My first act of vandalism was also my last. I painted four two-foot letters across a row of cars. ULFA. It was an act that I would refer to later to understand a lot of the people I see around me now. I was seven years old in the late 1980s and my hometown Guwahati in the state Assam, in the northeast corner of India, was awash with support for the banned insurgent outfit, ULFA: the ambitiously named United Liberation Front of Assam. We saw them as the Robin Hoods of our times: the ones who stood up for a minority ethnicity, the Assamese, against the monolith of the Indian state. They protested the step-sisterly treatment meted out by the Centre who took our tea and our oil and left us with barely anything: tea estates rolling across the hills and not a single decent job for any Assamese.
However there was another crucial strand to the resurgence of Assamese identity. This was not an identity built solely on opposition, but also on exclusion. Therefore, Assamese-speaking people were okay, the non-Assamese speaking tribes in the state had uncertain status, and the enemy in the region was clearly picked out: the Bangladeshi infiltrators. These were the mostly low-income refugees from across the border. The myth of a Bangladeshi invasion of Assam was built into Assamese victimhood. An uncaring centre looked away as we were being taken over by starving economic migrants from the south. A surprisingly articulate slogan was also attributed to them: “We took East Pakistan by partition, Bangladesh by revolution, now we’ll take Assam by migration”. Under these four letters, I had also painted “Bangladeshis, get out”.
So the marginalised in the Indian context, the Assamese, were also the oppressors of the further marginalised on our own territory. This other-ing of the Bangladeshi was built on the myths that all discrimination is built on. They had the long beards, unlike Assamese Muslims. They wore those ridiculous wraps, their lungis. They could not speak Assamese. In fact they couldn’t even speak Bengali like the true Bengalis, our Indian version. They stayed in dirty slums and reproduced like animals. They could have been the aliens from District 9; an alien species suddenly right in our faces.
The ULFA brought a number of valid concerns into the national debate. Issues of developing the north-east, improving infrastructure, agricultural productivity, institutions of higher education for the region were finally being discussed. The ULFA stayed in the woods or camped for months in the jungles of Burma; everyone had a cousin or a friend of a cousin who knew their commanders. They died valiant deaths in a shower of bullets when the police and army—which committed unspeakable atrocities under the guise of counter-terrorism—found their camps.
But they also lined up rows of non-Assamese speaking villagers and shot them in cold blood. They sent bicycles with bombs into markets every week, almost like a routine, for well over a decade. They would blow up a market, kill people while they were walking their dogs, invade New Year parties and slaughter guests in kneeling rows. The army would pick up any teenager, or group of teenagers, they could find. For most of the 1990s, teenage boys couldn’t meet in groups of more than three in the open, or they might be picked up as suspected insurgents. In most towns, all you could do in the evenings was play chess.
Among all this chaos, we didn’t forget the original enemy: the Bangladeshi (India had receded in public imagination as enemy number one, except the Indian state represented by repressive security forces). We even had a separate word for them, Mian, which didn’t apply to other Muslims or often to the Bangladeshi Hindus. I went to Delhi, like all my friends who had the grades and could afford university. About five years after I had first moved away, though visits back home were frequent through the year, I spent some time in a new rural settlement testing a poverty assessment questionnaire. I knew the young kids were all Bangladeshi settlers: there are ways of telling differences that could potentially make us all racists. But now, they were all dressed like I would have been as a child, they had adopted the same rituals, they spoke Assamese with the comfort of a native speaker, using metaphors and cultural references of the region more often than I would. I asked them where they were from, since I had to fill out the columns on my form. They all said Assam. And it was true.
Sure, societies are changing. And enough people are scared of losing what they thought was their ideal idea of their society. Suddenly there are people they thought were different, but ultimately aren’t as different as they believe, around them. This is inevitable. It might be happening faster than before, but then so is almost everything else in our lives. We need to have a conversation, not as unequal claimants to a 'land', but as communities who are in this together. What we cannot, and should not, do is resist this with violence or discrimination.
Now my wife and I are settled in Rome. Most of the low-income street vendors are Bangladeshi. We often talk to them. Assamese and Bengali are similar languages and we can understand each other perfectly. We often get discounts or special offers in the grocery stores. Our entire supply of Bollywood movies is from a Bangladeshi store where the manager is more up-to-date on the latest movies than we are.
People in Europe are quivering at the thought of being invaded by the north African and Asian hordes. The ones with the beards and the tall-minaret mosques. Meanwhile in Italy, some legislators are trying to restrict access to medical care for unregistered immigrants.
A lot of the Bangladeshi immigrants are unregistered. A common sight in Rome is a group of handbag sellers bolting across the streets. The police follow a few seconds later. Once I was walking into a friend’s building, with giant doors that can only be opened if buzzed from the inside. Two street vendors were racing towards me, their eyes bulging out and a tail of handbags flying behind them. I nodded them towards the open door in front of me. We closed the door behind us, the two of them panting and bent over. We could hear stomping feet looking for them outside.
I think my second act of testing the law cancelled out my first.