On October 13, the National Investigation Agency said it had arrested four Nagaland government officials for diverting funds to militants of the banned National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang). The agency said in a press release that the four had released government funds worth crores of rupees to the underground factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Reformation), the Naga National Council and the Federal Government of Nagaland between 2012 and 2016. All four outfits are fighting for a sovereign Naga state, or Nagalim.

Yet in Nagaland, it is a well-known fact that separatist groups operating in the region collect money from government officials and businessmen, a practice that has been prevalent for decades now. Almost every group runs its own “parallel government” from designated camps in the state. They call the collection of money taxation to fund the separatist movement, while many of Nagaland’s residents insist it is extortion. Most communities in Nagaland are listed as Scheduled Tribes and are exempt from paying direct taxes to the Union government under Section 10(26) of the Income Tax Act.

The Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation, a civil society group, has been protesting against the multiple tax regimes created by the state’s many insurgent groups. In October 2013, it took 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, has been one of the most vocal voices against this phenomenon of taxation by insurgent groups. Sema spoke to Scroll.in about the recent arrests and whether they address the problem of illegal taxation in Nagaland.

Excerpts from the interview:

Khekiye K Sema. (Credit: via YouTube)

Do you think the term “terror funding”, as the newspaper reports called it, applies in the Naga context? Or is there a different phenomenon at work here?
The truth is the National Investigation Agency or any investigation agency does not have the courage to call a spade a spade. They have arrested a few government officials, but they know that there is an elaborate parallel taxation system in Nagaland that goes up to the top levels of the state government.

Could you please explain this phenomenon of taxation – or as some would call it, extortion – by insurgent groups in Nagaland? Is there an anecdote that comes to mind that could help the ordinary reader outside Nagaland understand how it really plays out?
Everyone in Nagaland pays money to insurgent groups. Government employees pay 24%-25% of their salaries annually. The state government pays 5%-6% of all development funds to the insurgent groups. The Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) is the biggest beneficiary. They are at the top of the pyramid, but every other group also receives money. The state government is the most serious funding resource for all insurgent groups. Each government department has disbursing officers. The National Investigation Agency should look into the state of helplessness of the elected Naga government. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) shadow government is much stronger. All lawmakers are answerable to it.

Since this is a systemic problem, how much sense does it make for the National Investigation Agency to prosecute mid-level bureaucrats?
The investigation is a farce. The bureaucrats are small fry – small culprits in what the system is all about. They should arrest all the chief ministers, chief secretaries till date if they are really serious about an investigation.

Do you see broader ties between political parties and underground groups, which the National Investigation Agency has ignored?
The government is a puppet of militant organisations. The shadow government dictates the terms. The state government has no courage to stand up. Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation asked for a high-level commission on October 31, 2013. The government was coerced into setting up a committee, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge. I was part of the commission. We submitted a report after eight months of thorough evaluation, sworn depositions and evidence. The government of Nagaland has been told exactly what the system is all about. It details the entire taxation system, everything that is rotten. The report was officially submitted to the chief minister, who then asked the bureaucrats to study it. They have been studying it since 2013 and they will study it till they go to their graves. The report was never tabled in the Assembly. This is proof of what is happening in Nagaland. The state government will not take action because they are party to the charade.

Where does the state police figure in this system?
If there is some problem in A zone, the police will make sure they are in B zone. Everyone wants to be alive, the police are no different.

It appears that formal police complaints against these alleged cases of taxation are coming down. What is the reason for this?
Will you complain with an AK-47 (rifle) pointed at your forehead? You will not. Then why are you asking such a question? Fear psychosis has been growing in leaps and bounds in Nagaland since the 1950s. For you, fear is a four-letter word, for people here it is a lived experience. Why they are not complaining is a question far removed from reality.

Is it a coincidence that the National Investigation Agency chose to book officials who were facilitating the transfer of funds to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), perhaps the only Naga group not in talks with the government at this point? All groups collect money, after all.
The government of India does not understand the hypocrisy of its own policies. They used to have a ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) till very recently. They were friends till yesterday. Just because the group has refused to continue with this charade of a ceasefire, the government now says anyone who contributes to them is guilty of terror funding. The government thinks it can negotiate with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) and solve the Naga problem. It does not understand that the real people who floated the idea of integrity and sovereignty were not even originally from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah).

Media reports suggest that the Naga problem is on the verge of a settlement. What kind of impact would it have on this system of taxation/ extortion?
The taxation will continue even if the government manages to conclude talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), because the other factions are not going to accept a solution minus sovereignty and integrity.

Do you see people paying up voluntarily or do you see them getting restive about this system of informal taxation? Has support for these groups waned since the start of the Naga movement?
People were willing to make sacrifices in the 1950s when the Naga national movement began. Today, circumstances have changed. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with an AK-47 is raising taxes in the name of sovereignty. There is a limit. There is resentment among people. Every buck that is given is given out of fear. In the 1950s, it was given with a sense of honour. People had a feeling they were party to a sovereign movement.

What, according to you, is the solution to this problem of informal taxation?
The solution is that the government of India must understand that just trying to negotiate with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) is stupid. The mainlanders in the government have never treated the Nagas as equals. The government of India is doing everything without consulting the Nagas of Nagaland. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) is behaving like the mainlanders too by not consulting the people of Nagaland. The Union government’s Army thinks it can wipe out everyone who does not agree with them. That is how it all started in the first place. How many times will mainland India commit the same mistake? Even now, they are not aware of what the Nagas of Nagaland think. They are counting the ones holding AK-47s. They do not acknowledge there are humans without AK-47s who have their own philosophy. The people of Nagaland are not the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). They are not in control. So many other group are doing the same as them, extorting taxes. So, the problem can only be dealt with if the government of India consults the people of Nagaland on the way forward instead of talking just with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah).