A strange combination of oddities is reawakening the world of right-wing and post-fascist sentiments among some Italians. Odd nativity statuettes, imaginary flying luckdragons, threats of stealing the Indian flag, racist insults and much more are being employed as the result of the drawn-out story of two Italian marines to be tried in India for allegedly killing two fishermen off Kerala’s coast four years ago.

Last month, two miniature plastic soldiers appeared in a nativity scene that was photographed and circulated widely on social media and in the Italian press. Hovering above baby Jesus, next to Mary and rubbing elbows with Saint Joseph were two characters who couldn’t possibly have lived 2015 years ago in Bethlehem. They were dressed in modern Italian marine fatigues and standing erect and proud, as if they were sailing on a giant aircraft carrier. It was Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, who had decided that figurines of the two Italian marines deserved a place of honour at the heart of a much-revered Italian Christmas tradition.

Further trouble came in the form of Simone Di Stefano, vice-president of the extreme right-wing group New Force. “We will steal the Indian flag from the embassy in Rome and we will cause a diplomatic incident,” he thundered. Such chest-thumping was not uncommon in the Italian fascist and neo-fascist tradition about 100 years ago, but they still survive in some quarters.

These fascists have a soft, dreamy side too. Since the marines’ nativity gimmick didn’t work so well, Brothers of Italy launched a new campaign. It plastered the streets of Rome and parts of Italy with the image of the two marines riding on the back of Falkor, a “luckdragon” from the German fantasy novel The Neverending Story. “Let’s bring them home,” exhorted the poster against the backdrop of a blue sky filled with scattered clouds, and ended with the comment, “Italy takes off."

In fact, Italy is not taking off, and neither are the two marines.

Going nowhere

One of them, the taciturn Massimiliano Latorre, who had returned temporarily to his homeland of Puglia after suffering a stroke, will not take off for Delhi on January 15, as originally planned. This week an Italian senator announced he would not be sent back at all. Shortly after, on the same day, the Supreme Court of India granted Latorre an extension till April 30 on medical grounds. The Kerala government and some Congress leaders were not pleased. “Sad and unfortunate,” was how Charles George, convenor of the Kerala Fisheries Coordinating Committee, described the leniency.

What about the other marine who is still under house arrest at the Italian embassy in Delhi? Salvatore Girone is “coming back on February 30”, quipped an angry commentator upon hearing the news of Latorre’s extension. In fact, he’s not taking off either. Girone is staying put, regardless of the fact that a defence committee in Italy announced he would be returning soon.

In the past few weeks the Italian government has asked a new International Court to apply “urgent measures” to bring Girone back to Italy, after the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg rejected a similar plea. The International Tribunal is still evaluating the case in its entirety.

I guess you would expect a bit of gratitude from Italians for a decision that allows a sick man to stay in his own country longer than originally granted. But this infuriated commentators all over right-wing blogs and social networks. “Those primordial types are making fun of us,” wrote Salvatore Zambrino. Spurted Domenico Libri on his Facebook page, “Don’t go back to those dirty Indians."

Ruined conversations, relations

It must be remembered that up until the 1940s, crowds of Fascists would march on Italian streets singing these words with Ethiopians in mind: “You little black face, pretty Abyssinian, just wait and hope, the time is nearing, when we will be next to you, we will give you another Duce and another King.” Of course, things went south quite fast for Italians in their colonial war in Africa, and a few years later Italians were hanging their Duce upside down in Milan and bludgeoning him and his mistress to death, but that’s another story for another time. In today’s Italy, racist comments against refugees are heard regularly on television, and it is not rare for hooligans in football stadiums to hum racist chants against African and Arab players, despite the reprimand and fine that follows.

Sitting around a festive dinner table a few days ago, I told my nephew that the surest way to revive a languishing conversation in Italy these days is to say, “E i marò?,” which in English means “how about those marines?” The issue of the two Italian marines accused of killing Indian fishermen seems a sure-fire way to get people talking. I was, unfortunately, right. The dinner was almost ruined by bickering and fights. Two years after the alleged killings, chances are still high that you’ll always unearth conflicting, strong opinions among Italians on this topic. The situation has been worsened by the latest news. The impression is that no solution is in sight, and no beginning of a trial either.

While Italian President Sergio Mattarella vows that the country “will continue to fight for Latorre and Girone”, the legal implications are a bit more muddled up. Relationships, including economic ties, between Italy and India are still strained. On the diplomatic front, Italy has veto power, which it exercised against India in September to stop New Delhi’s membership applications before all four export control regimes in charge of the world’s trade in nuclear supplies. It is all a strange combination of oddities, indeed.