Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been wearing a leirum phee, a traditional Manipuri scarf, in place of a face mask. The leirum phee has been produced in Manipur since the ninth or tenth century and was mandatory during the wedding ceremonies of the Metei community. Did Modi want to show that the state has a special place in his heart? The problem is that Manipuris are up in arms because a textile mill in Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh is mass producing the Metei pattern and selling it as the Modi gamsha.

The idea that cultural artifacts can be appropriated to make up a national culture belies the fact that people in each part of India experience citizenship very differently. In Manipur, the thousands of young men and women who have been going down towns and cities of India in search of work may have begun to feel a sense of being Indian. Despite innumerable difficulties, they have adjusted to different cultures across the country even though they dreamt of returning home one day.

I do not think anyone imagined that they would be returning so soon; put in Shramik trains, traveling without food or water. No one had in their worst nightmare thought there would be such an exodus back home after the government on March 25 imposed a total lockdown to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

Returning empty-handed

Even worse, they were returning empty-handed, without the gifts they usually took home. In fact, many of their families had encouraged them to remain where they were out of fear that their sons and daughters would bring the coronovirus back with them from the cities.

This journey back to the village will mark an important moment in the history of Manipur, as it has for the rest of the country. I wanted to document the journey of the migrants returning from Goa to Manipur. This was not going to be easy.

To begin with the North East people, across communities, have been brought up to remain stoic in the face of all situations. It is simply not done to speak of your pain when you know everyone else too is suffering. Adults, both men and women, are expected to bear it with a smile.

On one occasion in the 1990s, when I was fighting a case against security forces for torturing villagers in Senapati district of Manipur, the village headman, and my witness gave his long deposition about how the armed forces had tortured and even killed men in his village. Later, I learnt his own child had died in the operation. I asked him why he had not told the court this. “How could I talk about my suffering when everyone has been through the same pain?” he asked.

Narendra Modi with this leirum phee.

When the journeys home were finally allowed, the Goa government on May 23 released a video of the train that left Madgaon in Goa to Jiribam in Manipur. I recognised one of the Tangkhul Naga women in it; Ruth. She smiled and said she was grateful to the government of Goa for everything they had done for her and the others. No one bothered to ask her why she was leaving if things had been so good in Goa.

The months of hard work, the humiliations of being treated as an outsider, the horror she encountered when she had her first baby –- Ruth’s polite smile belied the growing homesickness that had driven her to the decision to leave her two small children with her husband and go home to Ukhrul.

No one on the train was sure what the future would hold. For the time being, the only thought was of going home. But getting home was not going to be easy even when they reached Jiribam, the final destination: the train arrived at its destination nearly 48 hours late, a journey marked by irregular meals, scanty drinking water and filthy toilets.

Everyone was exhausted and climbed into the waiting bus ready to sleep for a few hours till they reached Imphal. But even the bus ride was not smooth. On the way, the bus had to stop because a truck lay across the road. I do not know how it was cleared. My citizen journalists were too tired to report. The second time the bus broke down it was at Noney. It was already dark and they waited for an hour or more while the driver put it right.

A bus en route to Ukhrul.

Noney is the site of the world’s tallest railway bridge, being build at a cost of more than Rs 12,000 crore, in violation of forest and environment laws. The tracks will ultimately connect South Asia with South East Asia. But for the local people, the train project had taken away their banana farms and many had been displaced. I wondered whether some of those displaced had become migrant workers.

By the time the bus reached Imphal, everyone was exhausted but the warmth of the welcome woke them up. They were given some refreshments but it was only in the morning they were sent back to the districts.

Those who arrived in Ukhrul, the district headquarters, were overwhelmed by the welcome. Many were quarantined in the Pettigrew College, including the group from Goa. For the next few days I got pictures of food: the pork, the egg curry, the beef fried and organic green vegetables. It was good that they were being fed well.

One friend in Ukhrul, Lemyaola, an amateur photographer, said the migrants were well looked after. She said a bucket of good pork was calculated to feed eight people. She added: “Aunty, I have not had pork for months.”

A meal at a quaratine centre.

But those who were put in other quarantine centres in Ukhrul did not have access to toilets and had to go out in the open even in the bitter cold nights. There were slippery roads and no electricity. Those who were quarantined in their villages lived in shelters made of tin sheets given to tribals as a part of a housing subsidy. The food did not include meat or even egg and the cold got into the bones.

Where had all the money gone? The crores collected by the prime minister in the name of the most vulnerable victims of the pandemic? What about the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund? Why could not the funds be used to build toilets in the villages – something that in any case should not have needed special funds?

In Manipur, like in other parts of India, almost all development projects or even the building of infrastructure had resulted in displacement of the people from the villages. The gap between the rich and poor had grown. Now, the migrant workers who had returned would be at the bottom of the hierarchy along with the landless.

It will take a lot more to convince the people of Manipur, especially the poor in both the Valley and in the Hills that the government really cares than Prime Minister Modi wearing a traditional Meitei muffler.

I wonder what the migrants themselves are planning. Like all poor people they take comfort and solace in the family. I have been getting pictures of baby Haothangin Emmanuel Quarentino, born to a Kuki couple who worked in a spa in Goa. The baby’s parents, Seilungthang and Nengnihat had been excited about the coming of their baby. They could not have imagined that he would be born in the middle of the pandemic. Now Emmanuel will grow up with more cases of coronavirus coming up in Manipur. The fear in the villages has become palpable.

What does the future hold for little Emmanuel and his generation of those born in the midst of a virus that killed so many dreams; simple dreams of returning to the village with money to build a home, surrounded by a garden full of flowers and a kitchen garden with fresh vegetables; maybe a pig or two and a few clucking chickens. Of course, it was not just the virus that is to be blamed – it is the response to it that is responsible.

Haothangin Emmanuel Quarentino and his parents.

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

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Covid-19 lockdown: For North East workers in Goa, a struggle for dignity and dreams of home