Taxation and extortion by insurgent groups have been a way of life for people in Nagaland, so much so that Kohima recently witnessed a protest demanding the withdrawal of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that is probing ‘terror funding’ in the Nagaland state government departments. What the NIA terms as ‘Terror funding’ is better understood as the collection of tax by armed Naga separatist groups from government employees and departments.
The central counter terrorism law enforcement agency took over the investigation to look into cases of state government departments paying extortion money to separatist groups, including the NSCN-Khaplang and NSCN-Issac Muivah, on August 17, 2016. The first raid of government offices was conducted earlier this year in January and in April the first arrests were made. Three officials, all in the rank of joint directors in different departments, were arrested in April and in October four more were arrested, including a former director of Tourism. All seven were arrested on the charge of funding NSCN(K) with government money. The arrest of the government officials, both incumbent and retired, has upset Nagaland government employees who under the banner of the Confederation of All Nagaland State Services Employees’ Association (CANSSEA) took to the street in hundreds protesting against the actions of the NIA. CANSSEA also submitted a memorandum to Nagaland Governor PB Acharya to withdraw the NIA and drop the investigation against various departments relating to ‘illegal taxation by Naga national political groups’, “considering the political dialogue between the Government of India and the groups”.
A CANSSEA member addressing media persons in Kohima claimed that initially the NIA had ‘literally begged for information’ regarding ‘taxes’ collected by the separatist groups and that ‘the government servants disclosed whatever information they had as required under law’. However, he said, the entire exercise carried out by the NIA turned into a nightmare when the agency started prosecuting the employees instead. He categorically stated that government officials were being made scapegoats by the NIA. Another member clarified that the confederation was not against NIA, but warned the government of India against playing a “double game” if it was serious about resolving the Naga political problem.
The CANSSEA in its memorandum to the Governor has stated that “the undisputed reality is that payments of tax to the NNPGs (naga national political groups or separatist groups) are made not voluntarily or willingly but under duress and fear of life and limb. The state government is the living witness to the fact of the many instances where life has been taken because of resistance to such taxation and demands”.
A protesting official of the Nagaland government termed the action of the NIA against state government employees as illogical as “no employee felt happy when 24% was deducted from his or her salary”.
For decades now, Nagaland government employees have been paying 24%-25% of their salaries annually to various separatist groups. The government of India till date has turned a blind eye to the “taxation” of its citizens by the Naga armed groups. The taxation of government departments and employees is not a secret. The ‘government’ of NSCN-IM had issued an official statement announcing its decision to halve the annual tax they impose on Nagaland government employees. The group, which has reportedly reached a solution with the Government of India over the protracted Naga political issue, halved its annual “employee tax” from the existing 24% to 12% earlier this year. This was reported widely in the national media.
Nagas are listed as Scheduled Tribes and are exempted from paying direct taxes to the Union government under Section 10(26) of the Income Tax Act but it is a well-known fact that all the separatist groups run their own parallel governments from designated camps and collect taxes from individuals, small to big businesses, as well as state government departments and their employees. While businesses run by non-Nagas in Nagaland are heavily taxed, the Nagas folk themselves are not exempted. One has to pay tax to underground groups even while constructing a house. The NSCN-IM has openly asserted that it was the legitimate right of the group to collect tax from the people as they represented the voice of the Naga people. Other groups use similar reasoning to levy taxes, to the point of taxing citizens of the state for constructing their own houses. While the insurgents call it legal taxation to fund the separatist movement, citizens of Nagaland largely insist it to be extortion.
The problem of illegal taxation has become a burning issue in Nagaland and the emergence of ACAUT or Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation, a mass-based movement, is a testimony to that. In October 2013, it had taken to the streets demanding “one government, one tax”, or one unified tax by one rebel government. Khekiye K Sema, a retired bureaucrat of the Indian Administrative Service and advisor to the group, in an interview to Scroll, had ridiculed the action of the NIA, which he said “does not have the courage to call a spade a spade”. He claimed that the state government pays 5%-6% of all development funds to the insurgent groups and an elaborate parallel taxation system exists in Nagaland which goes up to the top levels of the state government. Asked why all government officials booked by the NIA till date have been charged for facilitating transfer of funds to just one particular group, the NSCN-K, Sema said that just because the group has refused to continue with the ceasefire, the government of India through the NIA is branding those who contribute to them (NSCN-K), as “guilty of terror funding”. “The government of India does not understand the hypocrisy of its own policies… they (the Centre and NSCN-K) were friends till yesterday”, Sema stated. The NSCN-K had abrogated a 14-year old cease-fire agreement with the government of India in March 2015.
The action of the NIA against Nagaland government officials has been largely derided by Naga youth over social media. Yanpvuo Yanfo Kikon, founder of the Naga Blog, a Facebook group, and a popular voice among the youth of Nagaland, calls the action of the NIA as “moronic and ironic”. In his Facebook post, Kikon writes “how instead of catching the extortionists, they are making a scapegoat out of those victims of extortion who choose life over death?”. But some others feel that the government employees instead of protesting against the NIA for doing their job should stand up against the insurgent groups who are “illegally taxing” them. Meanwhile, anti-corruption activists, who have the know-how of the taxation system in government departments, say that not all government officials are as innocent as they claim and some do connive with the separatists.
While Governor Acharya has assured the protesting state government employees that he would seek for a permanent solution with the Centre on the problem of taxation imposed on Government departments and its agencies, the placards that the protesters carried while submitting the memo to the Governor conveyed the general mood in Nagaland. Two of the placards read – “Action Taken Under Duress Cannot Be Termed As Wilfulness and Anti-National” and “Forced Taxation Is Not Equal To Aiding and Abetting”.