This summer the mayor of the Italian town of Borgosesia and Northern League member of the European Parliament decreed that Indian citizens residing in his precinct would not be granted local subsidies usually made available to the elderly, the disabled and the young unemployed unless they signed a declaration condemning “the Indian government’s treatment of the Italian marines” arrested in 2012 under suspicion of having murdered two fishermen from Kerala.

“Indian citizens residing in Italy and wishing to apply for the provided subsidies will have to jointly sign a declaration requesting that the Italian marines be freed,” he declared.

One of the marines, Massimiliano Latorre, returned to his home in the southern Italian region of Puglia on September 13 on a four-month health permit, this has clearly failed to tame the anti-Indian sentiment that has rippled across the boot-shaped country in the last year-and-a-half.

Two years ago, at the beginning of the worst diplomatic crisis ever between Rome and Delhi, Italian public opinion had maintained a sufficiently non-attached stance. Slowly, as is customary since the day Romulus stabbed his brother Remus to death and went on to found Italy’s capital, my co-nationals started to do what they are known for all over the world: quarrel.

Heated battle

On one side the mostly right-wing, pro-military types were rooting in favor of “bringing back our boys”. On the other side the mostly left-wing, anti-globalisation groups were screaming: “Justice must be served!” Remember Italian fascists and communists battling each other throughout most of the last century? As the poet and essayist Giacomo Leopardi wrote in his Speech on the Current States of Customs among Italians, “The national passion is envy.”

So this isn’t particularly unusual. But then, as hearings and decisions on the marines’ case kept being postponed by the Indian judicial system (there have been 44 delays in the last two-and-half years), an unprecedented anti-Indian sentiment has begun to grow in Italy, ending a honeymoon between two countries historically appreciative of each others’ peculiarities. Indians are “Italians without wine,” proclaimed Salman Rushdie, saying that when Indians observe Italians they feel like they are looking at themselves in a mirror. That was during better times. Not even the Italian love for the evergreen Sandokan ‒ the Malaysian pirate at the heart of the extremely popular 1970s TV series, played by the legendary Kabir Bedi, knighted by  the Italian president ‒ has been useful to turn this one around.

Just consider these other facts: this winter the mayor of the town of Arzignano, where 1,500 Indians live, theatrically refused the Indian consul’s invitation to join the annual Republic Day celebrations. The mayor cited the marò (marines) case for this gesture. In February, the “Miss India-Italy” beauty contest, part of a global “Miss India” pageant, was postponed indefinitely after some people in Puglia, where the contest was to be held, loudly complained about the treatment of the marò. This spring, a right-wing official refused to give the necessary permission for the shooting of a Bollywood film in the Lecco city area in protest against the caso dei marò. Even the Milan World Fair, the “Expò,” got embroiled: Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party in collaboration with the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) tried to find a quorum to vote in favour of blocking access to the Indian stand. However, the two parties did not reach a majority.

Big Indian wedding

Also this summer, while members of the Agarwal and Mehta families invested 10 million euros for their wedding in Fasano, in Puglia, even transporting two elephants from France, right-wingers pressured the town’s mayor to reject the invitation to the wedding, while raising a media uproar.

The sad list goes on. In Milan, a concert held in honor of India on January 27 was disrupted by protesters with long banners reading, “Free Our Marines Now!” And Patrizia Ricci, a Brothers of Italy politician from the town of Cesena, is trying to kick India out of a Street Food Fair, to be held this week, with these words: “We are not ignorant of the massive anti-Italian campaign in their media, flanked by political parties and Hindu organisations. And what does Cesena have to do with this? A lot, because we believe it would be best to thank India for their availability and yet postpone the invitation to more harmonious times…”

Even though the Facebook page “Let’s boycott Indian products to bring back our marines” got a meager 363 “likes” before being removed, the anti-Indian campaign is still in full swing among right-wing politicians. Even some centre-left voices have joined the protest, especially those closer to the more moderate line of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

The truth is that in the rowdier world of the Internet and among the “gloves-off” truths uttered among Italians, the attitude towards India is seriously changing. “We always remember our marines, prisoners from time immemorial of the Indian barbarians,” says a racist status update in “Let’s Save our Marines Facebook Community”. While having lunch in a Roman outdoor restaurant, I heard a left-wing art gallery owner say, “And these Indian rapists are the people who should judge our marines?” This was one of the milder racist comments heard this summer on the subject.

Soccer politics

Even soccer legend Alessandro Del Piero had to officially justify his move from Australia to the Delhi Dynamos, where he’s to play this October for the debuting Indian Soccer League, facing the likes of Marco Materazzi, coach and player for the Chennai Titans. When a right wing MP asked Del Piero to reject the Dynamos’ offer in protest for the “marò,” he posted this on Facebook: “I’m not insensitive to the troubles of our marines, but the last thing I’d want is for my role to be manipulated.”

These are not isolated outbursts or rare episodes in Italian public places, social networks or the taverns of visceral rants. In almost every town and city I visited in Italy over the summer I noticed a large cotton sheet hanging from windows, balconies or roofs. “Riportiamo a casa i nostri marò,” read the improvised messages ‒ let’s bring home our marines.

The way too many Italians are now perceiving India and Indians is morphing into an ugly, grunting monster.  Some think that this is just a normal, passing phase of an ancient, otherwise respectful rapport. But that isn’t certain.