In the wake of Oct 7 Hamas terrorist attack, US intelligentsia careened into a cacophony of victim-blaming. Subliminal antisemitism played a large part; some of the vituperative and insidious behavior was cocooned in a high-minded “resistance” to something called “settler-colonialism.” Since I was schooled in things other than grievance studies, and now make a living via real work and risk-taking, I had to look it up.
After spending an ungodly amount of time studying these two words, two words that involve no math or law, it dawned on me that I – yours truly in my current avatar – am a settler-colonialist. Therefore, I – son of two refugees and an immigrant by myself who still lives through generational muscle memory of Bengal Famine, Partition of India, and a scavenger’s existence in a land already overburdened – am required to make penance for the system of domination from which I benefited by virtue of my birth; ditto for all my progeny forever.
For those of you still with me, let’s travel back about 85 years.
The Chattogram Armory Raid caught the British by surprise in 1930, the Raj struck back with all it had. Revolutionaries crumbled fast under the boots of the British, and their boot-lickers, scores apprehended, tortured, jailed, executed, hanged – his majesty’s servants took revenge in every single way. Few who escaped went underground. For years their safehouses and survival critically relied on a network of underage boys who cycled between villages concealing had-written messages inside their underwear. One of those boys was my father. He got caught in 1939 – aged 7 officially, but at a real age of 11 or so. The price of saving his life was steep. He was banished to an orphanage in Calcutta (today’s Kolkata), where he grew up to be released after India’s independence.
He squatted outside of the city’s borders next to train tracks. On the other side of the track was a university, but nothing but snakes, swamp, and other refugees from newly created East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) on this side – no roads, no water supply, no electricity, no security of any kind. Soon his family from Bangladesh joined, refugees of purges that surrounded the creation of India. Over time ownership of the land was given to my father, and it still stays with his extended family. The plot right by the train track today is in a desirable neighborhood, called Dhakuria, still mostly populated by Bangladeshi refugees.
When my mom’s father moved his family from Mymensingh (now in Bangladesh) to Kolkata, he was privileged enough to buy a plot of land, on the other side of the same track, less than half a mile away as the crow flies from my dad’s squatted plot. Before he could move money, Bengal Famine set in. Without support, the family was left to join hundreds of thousands and go begging for a grain of rice. They were not welcome in the genteel societies that had means to share, most in the city barely survived anyway, people treated these vagrants as rabid dogs.
My grandmother died begging on the streets, my mom was 4. Mom’s dad, who I understand was a technocrat in his time, suffered what I recognize as severe PTSD from his sudden fall from privilege, and loss of his wife. He never worked again his entire life. The family of five survived under thatched roofs in what was becoming a posh part of the city, scrounged for food with no care for health or hygiene, and with a father who barely existed physically and never existed otherwise.
Physical and mental scars from years of displacement lasted through both of their lives and still reverberate through my sister and I – that monologue is for another time.
Ancestrally, I do not have a connection to the land that became the State of India for generations before my parents took refuge. Languages my parents spoke growing up were different dialects of Bengali, and, in my father’s case, barely recognizable as Bengali. Accepted standards of “settler-colonialism” would call each a settler. They most certainly were not looking to move back, ever. They both craved land to call their own, and spent their entire lives working, and saving every penny, before they could buy – one was retired and the other, nearly there. They did displace people. The plot my dad squatted on was certainly owned by somebody, whoever that was before the government turned over the ownership to my dad. [Why and how the ownership transferred to another member of his family is another story]. Mom’s father bought his plot, presumably at market value. The plot my parents bought came from distressed sale of a family whose travails had nothing to do with my parents.
My parents were hardly the only ones. Entire new localities called ‘colonies’ as a matter of fact, were built in and around Kolkata where mostly refugees settled. These new habitats were reviled at first as petri-dishes of disease, uncouth behavior, strange languages and customs; residents treated as barely a notch above untouchables. Over time, these places went up the value chain, found prosperity and acceptance, some even are considered very posh. The story repeats wherever refugees resettled in India – children of a lesser god because of Partition, creation of Bangladesh, strife in Kashmir, strife in the North East…, the list goes on; happened on other sides of the borders too.
It happened in the US, repeatedly. Even in the last few decades all major US cities saw entire neighborhoods change their make-up – demographically, visually, and culturally. When new demographic groups come in, they bring their new everything, call it imposition if you must, but most would call it rearranging pieces in a bigger collage. Entire ‘colonies’ are forming, and dissolving organically, in sizes that rival tales of settler displacement people scare you with. Going back to the start of mass European colonization, one must accept that these were refugees, outcasts, renegades, has-beens, degenerates,,…., of their time. They came over and created something new that – despite its original sin – remains the beacon of hope for the aspiring population anywhere in the world.
I celebrate European colonization of America, because the alternative is so much worse for everybody around. Would anyone be better off living off the land in a nomadic existence with barely any scientific knowledge? Would people be any better off without access to an economic system that fosters innovation, risk taking and creativity that comes from capitalism, and capitalism only? Would individuals be better off if not for the madness to sacrifice the life and future of a fifth of all able-bodied free men so that all men live free? Would the world be better off if one day the country did not wake up and decide to travel the high seas to defeat a real European scourge of Nazism and the Holocaust, come what may? None of these is solely European, but the spirit is most certainly American. The American spirit as we know it surely did start with the renegade European refugees, later adopted and adapted by everybody else who answered the call for freedom and opportunity.
Was that destructive for the natives? Absolutely, without a shred of doubt. That had little to do with violence – most native deaths since the first contact happened because of diseases settlers carried within them unknowingly, pathogens foreign to natives’ bodies. When violence did occur, each side was as scandalous and wicked as the other. A few forcible evictions did happen, the Long Walk of the Navajo or the Indian Removal Act, for example. Over time, numerically superior Europeans erased most native customs, certainly under duress. That tale of coerced assimilation is not uniquely American, it happened even in conflicts among indigenous tribes, just like it happened everywhere else in the world.
If you study any movement of people into a new land – for any reason whatsoever – it involved displacement of the people already in the land. It is expected that the newcomers adhere mostly to their own language and customs, at least internally. Over time, influences start to happen in both directions. Invariably the side that has most opportunity, together with a strength in numbers, wins out, the other side finds a way to assimilate or absorb for better lives of their own. It is almost always contentious at first, but most cases did not involve a bloodshed; often both groups are conditioned by a third group in how they act. These things can happen in city blocks, changing from Irish to Jewish to Hispanic to Black to South Asian, e.g., in the US – or can happen in vast territories, like the West Bank. Unless this involves explicit coercion, that happens too, none of that questionable, much less abhorrent.
In most circumstances, the world favors the newcomers, almost reflexively, because they mortgaged their previous existence in search of a better life as immigrants or they carried the lessons of survival and the zeal to rebuild as refugees. That welcome is not universal in warmth, however. In the US newcomers are (almost) always seen as strength, a capacity to turn ragtag groups from who-knows-where into torchbearers of American dream and American Ideals. Many countries are intrinsically less equipped to accept newcomers, Japan comes to mind. Some fail to convert them to their own ideals, even over time, the UK being a prime example. Some claim big but deliver little to newcomers, e.g., France. At the other end of the spectrum are those busy interning those who are not part of their ethnic majority, e.g., China.
Talking about Jewish settlers, it is curious to see how the world takes an unerringly negative view, especially in progressive salons. Of course, there are horrific tales of settler violence, Palestinian families in the West Bank were slaughtered inside their homes by bullets of settlers marauding their towns even last week. These must stop, no ifs and buts. The Great Displacement of 1948 – Nakba – is still raw in the institutional memory of Arabs, but no settler of today was even born at that time. Half of Israeli Jews are Sephardic, themselves victims of subjugation in the Middle East for last few centuries. About one in five Jewish people in Israel survived Soviet pogroms well into the breakup of the Iron Curtain. It is not too much of a stretch to say the Jewish right to resettle, as affirmed in her laws, is the raison d’etre of Israel as a country, born fresh out of the butchery that killed two out of every three European Jews.
How can these settlers not be accorded the same empathy we accord to refugees everywhere else?
To repeat, settler violence is unsettling, appalling is the extent of collateral damage in Israel’s war against Hamas. None of that is a reason to put down settlers, who are immigrants and refugees. Like me. I am still learning to be comfortable with the tag of a settler-colonialist, but one thing is for sure – I will never apologize for being one. Neither should they. “Settler-Colonialism” is just another word-soup crafted by denizens of faculty clubs, especially those who exist only to monetize grievances, real and invented, but never do anything productive for the future.
The canard of “settler-colonialism” subjugates refugees and immigrants everywhere, and erases their aspirations and accomplishments. Shame!