The recent incident of vandalism at the Jaffna public library could have been a case of spontaneous if misplaced public rage but it brought back memories of two chilling nights in 1981 when the library was systematically razed to the ground.
The Sinhalese mob that lit the fire on the night of May 31, 1981, was organised and believed to have been efficiently led by a politician from the South. The fire stopped after 48 hours but the destruction of the library — a symbol of Tamil culture and history — left a festering wound in the relationship between the Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities.
This time, a group of tourists from the South wanted a library tour but was turned away as a national medical seminar was being held inside. The book-lovers were apparently not convinced. They forced their way in.
“No, no it wasn’t an attack. The tourists were angry with the staff and after they were stopped, some 1500 got inside the lending section and dismantled book shelves. The library guards were not able to stop them,’’ library official, S Thanabalasingam said.
After the guard was unable to convince them, the library authorities asked the Jaffna mayor, Yogeswari Patkunam, to intervene, who in turn informed the police. The TamilNet website said the rampage continued for three hours and signboards and placards were smashed. Access to the library has been restricted since.
The Government said it would protect places of cultural, educational and intellectual value to the Tamil people. But at a time when it was talking about learning lessons from the civil war and reconciling communities, the incident will leave a bitter after taste.
Since the north was opened up after years in isolation, thousands of Sinhalese have visited the Jaffna peninsula, majority surely with the idea to experience a part of the country out of bounds for decades.
But few, as a Jaffna-based journalist pointed out, were touring with the eyes of the victorious. And some as the library incident revealed with the intentions of the vandal.