It will be a dark Christmas for the residents of Imphal city. The night before Christmas eve, Tanghkhul Lane, in Chingmeirong, is pitch black and the lit Bethlehem Stars that adorn the top of every house at this time of the year are stark in their absence. The mood is sombre. Young and old are headed, under the weak streams of light thrown by their mobile phones, to the Tangkhul Lane Community Centre. The frantic activity at the centre has abated since yesterday, but a long line of applicants nevertheless snake out. They are registering themselves with the volunteers at the community centre who have promised to try help get them back home to Ukhrul district.
The road to Ukhrul has been blocked off to prevent Manipur’s Naga population from leaving Imphal city. This is a counter to the blockade called by the United Naga Council over the recent creation of new districts, which it sees as an attempt to divide the Naga people. Those stranded due to the counter-blockade have taken shelter at Imphal’s Tangkhul Lane community centre, as well as another such centre in Chingmeirong. Some have taken shelter with relatives, or been taken in by other Tangkhul families. On Thursday night, around 300 stranded Tangkhuls were given shelter at the centre. By Friday morning though, the community centre doors were locked due to the rush of those coming in.
Leishichon Rungsung, 24, is among those waiting patiently in line to be registered at the centre. By 5.30 pm, the volunteers’ notebook has 700 names. Rungsung, who is in the line with a cousin sister, admits her “desperation”. “I tried once before to leave but couldn’t manage. We couldn’t even leave the boundaries of Imphal city. I would actually have given up trying, but my parents are really forcing me to return,” says Rungsung, adding they are worried about the law and order situation in Imphal.
Rungsung came to Imphal city earlier this year to join a coaching centre, and will be appearing for civil services exams. “There is no such coaching centre back home,” she says. While her parents are telling her to return for good, Rungsung says she will come back to finish her coaching. “If I don’t manage to go back home for Christmas, I will simply stay here and attend classes if there are any,” she says.
Rungsung has four brothers and an elder sister. Only the eldest brother, who is married, stays at home with his family and parents. One brother is pursuing Masters in Bangalore, a brother and sister are in Delhi also preparing for their civil service exams, and the youngest brother is studying medicine in Russia.
While all of them were to return home for Christmas, the other four have cancelled their trip “because of the trouble”. Ngasan Shokwungnao, 33, who lives in Tangkhul Lane with his family and is volunteering at the community centre, says they are struggling to deal with the rush. “We told them to go back to their rented rooms or stay with relatives. If there is any news of convoys heading out to Ukhrul, we will inform them,” he says.
Since Saturday, when 22 vehicles headed to Ukhrul under police protection were stopped and burnt, convoys have been leaving in the dead of night. But the convoy accompanied by Assam Rifles that left carrying 1,000 such stranded residents early Friday morning had to turn back.
“As you can see, all the celebrations have been cancelled. By now, there should have been carol singing in colonies with groups moving from house to house. We are not doing it this year because of the trouble,” says Shokwunghao. The president of the All Naga Students’ Association Manipur, Seth Shatsang, says they will help “the thousands of stranded students” get home. “The Naga community is under siege, the central forces have not been effective. If we can, we will make sure everyone can go home for Christmas,” he says.
The president of the United Council of Manipur (an apex body of Meitei organisations in the valley), Johnson Elangbam, claims they have been holding peace meetings with different tribal communities as well as Meitei civil society to ensure that the situation is eased and the Naga students can go home. “We have urged our people to lift the counter-blockade,” he says, adding, “Even if the UNC does not lift the blockade, we will make sure that Christmas is held peacefully and that there are no untoward incidents.”
However, even the churches in Imphal are not taking any chances after Saturday’s attack. While the Tangkhul Baptist Church, Imphal city’s second largest church, has put up some decorations, the revellers are missing. The lights strung on the church steeple will not be lit this year “to avoid trouble”. In the compound, a large stack of hay lies bundled. It was to be converted with white fluffy cotton and buckets of talcum powder into a snowman. Outside the church, someone has stuck a poster saying that the church cannot open for worship without the locality’s permission.
Pastor Reverned Ngamlee Zimik says Meitei elders had reassured them that they could remain open. “They have condemned the incidents in which churches were attacked,” he says. However, he adds, “We are keeping it quiet, trying not to make any noise. So all the festivities around Christmas have been cancelled — the caroling, the singing competitions, the Bible quizzes etc. People can come and worship on Christmas day, but nothing more than that.”
The Manipur Baptist Church, a stone’s throw away and Imphal’s largest, is quieter still. The church was attacked last Saturday by a mob of stone-pelters. While no real damage was done, apart from a few broken window-panes, the church authorities are shaken.
Rev S R Onesima says that while Christmas will be celebrated, things will be low key. “This is the first time Christmas will be barely celebrated by any church in Imphal. We have cancelled our grand feast,” he says.
Ironically churches employ Meitei Brahmins to cook a large part of the Christmas grand feast, with popular Manipuri fish and vegetarian dishes.