Tuesday, July 14, 2015

On Sparrows and Pallbearers

History is version. So is truth. That was what a Prime Minister (here) observed when he wrote that truth was relative, and that yesterday’s truth might become tomorrow’s fiction or vice-versa. Naturally enough, opinion gets scripted into incident, which is why it becomes difficult to reconcile differing versions of the same event.

The Jaffna Public Library burning is one example. It’s been more than three decades. We still don’t know what happened. We still don't know who did it. Not by a long shot.

Yes, there have been eyewitness accounts. Yes, there have been allegations, accusations, and countless other insinuations that have subsided through time. But what really happened? The "whodunit" part to it has been hotly debated, with politicians from both sides blaming each other. Edward Gunawardena’s book Memorable Tidbits Including the Jaffna Library Fire tried to resolve this by pointing fingers at the LTTE.

The book was acclaimed. It moved an academic to apologise and withdraw an accusation he himself had believed in. Professor Carlo Fonseka, who throughout the 1994 Presidential Election maintained that Gamini Dissanayake had sanctioned the burning, recanted. We are forced to question that recantation, however. We are forced to ask: how? And more importantly: why?

To resolve that, we need to look at another version. Another book.

Thangarajah Mukunthan was not at the site when the Library was burnt. He has written a book, however. To say it offers a counterpoint to Gunawardena’s book is an understatement. “The Jaffna Public Library: 34 Years Since the Burning” is a compilation of events as they happened. Its author lays the blame on not just the Army but members of the ruling party as well, in the run-up to the District Development Council (DDC) Election.

Here’s what happened. On May 31, 1981, a meeting attended by more than 2,000 people and overseen by four police officers (including one Sinhalese and one Tamil sergeant) at Nachchimar Kovilady was disturbed violently by unidentified terrorists. In the ensuing carnage, Sergeant Punchi Banda was killed, his Tamil counterpart shot thrice.

This later became (part of) the basis for the Library fire. At around the same time, police officers baton-charged people and reduced to ashes several public places throughout the city. No site was spared. Not even the Kovil. By the following day, schools and bus services were shut down. Curfew would be declared the day after. In the meantime, chaos reigned.

From here onward, unfortunately, history becomes version.

About a week later (June 9), after the Library had been razed to the ground, the then Opposition Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam accused the police of complicity. A heated exchange between him and members of the United National Party (UNP) followed. That didn’t tone down allegation, however. It merely sustained it.

Amirthalingam didn’t name names. It took another nine years and a split in the UNP for someone to do that. And when Ranasinghe Premadasa accused Gamini Dissanayake of having a hand in the Library fire upon the latter’s defection (with Lalith Athulathmudali) from the party, the cat was out of the bag. This was because (as Mukunthan infers) Premadasa couldn’t have known of Dissanayake’s (alleged) complicity without his being privy to it in the first place.

“They obviously were all party to it, the President downwards.”

So where does Gunawardena’s version diverge from Mukunthan’s? In Gunawardena’s book, the fire was started by the LTTE to blackguard the Army and Government. Plausible? Mukunthan doesn’t think so. An opponent of the LTTE himself, Mukunthan believes that it couldn’t have had a motive for burning something valued by the Tamil people. In this he was echoing Tassie Seneviratne, whose article on the fire (where he critiqued Memorable Tidbits) ends with the following words:

“Furthermore, will the Tigers, given that they were the most inhuman murderers of all communities including Tamils, fighting for Tamil Eelam, destroy the strongest and most precious cultural possession of the Tamil people — the records of the very cultural claims they were making? Inconceivable by any stretch of imagination!”

Inconceivable, certainly. And implausible.

Gunawardena reasoned that the LTTE consisted mainly of low caste Tamils oppressed by the Vellala aristocracy. This (he argued) was the motive for burning the Library, in his words the “repository of classical Hindu treatises and the pedigrees of Hindu Vellala aristocracy” (page 349). Certainly, opposition to a rigid caste structure accounted somewhat for the LTTE’s rise to power. But to extrapolate and suggest that this alone explains the burning of a site treasured by Tamils would be akin to saying that the Colombo Library (hypothetically) was ransacked by a bunch of radicals for housing bourgeois literature!

By reducing the desecration of a cultural site to a caste-rift, Mukunthan suggests the writer was trying to put off the blame from where it really belonged. “There were rumours that Gamini Dissanayake and his henchmen were in Jaffna on June 1,” he tells me (while the other version states that Dissanayake arrived two days later). The ruling party had a motive, furthermore. “The UNP knew the TULF had a presence in in the district. Its members wanted to create unrest. That is why they wanted to destroy the Library.”

This isn’t the only point at which Mukunthan begs to differ from Gunawardena’s version of events. According to the latter, the incineration was a strategised move by the theoretician of the LTTE, Anton Balasingham, whose ploy involved moving Tamils into the capitals of Europe, Canada, and Australia to perpetuate the belief (or myth?) that they were an oppressed race in Sri Lanka.

This and the author’s account of arsonists on the loose throughout the city, which involved the looting of petrol sheds, contrasts with Tassie Seneviratne’s assertion that a police sergeant attached to the Jaffna Police Station had told him that hepoured petrol from a barrel and ignited the fire with a matchstick at the Jaffna Public Library.”

Mukunthan agrees. “There were no arsonists. Everything was calculated, to the dot. Stalwarts from the ruling party and their goons strategised every step, of this I am convinced!”

Still. Gunawardena’s belief that the LTTE was strengthening itself even before 1981 stands to reason. The bombing of an Avro aircraft in 1978 and the political assassinations which followed proved that. The PLO’s involvement (along with India’s) in training its cadres has also been proved. It was all meticulously planned, yes. But the insinuation that the LTTE burnt the Library doesn’t hold water, certainly not with people I've talked to (it must be mentioned here that these people were for the most part Sinhalese).

Seneviratne alludes to the first few lines of a nursery rhyme in his article:

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.

The rhyme ("Who Killed Cock Robin?") begins with grief and ends with resolution. But there's a problem here. If the Sparrow did indeed kill Cock Robin (and it affirms that at once), where are the Robin's pallbearers? Years and decades after the burning of the Jaffna Library, one looks in vain for a Beetle to prepare the shroud, an Owl to dig the grave, a Rook to act as Parson, a Wren to bear the pall, and a Bull to toll the bell for arguably the most horrific act of cultural desecration in our time.

Let me be clear. The perpetrator(s) must be found. So must the pallbearers. Purely and simply.