30 years ago: A time for reflection


Image taken from Jaffna Photo Gallery

I write this as a response to Concerned Citizen’s comments on the public lecture and discussion  on the Burning of the Jaffna Public Library led by  Silan Kadirgamar held at ICES a few days ago, recounting those pre-’83 days days of terror and terrorism.

In order to break the silence that concerned citizen her/himself is propagating, I will write in one of my many names.

Concerned Citizen says that the discussion was paltry and diverted attention from any comparison with current political developments being drawn; one of them obviously is the issue of accountability as regards the last phase of the war. I had a very different experience sitting through the event. And that experience I would say is theoretically registered through a critical phenomenological mode.

For me the most important aspect of the lecture and discussion was what was unstated, but nevertheless poignantly implicit. It was not one of your regular forums full of the bizarre jargon fashionable among NGO and now government circles, like ‘stakeholders,’ ‘civil society response’ etc. When Kadirgamar narrated the story of MIRJE and its unpretentious beginnings, we began to ponder concerns regarding how everything needed to have a proposal these days before one could act, about stakeholders, output and outcome. What his lecture in a way asked for at a deep seated political and theoretical way was: an intimate engagement with what’s going on in conflict situations.

He spoke for himself, as a Tamil, an academic and activist. He did not speak for others. He spoke of the spiraling violence of those few days in which he became not just an analyst but a victim, a participant and an agent.  He said with humility and introspection ‘In the aftermath of those few days, from ’81-’85, I wanted a Tamil Eelam.’ There was no rage, pride or shame in his words. For him the situation demanded analysis for the questions and answers emanating from that situation reverberate to this day in multiple ways. What happened between 31st May to 3rd June 1981? What had happened to the state? And importantly, what happened to us? Later he said, in conclusion, ‘we are all terrorists. When I contribute to state funds to bomb our households, do I become a terrorist?’ For me, who saw family become actively engaged in nationalism and the LTTE, in the post-Public Library era, this triggered other critical questions.

These were the questions stated and unstated that I found most touching in the presentation. To go back to my initial articulation, it was the stress on the personal, the subjective and the witness account that made every person seated there, wanting to say something, yet feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. A woman seated near me said, ‘I was there when it happened. I was a student at the University.’ ‘Why are you here?’ she asked my friend from the south who would have been three-odd years old in ‘81.

Concerned Citizen says that several respondents deliberately diverted attention from the political and from the event’s relevance to what is going on today. And I disagree. I did not think there was any deliberate attempt on the part of the commanding naval officer of that time who was present there to draw a red herring. He had a story to tell and he told it. In fact I must say I enjoyed listening to what he said. When Jolly Somasundaram intervened to say that there was a commission during Chandrika’s time that looked into the events of the burning of the Public Library and a public apology tendered by the then President, he was not trying to white wash the involvement of the state in any way. There were others, like Mr. Sirithunge, who stressed the need to reflect on what is going on now. With a chill I recall a loud assertion coming from the audience during discussion: Accountability! Accountability!

Overall, it was the poignant understatement of the lecture and its recounting of activism that kept the audience in thrall, silent and articulate. It is to Kadirgamar’s credit that he did not push the parallels between the public library event 30 years ago and the current political predicament too much. For one, the lecture was about reflection on issues of accountability, on the part of the state and the individual. Secondly, for me, I am glad he did not use the event as a platform to air grievances, though he laid the blame for it all at the door of the state in quite unequivocal terms. He gave the heinous act of terrorism of 1981 its due place in history, without making it a handmaiden to our preoccupations today.  And yet, precisely because he did not overemphasize the parallels between then and now, the poignancy and the event’s relevance for contemporary events became greater.

Concerned citizen speaks of the silence of the audience. For me the silence was not born of fear. Nor was it a silence of disengagement and annoyance. It was a thoughtful silence. It is like when you had watched a disturbing film. You want to get away and think of its import. And credit for that goes to Silan Kadirgamar and his accomplices!

  • CheeLanka

    My sympathies and outrage are entirely with you when you talk about this day of infamy. But to put it in perspective, far worse atrocities followed in the 26 years of war in the North of Sri Lanka. Far more than books burned: whole villages with hundreds of non-combatant children, women and men were firebombed and carpet bombed. This was all said to be in retaliation to a brutal terror group, but the ‘collateral damage’ was massive as it was tragic. In that larger picture, the torching of books pales into relative insignificance.
    Colombo’s intellectuals seem more concerned about the books that burnt, rather than whole villages full of people that were later vapourized in the name of anti-terrorism.

    • Tru

      Do you have any idea how the LTTE cleansed the North and the East of all Muslims and Sinhalese? How they stood for linguistic discrimination while killing fellow Tamil speaking ethnic Tamils and Muslims in cold blood?

      • Velu Balendran

        True Tru, and in turn the Tamils are being ethnically cleansed by the Sinhalese as the electoral registers of the North prove!

      • Thambi

        Electoral registrars prove that many of the Northern Tamils have left the country seeking refuge in Europe, London, Toronto, Australia, etc. It’s not a case for ethnic cleansing as it stands.

      • Velu Balendran

        Are you comparing the 500 in the “Sun Sea” ship with the several lakhs missing in the North?

  • myil selvan

    Are we learning any lessons from our tragic past? Is history repeating itself?

  • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

    Jaffna in 1981: Days of Terror, Santasilan Kadirgamar

    http://epw.in/epw/uploads/articles/16135.pdf

    As one revisits events of arson and murder in Jaffna in May/June 1981, one is reminded that these events 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.

  • Govind Iyakutti

    Looking at this event from the distance of India, and looking
    at all the detailed facts, it seems that the only group who had a
    motive for burning the library and heaping discredit on the government were the tigers. You need to take a crime detection type of approach
    and analyze thre event withour assumptions. But
    of course, the Tamil speakers in this forum would not dare to say that
    since it is now believed to be a sacred truth that the state did it, and Chandrika apologized for it. The Sinhalese too, dare not say anything for fear that
    they would be called Chauvinist pigs. But what is the actual truth? The
    Tigers did many things, designed to enrage or implicate the State,
    and often killing their own or burning their own if need be.
    And they also planted and doctored the evidence as needed.

    Chandrika was trying to whitewash everything, and give an apologia in the hope of securing some appeasement from the Tamil nationalists and Prabhakaran.
    She almost paid for her life for it.
    There is for more to this event that meets the eye, and people like kadirgamar are intellectuals and they can shed no light on what actually happened.
    May be RAW in INDIA would know more about what happened!!!

    • wijayapala

      Dear Govind

      Welcome to Groundviews. In this case you are mistaken, the police (and UNP government) was responsible for the destruction of the library and the govt at that time even admitted it. I highly recommend reading Kadirgamar’s article, either here or on EPW (Groundviews provided the link above).