunity, there was nothing to stop the average Tamil person excelling in their chosen field as they have shown today, in the various countries to which they have been compelled to emigrate.

These silly Sinhalas and their equally mindless masters thought that by burning books and destroying their schools they could keep the Tamil nation at the bottom of the pyramid. It shows that however important or powerful a Sinhala person may be that person will never 'learn' or have the capacity to learn.

While I was at the Poobalasingham Book Depot looking at the damage, I saw a dead body in front of the Book Depot. One of the people there carried the body to the Out Patients Department of the Jaffna Hospital, which is only a few minutes away. Perhaps the body should have been taken to the mortuary but the person probably thought that the hospital authorities would know what to do next.

There were very few people in the town. There would have been, in all, around 200 to 300 heads. Yet, when a military vehicle passed by with soldiers pointing their guns, their fingers on the trigger, there was general panic. Barely 10 to 15 persons stood their ground. The others bolted with cries of 'odathai' 'odathai' (don't run, don't run) from those who stood their ground, ringing in their ears.

The military started to bring in small Baval armoured vehicles and some new attack vehicles I have not seen in Jaffna before, all this, to 'attack' unarmed civilians who took flight at the sight of any army vehicle carrying soldiers!

I visited the Dr Gobalapillai Flats to visit a friend, Chitragangani, to find, that she was preparing to leave the premises. She is currently resident in the UK.

I was very scared, having seen the dead body at the Book Depot that I returned home.

3rd Day

This was the 3rd day after the people of Jaffna had been subjected to terror and murderous assault. The Town appeared calm though most of the residents kept to their homes. I thought to myself, why are all these people so sacred? Why don't they all walk together in a simple non violent protest group and show their solidarity. After all, their own MP's house was ransacked and burnt and the MP himself escaped with his life by pure chance. I was ashamed that the people were so scared and frightened. Leading Tamils like Anandasangari and Amithalingam were nowhere to be seen or heard. There was no one to speak up for the Tamil nation in this time of their need. True, the two individuals mentioned above, made passionate speeches, but long after these incidents when they felt it was safe to come out into the open. Things have changed since. The Tamils are prepared to stand up for their rights and fight for them. There are many young men and women who would today have been brilliant professionals or academics but have sacrificed all to fight for a 'free' homeland for the next generation of Tamils. Though Tamils like me are outside our mother country we have not forgotten her. We will continue to extend her all the help and assistance to ensure a free and viable Eelam.

I continued on my journey towards Kasthooriyar Road and saw just empty space in the middle of the Jaffna bus stand. On normal days, this bus stand would have been a hive of activity with buses and vehicles constantly entering and leaving. All I saw today was a few policemen sitting in front of the Sunlight Laundry – of course they were armed. I needed to cross into Hospital Road and it was very easy crossing through the bus stand. On other days I would have had to take the long route through Stanley Road where the Windsor Cinema is. As I approached the bus stand I saw around 20 policemen in white T shirts and police uniform trousers. They stopped me and told me to get into the drain and stand there. One of then said to me 'sinna podiyan paakirathu enna kaurtha kodi kaatu kiratha?' meaning, 'you look a small boy but you are the ones showing the black flags'. I told them that I had nothing to do with black flags. One of the policemen asked his boss to let me go as I was only a little boy. Meanwhile, the group had detained another person so they let me go. I was by now soaked with the smelly drain water. Perhaps they thought it was sufficient punishment.

As I cycled further, behind Hospital Road I passed the BMICH building and saw Tamil people looting building material from the shop. I thought to myself that only 200 meters away were policemen harassing innocent Tamil people while here were Tamil people, who lacked the guts to protest about what had happened, looting this shop. There was no law and order when the policemen themselves were themselves guilty of breaking the law.

I went on to MP Yogeswaran's house and found that around 200 to 300 persons had gathered there, but none of the self titled 'leaders' of the Tamil people. As a military vehicle passed by they jeered at the soldiers. The vehicle stopped and the soldiers fired in the air. All the people promptly ran away. I watched the scene from the front of Subbas Hotel behind Hospital Road.

I heard that some persons had been killed in front of the Naga Vihare at Aariya Kulam Junction. The Vihare was well protected by the military. I heard that a young graduate of the Jaffna University had been piling bodies in front of the Vihare when he was apprehended by the army.
They had forced him to throw the bodies into a fire they had started. I later heard that the young man was himself thrown, alive, into the same flames!

I dedicate this article to the many Tamil men, women and children who lost their lives to the Sinhala policemen whose 'strings' were pulled by the hidden ministers in Jaffna and the big man in Colombo. I particularly remember the young graduate of the Jaffna University who demonstrated his personal protest by piling up some of the dead bodies in front of the Naga Vihare = and lost his own life in the process.
- Sri Lanka Guardian