Burning of the Jaffna Library: Tears and toil of a district secretary – Ranga Chandrarathne

Jaffna Public Library

Ranga Chandrarathne“Enraged Jaffna policemen had burnt down the Jaffna Public Library with all its invaluable collection of manuscripts and publications on Hindu civilization, Tamil culture and its several thousands of rare manuscripts and out-of-date first editions. The Jaffna Library was one of the leading repositories of knowledge in South Asia. The burning of the library, which marked a seminal trajectory in the history of Tamil armed struggle, lasted the entire night.” – Ranga Chandrarathne

Justice C. V. Vigneswaran

With retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran taking oaths as the Chief Minister and as the Northern Provincial Council becomes operational, it is fitting that we also remember Yogendra Duraiswamy on his 90th birth anniversary this October as one who relentlessly worked for the economic development of the pre-war Jaffna and Kilinochchi districts.

It was following a distinguished diplomatic career in the Ceylon Foreign Service that Yogendra Duraiswamy assumed duties as District Secretary of Jaffna in 1979. The distinguished international civil servant worshipped at the Nallur Temple and then paid homage at the Columbuthurai Ashram of Yoga Swami before taking up his duties.

As his friend Ranganathan recalled in his appreciation of his services, it was really hard work; “To my mind, the finest phase of his career was after he shed the metaphorical plumes and regalia of diplomatic life and became District Secretary and Government Agent at Jaffna. That period gave point and purpose to a life-long passion to serve his people.” (16th July 1999, Ceylon Daily News) It was ‘Sivathondu’ – Service to God.

Yogendra DuraisamayFor Yogendra, it was an ideal opportunity to serve the masses in his capacity as a civil servant and thereby, serving God. He wholeheartedly took up the responsibility of developing Jaffna and Kilinochchi by mapping out far-sighted development strategies aimed at inclusive and comprehensive economic growth in the North. This he envisioned would heal the wounds of ethnic discord. As a District Secretary, he faced the predicament of representing the central government and at the same time addressing the needs and responding to the demands of the people of Jaffna. During his two-and-a-half-year tenure, he overcame these challenges addressing the needs of the people and implementing several development projects.

Ranganathan recalls: “Consequent to the General Strike of 1980, hundreds of government employees were dismissed from service (by the then government). He recruited approximately a thousand youth on a strictly impartial basis to fill the vacancies. He initiated an Integrated Rural Development Program whereby cottage industries were established and milk production vastly increased. He launched housing projects and constructed new roads in the peninsula. Direct dialling facilities were accelerated and a Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Transmitting Centre was established. He ordered the resumption of work on the Mahadeva Causeway. Prior to his assumption of office, the decentralised budgets were not fully utilised. During his stewardship, all funds were fully expended. He wanted to implement the Israeli hydrological experts’ recommendations for the peninsula. He also had plans to rehabilitate the Iranamadu tank whereby an extra 20,000 acres would have come under the plough.” (My Diplomat)

Yogendra identified that improving the transport sector was vital to the speedy implementation of development projects. He systematised and improved the bus services and extended the boat services to the offshore islands. To kick-start rural development, he installed a biogas plant and began small-scale rural development projects such as coir, fisheries, poultry and animal husbandry. Among the important schemes he implemented were the youth schemes in Mirusuvil and Mulangavil.

Jaffna CausewayOne of Yogendra’s initiatives with far-reaching benefits was the resumption of the construction work of the Mahadeva Causeway. The Mahadeva Causeway would have facilitated the conversion of the Jaffna lagoon into a fresh water lake to complement the Iranamadu reservoir. Yogendra’s interest in the implementation of the Mahadeva Causeway was amply demonstrated when he included the Mahadeva Causeway in the itinerary of Prime Minister R. Premadasa during his visit to Jaffna in 1980 to lobby him to finance the scheme. Having been impressed over the progress of the project in Jaffna, Prime Minister Premadasa promptly agreed to the idea that the construction should resume immediately. Yogendra initiated civil work on the causeway. He also lobbied Colombo to allocate funds to upgrade the Kankesanthurai port.

The Government insisted that economic development should be expedited according to the Integrated Rural Development Plan. Except for the Jaffna District, other districts depended on foreign consultants for the planning and implementation of development plans. Yogendra was of the view that planning should be done by those experts who were familiar with the ground situation and who had identified the needs of the people rather than foreign experts who had no such first-hand knowledge.

“An Integrated Rural Development Plan for the Jaffna District was formulated after careful consideration was given to the development objectives and the resources available. The needs and views of the people of the district and the conditions in which they lived were obtained through the system of Field Kachcheries where my senior officials and I were directly involved. My aim was to bring in people’s participation and subsequently in helping the implementation of the plan because such participation would give strength and substance to the plan. Only planned growth could give optimum results and the process of planning could bring ideas into a clear focus and help in deciding the priorities. In planning such development activities, my wish was to change substantially the economic and social landscape of the District. This plan envisaged an investment of 750 million rupees over a period of five years and encompasses a wide range of development activities,” stated Yogendra before he left for Japan to discuss his plan at the United Nations Regional Development Centre in Nagoya in 1980.

The Integrated Rural Development Plan was a comprehensive development initiative encompassing vital areas such as agriculture, land and forestry; irrigation, water resources and water supply; fisheries; transport and communications; industry; health, education and housing. However, the political situation turned from bad to worse preventing the implementation of the plan and the 30-year conflict was about to begin!

It was a difficult time for Yogendra. However, he kept in touch with the people of Jaffna and Kilinochchi. He introduced field Kachcheries in 1979. This was well before President Premadasa’s launching of the Presidential Mobile Secretariat. During these field Kachcheries, Yogendra and his officials were able to address numerous issues of the people at grassroots level. The idea behind the concept was to take the government to the grass-roots level. He declared a Public Day which was exclusively for the people to meet him in person each week and to air their administrative issues.

Burned-out Jaffna Public Library Burning of Public Library

The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) made a decision to contest the District Development Council (DDC) elections in 1981 and it was to contest for all the seven councils in the North and East. The largest council was the Jaffna Council where ten members were to be elected. Tamil militant youth were thoroughly disenchanted with the TULF and considered the decision on the part of the TULF as amounting to betrayal of Burned-out Jaffna Public LibraryAmirthalingam’s promise at the 1977 elections to fight for Tamil’s independence. Youth perceived that the District-based devolution of power was unpromising and scarce.

DDC elections were to be held on June 4, 1981. In the Jaffna Secretariat, the officials were busy making preparation for the conduct of the polls and counting of ballots. Yogendra made sure that everything had been well planned and intended to announce the results of the Jaffna District earlier than the other districts. The TULF, the UNP, the SLFP and the Tamil Congress launched a vigorous campaign and on May 31, 1981, the TULF held a massive election rally near the Nachchimaar Amman Temple in Jaffna. Police were deployed to provide security for the rally. In the frenzy of the rally, two unidentified gunmen shot at the police and fled the scene, killing three policemen. Two hundred police personnel present rioted and indiscriminately burnt shops, houses, cars and other commercial establishments. The reprisal attacks were the worst that the people of Jaffna had witnessed.

Yogendra returned home virtually exhausted after a turbulent day putting the final touches to the preparations for the forthcoming elections. He had informed Colombo of the killings near the Nachchimaar Temple. More and more adverse developments began to emerge. The most negative among them was the news that enraged policemen had burnt down the Jaffna Public Library with all its invaluable collection of manuscripts and publications on Hindu civilization, Tamil culture and its several thousands of rare manuscripts and out-of-date first editions. The Jaffna Library was one of the leading repositories of knowledge in South Asia. The burning of the library, which marked a seminal trajectory in the history of Tamil armed struggle, lasted the entire night. Yogendra rushed into the burning city at 10.00 p.m. and requested the Navy base in Karai-nagar and the Municipality for bowsers of water to extinguish the fire. The city was virtually deserted and he found that the Municipal Office was closed and the water tower locked. Although the Navy’s bowser arrived at the scene, its capacity was inadequate to douse the roaring fire.

As Yogendra stood transfixed seeing the burning library with a vacant gaze, a lone Tamil policeman came up to him and said, “Aiyah please do not stay here because I am not sure what the police will do to you. Please leave,” he urged. Yogendra kept saying “What security is there for life and property when the custodians of the law behave in such a manner.”

That fateful day, Yogendra returned home at 4. a.m. On recalling the ordeal a few days after, he realised that his life was, indeed, in danger. No one had dared to come out that night. Despite political rhetoric, none of the TULF politicians were present. Yogendra stood all alone that night trying to douse the flames.

Tamil United Liberation FrontDistrict Council polls

The District Development Council elections were held in Jaffna in the same week that the Jaffna Library was burnt. The DDC elections were J.R. Jayewardene’s mode of devolution. The elections were held in a chaotic environment and the Government rejected the Jaffna Secretary’s arrangements and removed the officers designated for duty. They were replaced with complete strangers who were from the south from diverse parts of the country. Yogendra came under the pressure and influence of ministers Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Mathew. They insisted that the presiding officers be changed and when he refused their request, President Jayewardene called and threatened him, ‘your head would roll, Duraiswamy unless you change the designated officers’. (My Diplomat)

Yogendra resisted! It was at this stage that Col. C.A. Dharmapala, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence wrote, “I have studied the security situation in relation to the proper conduct of the poll for the Development Council elections for Jaffna District fixed for 4th June 1981 and in the interest of ensuring the proper conduct of the poll I, Col. C.A. Dharmapala, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, by virtue of the powers vested in me by the Emergency Regulations, 1981 do hereby direct you as the Returning Officer to revoke the appointments of the Presiding Officers in the schedule attached to this directive which has been authenticated by me and to make fresh appointments of Presiding Officers in their place.” (File DDC Elections, Jaffna)

The election was held in a chaotic situation and rigged. Ballot boxes were misplaced and several polling centres ceased to function. Counting was not conducted at some polling booths. Kumar Ponnambalam of the Tamil Congress, Chelliah Kumarasuriyar of the SLFP and Amirthalingamand Sivasithamparam of the TULF complained that the election was flawed and rigged.

Due to the poll irregularities, Yogendra initially did not release the election results and brought the matter to President Jayewardene’s attention. However, the TULF knowing that it had won the election insisted that results be released immediately. Elections Commissioner Chandrananda de Silva instructed him in writing to declare the results. Accordingly he declared the results and resigned from the post of District Secretary ending an eventful phase in his life.

Chandrika KumaratungaYogendra considered that the burning of the Library as an indictment on the conscience of the nation. He fervently wished that the library be rebuilt and would lobby diplomats for obtaining new books and tracing documents which may have earlier been microfilmed. He was appointed a member of the Jaffna Public Library Committee for the reconstruction of the Library. At the inaugural meeting convened by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Yogendra as Head of the Committee on Fund Raising stated in his Introductory Address:

“Sixteen years ago I had the misfortune to witness the Jaffna Public Library go up in flames. Despite the efforts by a few of us, we were unable to extinguish the fire. Today I am indeed happy to participate in a function, under the distinguished patronage of the President to formally inaugurate the reconstruction of the Jaffna Public Library on the same spot on a bigger and better scale. It is a laudable act of reconciliation, which springs from a desire of the government to redress past wrongs. It is our fervent wish that this initiative of the government would lead to mutual trust and understanding between the two parties.”(My Diplomat)

Yogendra’s actions echoed the wisdom of Hinduism which enunciated the values and enlightened inclusivism. It is obvious that the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita inspired Yogendra to serve humanity with dedication. His was a selfless service which went beyond artificial barriers such as creed, race and even nationality. He often used to cite the Tamil phrase, “Makkal Sevai Maadhavan Sevai Aakum,” – Service to humanity is service to God. “You have a right only to action, never to the fruits thereof. Let not the personal benefits of your work be your motive; neither let there be inaction,” says the Gita II–47. In accordance with the spirit of Hinduism, he served the poor in his district with commitment and dedication. – The Sunday Times, 13 October 2013

Yogendra Duraiswamy & Jawaharlal Nehru in 1953