“Received with Thanks”: Understanding the role of receipts in political order in northeast India

About the author(s):

Shalaka Thakur is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, where she works on the role of power in conflict zones. She has been conducting extensive field research at the Indo-Myanmar borderlands over the last decade, looking at armed group governance, local political economy and borderland politics.

Photography of a tax receipt.

Above is a receipt issued by one of the largest non-state armed groups in northeast India to the owner of a twelve-wheeled truck. The driver of the truck will carry the receipt with him at all times and show it at checkposts along the road where he will encounter this non-state armed group, amongst many others. Far from the image of a gun-toting, camouflage-wearing rebel shaking down someone for whatever they can, the image above paints a different picture. The state-like appearance of the receipt, multiple signing authorities; being issued to a specific vehicle for a specific period; speak to dynamics that cannot be solely explained by the popular label of ‘extortion’. Rather this receipt is essential in allowing this truck to ply down the road, this driver to do his job and the businessman to transport his product. In doing so, it becomes a document necessary to do business and one that shapes the everyday lives of people in the region. 

In the states of Manipur and Nagaland in northeast India, along the Indo-Myanmar border, multiple non-state armed groups take taxes from civilians, businesses and at times even the Indian state. Different groups tax with varying regularity, charge different amounts, with varied levels of coercion. Even within the same group, amounts, systematisation and coercion levels differ based on the amount of control they have and their relationship with the public in different villages or neighbourhoods. Informed by theories of how greed influences wider conflict motivations, studies on the role of capital accumulation in civil wars have so far been underpinned by a degree of economic determinism. However, the ways in which taxes levied by non-state actors in spaces of competing authority, and their related receipts, and how these practices also regulate and shape peoples’ lives during armed conflict, is less well-examined. The effects of rebel taxation in northeast India go far beyond what can be understood through the lens of revenue generation. Taxes forge relationships between armed groups and citizens through fear, legitimacy or often, the bureaucratic and mundane. By creating alternate regulatory authorities and parallel taxation systems, rebel taxes shape people’s day to day lives, with the documents attesting to these taxation regimes being an important part of that equation. Receipts, like the one seen above serve as a symbol of an armed group’s bureaucratic and coercive power. They also become tokens of continued compliance from those they tax. 

The centrality of systems of taxation and their associated receipts speaks to a culture of documentation, which sees written records having an increasingly important role in establishing and maintaining social and political order. While such a culture is usually associated with state bureaucracies and legal systems to establish rules and control, in the context of northeast India the same tactics are being deployed by armed groups contesting the state with similar effects. If they want to work in the region, it is as important for a transporter to register their vehicle with certain armed groups as it is for them to register it with the state transport association. 

Shaping everyday life: the relationship between armed groups and civilians through taxation. 

Paying tax is widely seen as an important way of acknowledging and supporting the authority of the state. In spaces of contested authority, like various pockets in northeast India, ‘tax’ is paid to various non-state armed groups, complicating this question. Some taxes taken by non-state armed groups in fact seem to be primarily geared towards establishing this acknowledgement of authority. For example, the tax taken by certain non-state armed groups from individual households as a yearly contribution may be a nominal amount and the effort of collecting this tax likely exceeds the revenue generated from it. However, as a senior official from on armed group described, this tax is also a way of census-taking. Much like a state’s taxation regime, the practice gives the non-state armed group an overview of who their constituency really is. 

The payment of taxes by civilians to armed groups comes from a range of motivations. These include civilians thinking that the armed group is a legitimate authority who needs to be supported to just plain fear of the repercussions of non-payment. In many cases though, the motivation for payment of fees to armed groups comes from neither of these extremes, but just from habit. In interviews conducted with 50 truck drivers, for example, paying armed groups along their transit routes was widely expressed as a normal part of transporting goods. Whether interpreted as acceptance or jadedness, drivers would rather just pay what is asked of them in order to ensure hassle-free travel, showing that this type of taxation/extortion is a normalised (though violent) part of their everyday lives. 

The importance of receipts

If taxation is a symbol of the relationship shared between people and authority, receipts add an additional dimension to this by establishing a sense of legitimacy around the practice of taxation through documentation of the transaction. The issuing of a receipt is a symbolic practice armed groups use to give meaning and bureaucratic power to their actions in much the same way the state does.

In addition to their per trip taxes, drivers carried proof that the vehicle they were driving in had a receipt proving they had paid yearly vehicle tax to multiple groups. One driver in fact had a dossier of receipts on him, neatly laminated and compiled in a book, so he could show the armed groups a proper record when the need arose. Businessmen too kept detailed documentation of their receipts. While coercion, legitimacy, or a mix of both might be the reason people pay these fees, armed groups are not only imposing a payment, but ensuring habituated practices around documentation from those they take these fees from. 

 “Nothing is certain except death and taxes”

Documents issued by non-state armed groups in the form of tax receipts and other proof of payment and registration bring to the fore their bureaucratic power. These written transactions and acknowledgements shape the everyday lives of those who are taxed in similar ways to that of state legal systems and bureaucracies, coexisting alongside them or (often) competing with them. 

Through the mimicking of state practices in terms of tax receipts and a wider culture of documentation, armed groups are actively changing the ways in which statehood and legal identity is experienced and understood. The issuance and existence of these receipts speaks to armed groups desire for and portrayal of statehood as much as the collection of taxes themselves do. Further, state corruption complicates the matter. With state actors taking bribes without receipts and non-state armed groups issuing extra-official looking ones, the lines between formal and informal, legitimate and illegitimate, state and non-state get even more blurred. Understanding the effects of taxation and documents issued by non-state armed groups to include the little understood dimensions of mimetic sovereignty and bureaucratisation has important implications for our understanding of political order in contested territories. Hence, it is an integral dimension to consider for any sort of long-term political resolution to numerous contemporary armed conflicts beyond those currently ongoing in Nagaland and Manipur

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