Ceasefire, stand-offs, taxation and extortion
The recent stand-off between troops of Assam Rifles and NSCN-IM cadres at Senapati throws up some very interesting questions. Is the ceasefire agreement between Government of India and NSCN-IM effective within the territory of Manipur? Of course, none other than Chief Minister N Biren has clarified on the floor of the Manipur Legislative Assembly that the ceasefire agreement is not effective within the State of Manipur. The same clarification leads to another question. Why are the NSCN-IM cadres allowed to move around and throw their weight among the civilians? Why is the particular militant group allowed to run ‘taken note of’ camps within the State? The answer to these questions lies in the ceasefire agreement the militant outfit signed with the Government of India. In another word, the ceasefire agreement is not officially effective in Manipur but it is applied de facto in the State too even though there have been sporadic reports of confrontation or stand-off between NSCN-IM cadres and security forces, particularly Assam Rifles like the recent Senapati stand-off. It also an open secret that the militant group has been collecting ‘taxes’ from trucks and other vehicles plying on National highways leading to Imphal. The issue of collection of taxes by NSCN-IM was raised during a meeting of the Cease Fire Monitoring Group (CFMG) and officials of the Government of India categorically stated that such activities (extortion) were not acceptable. But NSCN-IM was not outwitted. The militant group’s senior leader VS Atem not only rebutted the Government of India’s extortion charges but also skillfully shielded themselves from any further admonition by claiming they were only ‘levying tax’ from people. It does not need any reminder that the two words ‘extortion’ and ‘taxation’ have diametrically opposite connotations. While extortion connotes a sense of criminality and unlawfulness, taxation carries an aura of legitimacy and of course a notion of authority. If one looks beyond how the two words are articulated and presented, one will notice that the two words carry similar meaning i.e collection of goods and money from the public. Whether this collection of goods and money should be termed extortion or taxation should be determined by the way how they are collected and how willingly they are paid by people.
The argument between New Delhi and NSCN-IM over extortion or taxing, depending on which side you are, is full of political implications. The two terms ‘extortion’ and ‘taxing’ are divided by a thin line. There are no absolute parameters to determine whether collection of goods and money from public should be called extortion or taxation for it all depends on one’s perspective. Indian freedom fighters were just insurgents or trouble-makers to the erstwhile British Empire but to the Indian people, they were patriots/nationalists. By the same analogy, a group which has been branded as a terrorist organisation may be freedom fighters or patriots when viewed from another perspective. Likewise, NSCN-IM or any other militant outfit operating in the North East region never appreciated terms coined for them by the Indian State like separatists or insurgents, not to mention terrorists. In another word, terrorism and freedom struggle and extortion and taxation can become two sides of a single coin depending on one’s perspective. The debate over extortion and taxation and for that matter terrorism and liberation movement may rage on for decades without ever finding a point of convergence. But the question of extortion or taxation by NSCN-IM cannot be equated to similar activities carried out by militant outfits who have sworn total non-allegiance to the Indian Constitution. The militant outfit is under a cease fire agreement with the Government of India and the two sides have also signed a framework agreement as a basis for resolving the vexed Naga issue. Unlike other militant groups, NSCN-IM is now operating from well defined designated camps with full knowledge of the Indian State. Being a signatory to the bilateral ceasefire agreement, NSCN-IM ought to have some respect for the Indian laws. But the reality tells a very different tale. The outfit has been using the ceasefire agreement as a convenient cover-up for all their activities including extortion or collection of taxes and running of ‘taken note of’ camps.