y generation, born into the seventies, was brought up immersed in the Tamil Question. Even when we moved to the Left, we felt there was no way to engage in politics except within a limited framework of Tamil nationalism. Sinhala nationalism and militarisation were always there to confront us. The Tamil Question for those of us who took a dissenting stand was sustained through both a reaction to Sinhala nationalism and the militarised totalitarian politics of the LTTE. In both cases we were cornered into thinking of our politics primarily in terms of Tamil nationalism and Tamil rights. The Tamil Question then did not veer much from both these moments of Tamil nationalism and Tamil rights, even while the boundary of what we called Tamil was in flux.
Class politics in the North and East had been crushed. The decimation of the remnants of Maoism such as NLFT in particular and the repression of alternative political formations led to an intellectual vacuum among the younger generation. Gender was pushed to the corners with the LTTE appropriating what could have become a powerful social movement. While women moved into the militant movements, their political roles were carefully restricted. While there was much interest around caste, mainly through the literary movement, it lacked the social mobilisation capable of engaging with the issue on the ground. The struggles for temple entry and other such mobilizations were marginalized in the name of nation. The questioning of the Tamil Question then came from two fronts. Firstly, out of a concern for other minorities, particularly the Muslims and to some extent the Malayaha (Upcountry) Tamils. Secondly, it was based on a concern for the rights of individuals, which were sacrificed in the name of the nation.
The political questions in the dissenting circles challenging the Tamil Question were centred on inter-ethnic relations and justice. Such questioning though had its limits, as it led to questioning within the framework of ethnicity or nationalism. What might have been necessary, however, is to challenge the framing of nationalism and ethnic identity itself. Hence we were trapped within a history and ontology of nationalist ideology. The history we were trapped in was the continuing war that polarized the communities through the lack of physical mobility, lack of communication, threat and reality of persecution and elimination, and the ideological reinforcement of our identities in the media and various cultural nationalist projects. Furthermore, the genealogy and ontology of Tamil nationalist ideology restricted questions from arising outside the nationalist framework, for example through caste, class or gender. It rather saw the problem and the solution within a framework of nationalisms. That is, the Tamil Question was ready to engage the Muslim Question, but it refused to recognize the questions of class, gender and caste.
The other direction of questions came from the liberal front of concerns about human rights. That is, questioning in the context of an increasingly repressive Sinhala state that indiscriminately violated human rights and an increasingly authoritarian de facto state (the LTTE) that targeted and silenced dissenting individuals. Hence the Tamil Question here was about ensuring human rights in its narrow formulation; of the individual's right to life, freedom of association, freedom of speech etc. The point to keep in mind here is that whether seen from the side of state repression as minority Tamils or from the side of the LTTE's repression of Tamil dissent, it nevertheless was seen as our rights as Tamils, and therefore reinforced the Tamil Question as the primary question. Saying this should in no way be used to belittle the work to promote human rights against all odds, particularly in the face of the unpardonable attacks on human rights activists by the LTTE. And the little space that is present to even discuss the Tamil Question today has been paid for by the lives of dedicated human rights activists and other dissenters. Rather, it points to the trap of Tamil nationalism that may even ensnare the most critical of human rights activists.
On 3 rd March 2004 when the news came out about the split within the LTTE, with Karuna taking on the Eastern Tamil Question, I was coincidentally re-reading Marx's Jewish Question with a friend. It was timely, as here was a historical break, an unprecedented moment where the Tamil Question was about to face a tough challenge, and that too a challenge from within the bounds of the Tamil Question itself. Latent social and economic concerns about regional exploitation and regional identity were raised, in the emergence of an Eastern Tamil Question. While it was similar to the Tamil Question in it's framing, it was also a significant historical rupture from the overt and public discourse of ethno-nationalist politics, as we have known it during the last two decades. In emphasizing a geographical dimension to what was predominantly known as an ethno-linguistic issue. The Eastern Tamil question did not emerge on March 3 rd. It was always there, but it gained an irrepressible voice in the populist rendering of it by Karuna.
Marx's Jewish Question is an intervention in a debate on secularism and the rights of Jewish people to be equal citizens. A parallel could be perhaps found in the Tamil Question, with regard to the rights of Tamil people to be equal citizens in a Sinhala majoritarian state. However, Marx does not get caught within the ontology of a secular liberal state; of seeing the Jewish Question as mainly the rights of a religious community or for that matter as the rights of individual Jewish citizens. Rather, Marx questions the Question itself. Is it possible to resolve the Jewish Question by insisting on a secular state? Even if a secular state is formed, would not the religious identities and religious tensions, only be further strengthened and aggravated in civil society? Hence, Marx is alerting us to the danger of attempting to see a societal problem as only a problem of religious identity. Next, Marx also looks at the notion of liberal rights and in his case the rights of Jewish citizens, and how such liberal rights would only de-politicise the political questions in society into that of individual rights. In other words, for Marx the Jewish Question was similar to the Labourer's Question, in that neither found a solution in how the questions were addressed through a secular liberal state. Rather our ethnic, religious, business concerns or contradictions, found solutions in the liberal state in the form of "liberties" that actually further enslaved us in civil society.
"Thus man was not liberated from religion; he received religious liberty. He was not liberated from property; he received the liberty to own property. He was not liberated from the egoism of business; he received the liberty to engage in business." (Karl Marx, 'On The Jewish Question')
For Marx, then, the solution would lie in a social transformation that would not be limited to the politics of a secular liberal state. Marx thus articulates a brilliant conceptualisation and questioning of the Jewish Question. And for our purposes, re-reading Marx would similarly help us conceptualise and question the Tamil Question. We may have to think about the possibility of national liberation giving us the "liberty" to pursue regional nationalist aspirations. Hence, questioning the Tamil Question in light of Marx's Jewish Question may allow us to break free from the ontological chains of Tamil nationalist discourse.
However, such breaks cannot be established merely in the realm of theory. As I mentioned at the beginning, even after some of us had moved to the political Left, we continued to engage within the nationalist discourse. Therefore, we needed to break from the Tamil nationalist discourse in history and in action as much as in theory. We need to be part of an unfolding of historical events as well as read and write history such that it would challenge Tamil nationalism. And our theoretical understanding of nationalism had to be part of our actions to resist nationalism as much as our actions are grounded in theoretical understanding. And that is where Karuna's rebellion, while it may not have been Karuna's intention, has become a challenge to not only the LTTE's totalitarian politics and its claim to sole representation, but also to our familiar framing of the Tamil Question.
Karuna's rebellion in its original form ended during the days following April 9 th, with the Northern LTTE invading the East as the Sri Lankan state and the international community watched on without even an utterance of condemnation. Activists estimate that close to 150 cadres, the bulk of them child soldiers were killed. While Tamil on Tamil war and violence is not new, this was the first of its kind with factions of the LTTE fighting each other. Karuna disbanded his forces few days later, sending the bulk of the cadres in the Eastern command home, because the parents of cadres in whose name he had mobilized the rebellion demanded their children back. This internecine war during a 'ceasefire' in the country has certainly left its mark. Those who did not challenge the Tamil Question ideologically, are now questioning it with the massacre of Tamil children in the name of the Tamil nation. The East seems lost to the LTTE, as Karuna and some of his loyal supporters continue a protracted war with the LTTE, and the Eastern population has come to resent the LTTE. However, Karuna's role will also be limited as he will not be able to regroup or provide a real alternative.
The challenge now before progressive Tamils is whether we can use such a historical moment towards the politicisation of society? Such a politicisation of society should address the concerns of other minorities, protect human rights and strive for democratisation and more. Will our praxis lead to challenging the Tamil Question and Eastern Tamil Question and find our lost struggles around caste, gender and class? Will our resistance rise to the occasion of this historical moment?