On an evening like many others, we are at my aunt’s home for dinner with the family. It’s a large house in an increasingly wealthy neighbourhood in Shillong, the hill-station capital of Meghalaya. The living room is a shrine to upper-middle-class aspirations. Wood-panelled and warmed by a fire, it’s fitted with plush, upholstered sofas, a Raj-era upright piano from H. Hobbs & Co., souvenirs from trips abroad, as well as bric-a-brac bought from various stalls at the International Shillong Trade Fair that comes to town every year. People sit around, drinks in hand, making idle chit-chat, nibbling on salted cashew nuts. Conversation meanders around the recent news: a dozen manual labourers from Bangladesh, which shares a 443-kilometre border with Meghalaya to the south, have been caught without ‘papers’ in the East Jaintia Hills. The discussion is easygoing until I defend the Bangladeshis.
The room fills with mounting anger and almost everyone there contributes to a barrage of accusations, ranging from the simple—“they’re here to take our land and resources”—to the more elaborate, that in a quest to Islamicise the world, a certain party in Saudi Arabia funds immigrants from Bangladesh to set up businesses in Shillong. I don’t think, I say, that a person with little more than a shirt on his or her back emigrates with any grand political agenda in mind. They leave because they have nothing to stay for.
These Bangladeshis are also charged with marrying ‘our’ local women, in order to take advantage of the income tax exemption for Scheduled Tribes in the Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills. The fact that the women might be marrying immigrants from Bangladesh of their own volition is ignored. I am reminded of a growing list of atrocities that Bangladeshi immigrants commit: they breed like flies, they don’t integrate, they don’t speak our language. Rumours are that at the border areas, they not only steal from our farmers but are also destructive, chopping down betelnut trees and uprooting vegetables.
“How do you know?” I ask. “Have you seen this happen?” There is no answer.
All the while, I try to haul us into the past, saying that the problem with immigration arises with the imposition of artificial borders, that prior to colonial divisions, the people of the hills moved and traded quite freely with the plains-dwellers. My argument is mercilessly stampeded. What strikes me most, though, is that certain phrases ring like echoes from the past. This anti-immigrant rhetoric is nothing new. It seems the Khasis, the community my family belongs to, are perpetually inflicted by the ‘dkhar syndrome’ (dkhar is Khasi for ‘outsider’). This has all happened before.
In a region where borders have been repeatedly redrawn, Meghalaya was created on the basis of inherent ‘difference’, of separating the hill peoples from those of the plains. After years of separatist struggle by its indigenous tribes, Meghalaya—with a demographic that largely comprised of the majority Khasi, the Jaintia and the Garo—was carved out from Assam in 1972. Every decade hence generated a fresh dkhar to reckon with.
The Bengalis, Assamese, Marwaris and Nepalis are all communities that had lived, set up shop and contributed to the cultural life of Shillong starting in the mid-1800s, each group successively feared by the local Khasis for their large numbers that might have led to an usurpation of administrative authority in the capital. Even after the new state was formed, many Khasis felt bereft of financial and political power. Led mainly by the Khasi Students’ Union and the Hyñniewtrep National Liberation Council, the ‘beh dkhar’—chase away outsiders’—crusade resulted in riots, shoot-outs, curfews and the implementation of President’s Rule in March 2009, with masses of Central Reserve Police Force troops sent in by the Union government to ‘restore’ law and order.
Now, despite a relatively peaceful start to this century, the dkhar returns, wearing a different face but, somehow, bearing the same threats. I wonder what it is about this small town of about 3.5 lakh that makes it feel perpetually threatened, and if it has to do with a deep-seated insecurity among us Khasis.
Now, living halfway around the world from Shillong, in the United Kingdom, I am struck by how certain conversations here sound so familiar. As immigration controls are set to be lifted on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals, as per the Treaty of Accession (2005) that the two countries signed with the member states of the European Union, the rhetoric of discontent about foreigners here resembles the opinions voiced in my aunt’s living room.
A quick scan through several newspapers, including The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Sun reveals headlines such as ‘Immigration: The UK’s bordering on a breakdown’, ‘Wave of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants is threatening’ and ‘Theresa May: we’ll stop migrants if euro collapses’. These potential immigrants, for whom there’s “not enough space”, will “abuse the national welfare system”, “take our jobs”, won’t “integrate”. The daily rehearsal of these motifs is echoed by disquieting cellphone videos on The Daily Mail website of a middle-aged woman inquiring into the nationality of people in a hospital waiting room, and subsequently complaining about their presence in the country, or yet another woman on a train ordering fellow passengers, as guests of ‘her’ country, to stick to English in their private conversations.
The oddity of the dkhar syndrome is that the distrust towards the immigrant is often predicated on some local emergency: a shortage of jobs or opportunities, the local culture’s risk of extinction, and so on. And yet, all conversations about outsiders always manage to resemble one another. Some of the arguments that certain Europeans use today against Muslim immigrants were already being used in the previous century by other Europeans against Jews: they live among themselves, they do not relinquish their religion, etc. In fact, as outlined by legal historian Victor Kattan in From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1891-1949 (2009), these were some of the considerations that defined the climate in which the Balfour Declaration, which was issued by the British government in 1917, promised a ‘homeland’ to the Jews; in part, to deal with the ‘problem’ of Jewish immigration by making emigrants out of them.
Today, in crisis-stricken Greece, the hunt for culprits of the current economic disarray spurs members of the neo-fascist movement Golden Dawn on a rampage against ‘outsiders’. Its “gangs of black-shirted heavies,” reported The Guardian in October 2012, have been beating up immigrants for more than three years. Recently, in the towns of Rafina, near Athens, and Messolonghi in central Greece, Golden Dawn thugs used heavy poles with Greek flags to smash the stalls of immigrant traders. Pogrom, Golden Dawn’s favourite band, sings: “Rock for the fatherland, this is our music, we don’t want parasites and foreigners on our land.” In a country crippled by the debt incurred by a corrupt political class and strangled by conditions set by international loans, it seems ironic that blame is cast on the foreigner.
Closely connected to this way of framing the problem of immigration is the suggested solution—namely, integration. Italy offers an interesting example. In March 2012, the country instituted a new point-based integration agreement, whereby, to keep their permit of stay, immigrants must fulfil a number of criteria to achieve 30 points over two years, including learning basic Italian and acheiving a passing knowledge of Italian laws and public administration, and attending a 5-10-hour civic education course in any one of eight non-Italian languages. As reported by Ali Baba Faye on March 9, 2012 in the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, this regulation effectively requires immigrants to be “perfetti più degli italiani” (the most perfect of Italians). For example, it makes a legal demand on them to take part in volunteer work, and become homeowners.
What this exemplifies is the extent to which such ‘integration’ policies, drafted by people who are not themselves migrants nor purport to represent them, engender demands heavily skewed against outsiders. If Italians underwent the same point-based assessment to keep their citizenship, there would probably be a large number sullenly handing in their passports and heading for the nearest port for not having made the cut.
Similarly, the UK conducts a ‘Life in the UK test’, where it is necessary to be conversant in such facts as “Consuming a lot of alcohol in one session is known as what?” and “What is the distance (in miles) between the North coast of Scotland and the South coast of England?” In the Netherlands, apart from a Dutch-language test, former immigration and integration minister Rita Verdonk introduced an exam testing an immigrant’s ‘compatibility with Dutch liberal values’ that included watching a movie featuring homosexuals kissing and a scene at a nudist beach.
This expectation—that the presumed ideals of a community can be written into law and subsequently wielded against outsiders—offers a first step towards understanding the root of the dkhar syndrome. The word ‘integration’ is loaded with meaning. Analytical (or Jungian) psychology speaks of the necessity of integrating the unconscious and the conscious, in order to ensure that conscious awareness displays enough flexibility to turn fear of the unknown into new insight and meaningful knowledge. At a collective level, outsiders, with their strange accents, different beliefs and different-coloured skin, are precisely the embodiment of the contradiction inherent in any attempt to reduce the living relationship of belonging to a place to a fixed, unchanging checklist. A language, or shared history, we may think, entitles us to live in a certain region, perhaps giving us the illusion that that place ‘belongs’ to all those who have those same traits as us. As card-carrying members of the group, we reserve the right to exclude those that do not carry the same card, in the form of a passport or a visa.
That evening, the argument in my aunt’s living room dissolved after my Italian fiancé, all the while sitting silent next to me, lightened the mood by making a joke—that soon it would be the Italians stealing Khasi women. The laughs lasted long enough for people to move on to other, less touchy subjects, to refill their glasses and the bowls of salted cashew nuts. What I would have liked to point out was how most of us in that room wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the journeys that many of our ancestors undertook: My great-grandparents on my mother’s side, who travelled from Porto and Lisbon to Goa; my great-grandfather from my dad’s side, who was a British officer in the Northeast during the 1800s. How would they have felt had they been received as we treat people who come across from Bangladesh? If our ancestors who migrated here were given a chance to settle and build their lives, perhaps it would not be too much to ask the same of us. I would have also liked to ask those present at that evening what they wished for my sister who’d settled in Wales; for my aunt in Toronto; for another in Alabama. What, indeed, they hoped for my fiancé and I when we headed back to London later that month to build our life there together.
It didn’t seem to strike anybody in the living room that elsewhere, even somewhere as close as in the rest of India, we ourselves could be thought of as dkhar. But to imagine ourselves outsiders—to somebody, anybody, anywhere—would demand an uncorking of the psyche. It’s easier, perhaps, to distract ourselves with presuming the worst of Bangladeshis.
The drinks were refilled. Someone had turned on the stereo. And we listened, late into the night, to songs about love, hope, and kindness.
This article first appeared in Motherland magazine (Issue #10) and was written with Luigi Russi