Black and White Tiles Beneath My Feet

I was born into a country that was in the middle of a vicious civil war. For the first 17 years of my life, it was as if time had stood still. We were a country at war; there was no other alternative that I knew of. Luckily enough I was born into a family that belonged to the majority race. That meant that I was born into the ‘right’ side. The minority wanted to split the country apart, we were told. A group of them started using violence as a way to make this a reality, and would kill anyone and everyone mercilessly. As a way to stay safe and alive, we were taught to be afraid of anyone who looked, dressed or spoke different to us.

Thirteen years after the end of the war, here I was, a completely different person, compared to my naive teenage self. I had started to learn both sides of the story, and suddenly ‘we’ seemed like the bad guy. I started to understand about conflicts, about marginalization, and how the ‘system’ had convinced everyone that violence was the only way to overcome any conflict situation. A few years back I came to the understanding that extremists that engage in violence, and pseudo-patriots, were as much victims as the innocent that suffered.

When a minority group is held captive using the law as a weapon, was there any other option than to let out their frustrations through means that were beyond the law? When someone feels like they have no control over their lives anymore, because the power was held by the ‘other’, wouldn’t holding a gun allow them to feel that sense of control that they were never able to experience before?

This was the case in Sri Lanka, where a 30 year civil war took place between the Sinhalese and the Tamils (or if I want to be politically correct- between the State military and extremist militants). If you ask a Sinhalese person they would say that the conflict between the two ethnicities existed for centuries, and would most probably cite the battle between Dutugemunu and Elara as one of the most significant examples. While it is undeniable that there were conflicts between the two groups in historical times, the division of Sinhalese and Tamils, as two separate ethnic groups began in colonized Ceylon.

This division was primarily based on the origin of the two languages- Tamil and Sinhala. Those who were native Tamil speakers were classified as Dravidian and the Sinhalese speakers as Aryan.

While the British did eventually leave the country in 1948, the damage caused through this division remains irreversible up to this date. Post colonial Sri Lanka was a mess. The systems and policies that were set in place, were there to only serve the educated and the wealthy. While the monarchy had crumbled, the country was still ruled by a few elites. On top of this, Tamils had been given higher government positions and better education during the colonial time, and it made many of the Sinhalese feel unsettled. At its roots lied a very primitive human emotion- fear.

This fear drove many to find ways to take away the ‘power’ that was given to Tamils by the British. This included the Disenfranchisement act, that took away the civilian rights and stripped away the Sri Lankan citizenship of the Tamils who were brought by the British during colonial times from India to work in the tea plantations, and who were left behind, when the British empire collapsed. Another discriminatory law that was introduced was the Sinhala Only Act, that made Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka, effectively alienating the minority groups in the country. The State also took out minority groups from official decision making roles, and created a university entrance system based on a weightage method that favoured the majority race. The modern day name of the country itself- Sri Lanka, held origins in Sanskrit which was an Indo-Aryan language, and marginalised all minority groups that were not from Aryan descent.

A mere three years after independence, a political party representing the minority put forward the idea of a federalist system of governance, as opposed to a unitary government. This would mean that each state would have its own governing system, the best example being the US.

However this was misunderstood as a request for the separation of Tamils and Sinhalese into two different states. While this request for two separate states did eventually come from the Tamils, as time passed by and no solution was given, it was not the initial goal of those who opposed the systematic inequality that was being woven into the infrastructure of the country.

Frustrations were high on both sides, especially among the youth, and eventually in 1976, the group which is known as the LTTE today, became one of the many groups that officially requested for a separate ‘Eelam State’. The LTTE’s frustrations at not having their needs met or their voices heard by the State led to them taking up arms, as it seemed to be the only solution for a group of primarily Tamil youth that saw no other way out of the increasing state of marginalization and alienation of an entire ethnic group. Finally in 1983, the LTTE’s attack on a military patrol, ended in retaliatory acts of violence by the Sinhala people towards Tamil civilians, and so began the 30 year war that redefined the future of a nation.

Without any context, it seems that the LTTE and Sinhalese extremists were the cause of it all. However, the riots that happened in the summer of 1983 were nothing but a spark that set of a bomb that had been slowly coming together over the course of almost 40 years.

This was a tale as old as time, one that could be observed all over the world. Frustrated youth taking up arms, as the State refuses to acknowledge them or discriminates against them. How do we then blame the LTTE for using violence to get the attention of the State? How do we blame the Sinhala/Buddhist extremists, who resorted to violent mobs and attacks when they were in fear of losing their country and their heritage to someone else? The system was in control, and the system (which used fear as a catalyst) taught us that there was no solution other than violence.

A few years back, I joined a local organization that was dedicated to peacebuilding. While at one of our workshops, the founders spoke to the youth who attended about these very facts, of how the system pitted us against each other. I remember how one of the founders spoke about changing the system, about how it was nearly impossible for us. The best option, she told us, was to create a new system. The significance of these words were lost to me until recently.

Looking for a way to adequately waste my free time by binge watching a TV show last year, I opened up Netflix, and saw The Queen’s Gambit on the trending list. I had heard about this show before. It was making everyone start to play chess again, making it one of the most popular games at that time. The show follows a chess prodigy and her struggle with addiction and broken relationships, as she strives to be the best chess player to exist. The name ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is taken from an opening chess strategy, in which you use pawns as your opening offensive move, where the pawn is sacrificed in order to gain control of the centre of the board.

While I know it may be quite a stretch, it seemed to be quite a good metaphor for how the system operates. Are we all merely chess pieces in a game that is being played, of which we have no control over? And more specifically, are we all just pawns used to protect the pieces that seemingly hold more power- the politicians, the institutions, the judiciary etc. Have we accepted that we just have a few moves that we can make, and everything else is impossible? Stuck in a double bind of moving one square forward or diagonally. And while the big power players have more options and hold a position of safety, aren’t they also just moving pieces in a game that is being played without any of our consent?

How many of us are even aware that we are merely a pawn in the system?

I was fortunate enough to be born into, and grow up in, a background that did not spew hatred or racism. I was fortunate enough to go to school in a convent that taught us not to care about race and religion, and to accept this life as a stepping stone on our great journey towards the pearly gates of heaven. And despite all of this, I still find myself merely being a pawn, on a black and white chess board.

What do we do then? Do we refuse to play? Do we refuse to move? That will do us no good, because as long as we are still on the board, we are still pieces, disposable tools, that can be used to further the gains of those hiding behind us. Forced to act on the fear that only offers us two options- fight or flight.

As I look down at the black and white tiles beneath my feet, I wonder, is it time, and if so- how do I, step off the board, and evolve, to create a space that is not limited by that eight by eight grid that seems to trap us all?

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Stories and essays on politics, religion, and mental health.

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