Refugee Relief Tax Handstamps


Back in 1999, I wrote an article for ‘India Post’, that tackles the variety of short-lived handstamped stamps that were used to collect the tax raised by the Government of India to help refugees in the crisis of 1971, that was caused by the independence struggle of Bangladesh. 

The text of that article follows. I am uploading new images and fresh discoveries, state by state. 

Postmasters used a range of overprints and handstamps to convert current postage stamps to tax stamps, as 5p extra was to be raised on every item that passed through the post, and on all official documents as well. 

The tax was to be levied immediately, on the 15 November, and the income had to be separately accounted for. Suddenly a colossal number of stamps was needed. Postage stamps were needed on Post Office counters, in Government Offices, and in business post rooms. Revenue stamps were also needed as the tax was extended to contracts that normally needed stamp duty to be paid.  As carrying gummed stamps around is impractical in the Indian heat, writers prefer postal stationery such as envelopes and letter sheets. All these had to be uprated somehow to collect the tax.  Government Offices used ‘Service’ stamps, and these were supplied by State treasuries, which of course had their own supply problems. Just endorsing or handstamping covers that the tax was paid was not a solution to the challenge of accounting for the many tiny sums, as the covers would have had to be counted, and receipts given for each item. All the technology that we now are used to finding at the Post Office counter was yet to come into use. Only the adhesive stamp could efficiently show the charge was paid and was accepted for. 

On 1st December a specially designed stamp was issued, with a separate issue for Service use. Until then, most of the postal services used existing ‘Family Planning’ 5p adhesives or the contemporary 5p Service issue, overprinted at Nasik and circulated country-wide. There were some short-lived locally printed overprints used in particular regions, and these are listed by the stamp catalogues. But where these officially circulated provisionals were not to be had, Postmasters were told to devise their own handstamps. Stamps were overprinted or hand-stamped at Head Post Office and Postal Circle Headquarters; and sometimes in District Treasuries. I have seen a lot of material from Gujarat. In that part of the country, about 15% of the mail that carried the tax carried provisional handstamps. There are about 3,000 Head Offices, so there could be many handstamps yet to find. 

These handstamps have not, to my knowledge, been listed anywhere else in English. 

They have been displayed by Ron Klimley at NAPEX 2009, as part of his wider subject, ‘India Refugee Relief Tax 1971-1973’ which tells the story of the tax and the various ways in which it was collected. 

There is a long report in German, by Erwin Kube, published by the Indian Stamp Collectors Society, in Indien-Report, Nr.72-76, in 1994. It describes the whole philatelic scope of the obligatory tax, and has many enlarged mono pictures.

I have had the kind help of another German philatelist,  Herr H. Ahlers, whose written records I have freely referred to in this study. 

Dr S.P. Gupta in his ‘Specialised Catalogue of Indian Stamps’,  Meerut, 1983, refers to the local provisionals, and lists five methods of altering the basic adhesive stamp: letterpressed overprint [‘typography’]; manuscript endorsement; typewritten overprint; hand-stamped overprint, and what he terms cyclostyled overprints, which look like the work of a typewriter. He illustrates some of the handstamps, but the single colour screened images do not show the handstamps well. Neither source attribute locations and periods of issue to particular handstamps.

I shall only deal with the hand-stamped overprints here, although my coding system can be extended to the other groups.

I have been recently shown a part-sheet that reminds me that handstamping may not always be done stamp by stamp. It is an example of a large block in which the stamping seems to have been done a row at a time. Used blocks are not available for study as the tax was prepaid by a single adhesive stamp, and unused material is usually suspect so this method has not been discussed, to my knowledge. 

Only the memories of those involved can elucidate what was done where, and it is now a long time ago. However, careful study and collation of the surviving material can suggest patterns of use. In this article, I propose a simple typology which helps describe the provisionals and offer an initial listing of handstamps by my coding and Head Office. I hope members will check their collections and add to it.

The adhesive normally used, 5p ‘Family Planning’, has a bold high contrast design that does not show a violet handstamp well. When I first used a colour scanner, back in 1999, separating the design, the handstamp and the postmark was difficult, and I made little progress. I then tried to do it the old way, to use a fine felt tip pen and trace some of the clearer copies in my collection, where the place of use is known. I noted the earliest date of use I have seen of each design I have traced. I still have these traces and they are useful to help identify the different types. But technology has certainly moved on. At present I am using iPhoto to organise and store scans of the handstamps. I have named them using the coding system I devised back in ’99 as it makes the collection easy to organise. But I have also tagged all the material by location. It has been a totally fascinating task to decipher the postmark on the piece, trace it either directly through iPhoto Places, or failing that through Wikimaps huge database of places, with the help of one of the first PIN code directories published by the Indian Post Office. There are also online resources to check PIN codes, but these codes were not in use in 1971, and indeed many of the postmarks are of offices that are no longer open. India is changing so fast that its post-1947 posts are now a massive new field for postal history research. Now that the images are in iPhoto and located, I can publish maps for particular codes

The Coding System

 1st element: appearance

1st Digit: 

  • 0 Printed overprint
  • 1 Printed overprint and handstamp combined
  • 2 Handstamp, no frame 
  • 3 Handstamp, framed
  • 4 Manuscript 
  • 5 Typewritten
  • 6 Cyclostyled

2nd Digit:

3rd Digit:

  •  Mixed Case
    • No Serifs
      • Upright  1
      • Italic       2
    • Serifs
      • Upright     3
      • Italic         4
      • UPRIGHT  5
      • ITALICS     6
    • SERIFS
      • UPRIGHT   7
      • ITALICS       8 

This completes a 3 digit code which could be used to describe the look of any handstamp, thus 265 is the Family Planning design handstamped with unframed two lines of no serif capitals English, and incidentally the most frequently-met type.

2nd element: State of Origin.

I have used the usual initials for the states.

3rd element: Head Office

I used a contemporary PO list to identify Head Post Offices. The PIN codes [postcodes] made allocating SubPOs to their parent HPO fairly straightforward. From the list it is clear that many handstamps were used by more than one HO. Handstamps used exclusively on Service stamps are attributed to the State where use is widespread. 


For some of the largest groups, such as 265, I have also used a code to describe the size of the handstamp. of course, applying the handstamp was done quickly and with little precision, so markings are often slurred and smudged. So I have not been too precise myself. I have used the “Thirkell” Position Finder which was created and marketed by Stanley Gibbons Publications Ltd and seems to be currently available. This uses a 3mm grid to locate points on material such as stamps. The x axis is numbered left to right, and the y axis, reading downwards, is represented by letters. It is designed to describe a position rather than a size, but I have used it to describe size as I do not want to be too precise, as explained. So a handstamp that looks to be about 5 mm high and 16 mm wide will be described as b6 ['B' covers 4-6mm and '6' covers 15-18mm]. 

Check out your own collection

I want collectors to be able to check your own material. Use the coding system to give your own handstamps codes. If you know where the item was used, you will be able to give it a full code, the 3 digits and the state code. If I do not know about it, please let me know through the forms that you will find throughout the site.  Where I am aware that similar handstamps are found in different states, I have tried to put some links on those pages, but as a rule the site map is your first place to find out where any particular 3-digit code is to be found on the site.