Nagaland has long been a battleground for underground groups waging war against the Indian State. This has not only forced the people to live in an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty, but also imposed on them the burden of providing the funds that the groups use to carry on their operations. These illegal “taxes” have over the years wreaked havoc on the state’s economy. But, now, the people of the state seem to be saying: “Enough is enough!”
On 31 October, more than 10,000 people from all walks of life gathered in the state’s most populous city, Dimapur, to protest against the extortionist demands of the underground groups. Several Naga and non-Naga organisations, including the Church, participated in the ‘public awareness rally’ organised by the Action Committee Against Unabated Taxation (ACAUT) at the Clock Tower junction in the city.
“We have not gathered here to fight against any underground group, but to reason with them on the importance of rule of law,” former IAS officer and social activist KK Sema told the mammoth crowd. The refrain of “One Tax, One Government” reverberated across Dimapur as people resolved to stop bowing to the underground groups’ demands.
The speakers did not spare the state government either and accused it of indulging in corrupt practices, just like the underground groups.
The rally marks a major shift in the people’s perception of the secessionist outfits. Until now, it had been unthinkable for ordinary citizens to question their views and methods; many of those who dared have had to pay for it with their lives. “But it is different this time,” says popular Naga columnist and author Susan Waten. “The rally has sent out a loud and clear message that ordinary Naga men and women have finally decided to shape the future of Nagaland with their own hands.”
The Dimapur rally gave vent to the pent-up frustration of the common man on the street. Another factor that made it possible is the growing number of educated youth, who have begun to question the lack of development in the state. Comparing Nagaland with other parts of the country and the world, they are outraged by the fact that they have to pay taxes not just to the government, but to the underground groups as well.
“Normal life in Nagaland is extremely tough,” says Along Longkumer, a young professional who returned to his home in Dimapur after completing his MBA in Malaysia. “While the entire world is marching ahead, we seem to be going backward every day. There is hardly any development here. Just look at the condition of the roads.”
The issue of illegal taxes has a huge potential of bringing people together as it affects everyone in the state, including government employees, contractors and small businessmen. “We have to pay not just one underground group, but four or five of its various factions,” says Vizo Angami, a Kohima-based contractor. “After paying 5-10 percent of a project’s funds as ‘tax’ to each of these factions, we are left to work with only half the allocated amount. How do we feed our families?” Most of those who took part in the Dimapur rally share this feeling.
“By opposing unabated taxation and rampant corruption, we have challenged the political and economic power status quo in Nagaland and this would certainly not go down too well with those who would be adversely affected,” wrote Monalisa Changkija in Nagaland Page, a newspaper published from Dimapur that she edits.
Soon after the rally, a delegation of the Naga Mothers Association met leaders of the Isak-Muivah faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (the most prominent of the armed secessionist groups, which has been engaged in long-drawn peace parleys with the Centre) and persuaded them not to take any action against the rally’s organisers.
The Dimapur rally was an important wake-up call. If it turns out to be the harbinger of a sustained movement against extortion by insurgent groups, it’s the people of Nagaland who have the most to gain.
Aiyushman Dutta is a Guwahati- based freelance journalist