The ethnic violence in Manipur has muted festivities amid Diwali and Ningol Chakouba, one of the most important festivals in the valley areas where a majority of the Meitei community lives. The hill-majority Kuki tribes are also looking forward to celebrating Christmas next month.
But with thousands of people from both communities internally displaced following the ethnic clashes that started on May 3, the people are tired and no one wants to celebrate Diwali or Ningol Chakouba on an empty stomach, under a roof that doesn’t exist, or without loved ones who were killed in the violence.
Ningol Chakouba, which the Meitei community celebrates after Diwali, is similar to Bhai Dooj except that in Manipur it is the brothers who welcome their sisters from their matrimonial homes for a grand feast.
This year, people in the valley areas have decided to celebrate – or rather observe – a muted Diwali and Ningol Chakouba in solidarity with thousands of men, women and children living in relief camps.
“Many women in the relief camps have lost their brothers. And many men in the camps do not have the resources or space to invite their sisters, who are living in the same camps. It is an extremely sad situation,” a social worker who is involved in organising aid for the relief camps told NDTV, requesting anonymity.
“No man in the relief camps should watch others call their sisters for Ningol Chakouba, while he can’t. Many brothers and sisters are coming to the camps to spend the day with those who have lost everything,” the social worker told NDTV on phone from Imphal.
Visuals on social media show some children in relief camps holding sheets of paper on which they have written “This Diwali, we don’t have a home to decorate” and “This Diwali, I don’t have clothes to wear”, among other messages.
The festival season also gives an opportunity to the people of Manipur who have been living with trauma for the past six months to take their mind off from the crisis, even if for a brief moment.
Small shops that have been gathering dust and losses for the past few months owing to the violence are, however, doing brisk business amid the festival season. The return of some semblance of economic activity is seen to be the first critical step towards normalcy.
Civil society organisations in the valley areas have been discussing whether to celebrate Ningol Chakouba and Diwali while thousands are living in harsh conditions in the thinly-insulated camps, with winter at the gates.
While some have advised against celebrating the festivals as a gesture of solidarity with and respect for those who directly suffered in the violence, others have called for low-key celebrations at homes and spending the day at relief camps by sharing food and gifts.
“How can we celebrate when our brothers and sisters have lost their homes and sought refuge in relief camps? Till such time they can live with dignity again, we cannot celebrate Diwali or Ningol Chakouba,” an Imphal-based lawyer told NDTV.
People in Manipur from any community should not stop celebrating the festivals – if they must, in a muted way due to the circumstances – just because they have suffered extreme violence, a Delhi-based representative of a valley-based civil society group told NDTV.
“Balancing the current sentiment and ensuring the state’s biggest festival is celebrated with the objective of telling the women in relief centres that the entire community, across the world, is with them, is what we should do. Celebration is one way of us telling those who have committed ethnic crimes that innocent people will not be silenced,” said the representative of Meitei Heritage Society, requesting anonymity due to alleged harassment on social media.
The ethnic violence in Manipur has killed over 180 people and left thousands internally displaced.
Though the Manipur ethnic clashes between the Kuki tribes and the Meiteis is said to be over the Meities’ demand for inclusion under the Scheduled Tribes category, many leaders including Union Minister Home Minister Amit Shah and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar have said entry of illegal immigrants is one of the main factors behind the unrest in the northeast state, which is ruled by the BJP.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has said it is looking into an alleged transnational conspiracy involving terror groups hiding in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Manipur to exploit the ethnic violence in the northeast state.