Every year, the Tangkhul Nagas celebrate Lui-Ngai-Ni, the seed sowing festival, in February. This year, too, the festival was organised on February 16. More than 3,000 people gathered together in Ukhrul in Manipur.

But this year, the celebrations were different. They did not begin with the traditional songs and dances. The festival began on a sombre note. Tangkhul men and women, in traditional dress, walked in silence carrying big white vinyl posters. The posters read in Chinese and English: “Stay Strong Wuhan, We Are With You.”

Then Guru Rewben Mashngva came on the stage with his guitar and sang “On the empty streets of Wuhan.”

The song was the highlight of this year’s celebration and was shared on social media. Migrant workers from Ukhrul watched the video on YouTube in distant Goa. They had welcomed Rewben in Goa several times and loved him as a rock star.

On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown because of the threat of the deadly novel coronavirus.

The blue hills of Ukhrul, the cool, crisp air and the green paddy fields seemed as far from Goa as did Wuhan. Except Wuhan was in China; Ukhrul was home.


The third week of April

Solidarity for the people of Wuhan turned into fear for their own safety. The ugly side of human nature manifested itself when the first Tangkhuls were tested for Covid-19 in Imphal.

Arthur Wungthingthing, a pilot with Air India, had gone to Imphal to meet his parents and siblings. Then the news came that John L Sailo Rynthathiang, his father-in-law and a famous doctor in Shillong in Meghalaya, had died of coronavirus. People started accusing Wungthingthing of bringing the deadly virus to Manipur and infesting his father-in-law.

Deeply hurt by the unkind and insensitive reactions, the pilot wrote an open letter. It reflects not only the fear that has filled our hearts but also the cruel reactions to patients and their relatives who are facing loss and social boycott.

Arthur Wungthingthing wrote:

“It has been 12 hours since my father-in-law passed away, silently. My wife just lost her father. We do not know whether his cremation is over. We were not there to weep beside his body.

“It’s been almost 48 hours since the news was made public and the media and social media jumping in to vilify us. The ripples have reached my family in Manipur and Nagaland. Nobody has been spared.

“The coronavirus is a tiny virus- unseen, lifeless yet intelligent. And yet, it has made us humans, the greatest creation of God, show our ugliest side.

“Up until the time I write this, I believe I have tested negative twice. I have not been officially informed but I conclude so, as sample collection was repeated on two successive days. I was told a third sample would be taken. CM Conrad Sangma’s 10:17 tweet also said that fresh tests are being taken. It is well into the day and we are still waiting for our samples to be collected.

“Six of my wife’s family members have unfortunately tested positive. There have been no efforts to segregate us, we have not been taken to quarantine. We are still all together in the same house.

“Many of you have read my travel itinerary and maybe feel I am an irresponsible traveller. Flying is my profession. Pilots unfortunately do not have the luxury of being quarantined, except in the case of this unprecedented lockdown, but we take the highest care because our professions demand of it.

“Upon my return from the US on March 14, I travelled to Imphal on March 16. I was called to Delhi on March 20 to operate a flight to Rome to evacuate Indian citizens from Italy.

“It turned out that one of my colleagues operated that flight instead. I stayed back in Delhi for any other emergent assignment that may have been required of me, considering the situation. On the announcement of the lockdown, I returned to Shillong on March 24 and remained under home quarantine, thoroughly observing all respected sterilisation and isolation protocols for 14 days and emerged on April 7.

“Perhaps I will be tested positive the third time around, and I will be most regretful if I did. But even then, is this how we fight the virus together? Look at what we have come to as humans, created in perfection!

“It might be pertinent to consider that one of the patients that Dr Sailo treated in the line of duty may be responsible for the transmission. The search and isolation of this person is where the state’s energy and resources should be directed at, not target people with or without reason.

“My father-in-law literally spent his life in the treatment of his patients. This is not an acceptable way to honour his memory. I request the Meghalaya government to make official the test results and let the baying crowd pass their final judgement.”

We should have saluted this pilot for his courage? Is he not a frontline worker in the war against the virus?

Disquiet in Goa

The news of the first cases of suspected coronavirus spread over social media, and the Tangkhuls in Goa were also worried. Many of the migrant workers from Manipur working in Goa wanted to go home, but now they were not sure where they would be safer.

A few days ago my husband Sebastian and I got a phone call from Livingstone Shaiza, the convener for the Covid-19 committee for Manipuris in Goa. He was calling to say that one of the Zomi workers from Manipur had been refused entry by a store at Nerul in Goa. Also, landlords were putting pressure on tenants to pay the rent, but since almost everyone had lost their jobs, they did not have money to pay.

The Home Ministry had issued a notification making it illegal to demand rent during the lockdown. The local administration had offered to speak to the landlords and even send the police. But the Manipuri migrant workers did not want their landlords threatened by the police. One of the migrant workers said it was not fair to threaten the landlords who were also deprived of their only means of livelihood. Besides, they did not want to spoil their relationship in case they could get back their jobs and start paying rent again.

There was still hope that the lockdown would be over and life would return to normal.

The endless night

It soon dawned on the migrant workers that this was a nightmare that was not going to end any time soon. All public transport had been stopped. There was no way to go home. And home was more than 3,000 kilometres away on the international border dividing India from Myanmar.

On television, I watched the lakhs to migrant workers all over the country walking to their homes. I thought of the one Kunbi from Navelim in Goa, who had escaped from a tea plantation in Assam and walked back home. He had to cross thick forests and rivers and it took him three months to reach his village in Goa. When his mother opened the door, she did not recognise him.

That was in 1928. British agents had recruited Kunbis from Verna, Cortalim and Cuelim and taken them to Assam; this nameless Kunbi was only one to return. His story was preserved in the writings of Goa’s freedom fighter, TB Cunha.

But now, Assamese migrants were working in Goa. I know one of them, Jamal. He and his wife, both in their late twenties, lived in Panjim. They had two small girls who had so far done exceptionally well in school.

Jamal had spent many anxious months when the National Register of Citizens had been in the making. When he found that his name was not on it, he had to rush back. When I came back to Goa in February, Jamal told me one of his daughters was not in the register, and that his brother had been declared a doubtful citizen and detained.

Jamal lived with four other Muslim families. Four families had been thrown out by their Goan landlords after they celebrated the prophet Mohammad’s birthday. The landlord said they could not hold such celebrations in his house.

Jamal’s vivacious and beautiful wife told me she wanted to go home. She had only recently become a domestic worker. She had been ill and one of her daughters was seriously sick. All she wanted was to go back home even if they did not have two meals a day. Now home was a distant dream.

On a wing and a prayer

In Manipur, politicians and the government had collected funds for migrant workers. Each tribal community also collected money for their own members working as migrant workers in far-flung parts of the country.

These funds could be accessed online but workers were required to upload documents that many did not have. Others did not know how to deal with the new technology.

In Goa, the migrants heard that there would be special flights to take them back. They thought that if the government could send planes to evacuate Indians from Iran and Dubai, why not help evacuate migrant workers?

It was soon clear that there would be no flights – those were for the rich. And so we needed to look for alternative accommodation.

A question of self-respect

Friends in Manipur requested my husband and me to help the migrants find accommodation. We were the senior-most and so were responsible.

Our Manipur friends in the government managed to get curfew passes for us in Goa. We needed to move from Panjim to the coastal areas where most migrants from Manipur lived and worked in the hospitality industry or in the beauty industry¸ restaurants and spas.

There were furious debates between the migrants about whether they should try and go home or stay. It was a classic Hobson’s choice. From May to October, many restaurants, shops and parlours close down because there are few tourists during the summer and monsoon. With the increasing number of cases of coronavirus in Europe, it was unlikely that tourists would come during the next tourist season.

Some of the migrants who came from villages could possibly eke out a living working in fields and kitchen gardens and raise pigs and poultry. But many had no land, and their families depended on the migrant workers for basic amenities. These families told the migrant workers not to return.

How long would the government in Goa give them accommodation and free food? Besides, the idea of accepting charity was abhorrent to them; it hurt their self-respect.

‘What is going to happen?’

We were all sitting in the rented rooms of Livingstone Shaiza, the migrant worker who owns a restaurant called Meiphung in Baga in Goa. We had been invited by the migrant workers to help them decide on what to do.

One of the migrants said he had seen long lines of people standing in the hot mid-day sun holding their utensils for free food to be doled out. He had seen people taking photos of this sight. Back in Manipur, rations had been arranged on tables along with fresh vegetables. Those in need, migrants or locals, could be seen with their faces covered picking up whatever they needed without the embarrassment of being seen.

Meiphung Oriental restaurant in Baga. Credit: Meiphung Oriental via Facebook.

So far, the migrants from Manipur had organised rations from their own meagre resources. Shaiza had liberally distributed the reserves from his restaurant. One of the migrants said his wife gave them only one meal a day so they would not get fat, and everyone laughed. It was a joke to lighten the mood – many of them had not eaten even one proper meal, but their dignity would not allow them to stand in a line to beg.

Shaiza said the condition of other migrants was much worse. That morning, a kabariwala had asked for rice and he had given him five kg. But Shazia discovered that there was an entire community of them and they did not have any documents that entitled them to get free rations. Shazia’s own stocks were running low, and there were many people from his own community who needed food.

Under the circumstances, we suggested that they take the offer of the local administration and move into a hostel requisitioned for Northeast migrants. It was not charity – the government has a duty to look after its citizens during such a situation.

If they did not take the offer, they might find themselves in a much worse condition. I reminded them of the old adage, an early bird catches the worm.

There was a weak smile on some faces. One young Poumai Naga picked up the courage and asked the question that was in everyone’s hearts and minds: “What is going to happen?”

Taught from childhood to take responsibility for themselves, adult Naga men are not supposed to ask this question. It shows cowardice, or lack of self-esteem.

I gave them the only honest answer there was: “I do not know, and I think no one can answer the question.”

A heavy silence enveloped the room. Then I said, “At least we are in this situation together.”

A shelter from hunger

My husband Sebastian and I found it difficult to locate the girls’ hostel of the Sports Authority of India in Mapusa. It was already past nine at night when we reached. We stepped inside the dimly lit building to see a spacious hall with sofas in one corner. On the other side, a staircase led up to three stories with small six-bedded dormitories.

The temporary shelter in Goa.

The hostel had been requisitioned for migrants from the Northeast. We were there to see if it had basic amenities, especially a kitchen where they could cook their own food. The usual meal was rice and boiled vegetables and a hot chutney. But it tasted of home.

At the entrance, three young men looked at us with bewildered expressions. The local caretakers told us they had been “brought in” this morning. From a brief conversation with the migrants, we learnt that the three were from Meghalaya and they had been summarily dismissed from their jobs at a restaurant in Miramar in Panjim.

They were obviously hungry and waiting for their dinner, which was to have been brought to them by the nodal officer. That is why we found them at the entrance, looking out for the vehicle that had brought them some food in the morning.

We asked whether there was a kitchen, and they pointed to the steps going down into the basement. The Deputy Collector arrived. She briskly introduced herself, and we were pleasantly surprised to find she was from Arunachal Pradesh. We told her that our basic requirement was for a kitchen so that the migrants could cook for themselves. The Goan caretaker stepped in and said there was no kitchen in the hostel.

When I said that the Meghalaya boys had said there was one, the caretaker told me “They do not speak English.” Perhaps I was too tired by the day’s happenings to tell him that I had spoken in Hindi and they had definitely said there was a kitchen.

We left that night sorely disappointed.

That night, just before going to sleep, I went over the brief conversation I had with the boys from Meghalaya. They had definitely said there was a kitchen. Besides how could SAI have run a hostel for girls without a kitchen? It occurred to me – the Goans did not want the Northeast migrants in the hostel. They associated the virus with the Chinese, and for them Northeast people were suspiciously like the people from Wuhan.

The kitchen was “discovered” a few days later; and the first batch of migrants from Northeast moved in on April 16.

Taking care of the ‘guests’

Albertina, a lawyer and activist, asked why Northeast migrants were being given special treatment and offered shelter. After all, there were so many migrants from other states.

The answer, of course, is that all migrants ought to have been given shelter and food.

In Kerala, more than 3.5 lakh “guest workers” have been accommodated in 19,764 camps waiting for the dangers of the pandemic to pass. The basic needs of the workers, such as drinking water and cooking facilities, have been ensured. This example could easily have been followed in other states, especially in smaller states like Goa.

Migrants from the Northeast at a temporary shelter in Goa.

The government in Goa had requisitioned hotels and resorts to keep rich people in quarantine even though, at that point, only seven people had tested positive. Why couldn’t migrants given shelter at smaller hotels? In any case, all these buildings were lying vacant.

The rights of migrants

But Albertina’s question had set me thinking. Why did the Northeast migrants manage to get accommodation? Was it only because they were smaller in number even thought they belonged to eight different states?

The hostel accommodated migrants from Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. These migrants were overwhelmingly from the tribal communities. I wondered where the Assamese and Meitei migrants were?

Jamal, the migrant from Assam, had given me a list of people from his state who mostly wanted rations. They did not want to move into the shelter.

It seemed to me that the migrants who had moved into the hostel were from states that were making efforts to reach out to their people. They were putting pressure on the Goa government and setting up funds. Local bureaucrats too were actively helping their people.

Back in the Northeast, the communities were divided but here in Goa, they had come together to present themselves as one.

The migrants walking back to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh were disenfranchised Indian citizens, with no way to enforce their fundamental rights. They had no political clout.

Manipuri migrant workers in the shelter sing a prayer.

Life in the hostel was good. A Tangkhul from Manipur had phoned a friend in Goa, who supplied fresh vegetables to the migrants. It made up for the rations of dal and rice given by the government.

The hostel looked clean, with sparkling floors, and the kitchen was humming with activity. In the evenings, the sound of the guitar and prayers could be heard.

But by the third week of May, the uncertainty was becoming unbearable. The people needed money. And physical distancing was very different from social distancing.

Home is all that matters

Livingstone Shaiza said everyone wanted to go back home. The migrants began to register their names, both in Manipur and in Goa. Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh paid for tickets. Other migrants have had to pay huge amounts.

Back home, there are inter-community tensions and bloody clashes. Here in Goa, the people from Manipur come as one – Meitei, Muslim, Nagas, Zomi and Kuki. However, the number of tribal migrants reflects the uneven development in the state. Despite all the problems, Manipur is home, and that is all that matters.

Finally on May 21, a train arrived to take the migrants from Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur back home – a journey of three days and then many more kilometres up mountainous roads.

Goa will be a distant nightmare, a place where they were made to work without even an appointment letter, where they had no rights and their dignity was undermined on a daily basis.

Those North East migrants who are staying back are hoping to make Goa their home. I ask Sebastian if he would also like to go home to Ukhrul. Home is where we live together, he says.

But the question troubles me – should we not feel at home in India, in whichever corner we find ourselves? Will I die an outsider in my home?

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.