Map fetish – I

India’s obsessive responses to maps showing its disputed boundaries with Pakistan and China expose the country to ridicule.

IT has been said that the difference between a lunatic and a neurotic lies in their different responses to reality. The lunatic believes that two and two make four. The neurotic accepts that they make four but feels profoundly unhappy about it. India’s initial response to the boundary dispute with China reflected neurosis at the highest level. It infected the press, the intelligentsia and the political class. It soon degenerated into lunacy, which gripped the bureaucracy. It has since gone about in its map phobia exposing the country to ridicule.

The latest outbreak is the worst. Foreign periodicals have to bear the brunt whenever they carry a map of South Asia. The Economist publishes excellent maps, however small. In 2011 it incurred our babus’ wrath twice. They no longer rubber-stamp the silly warning: “The external boundaries of India are neither accurate nor authentic.” They obliterate the map pasting a slip of paper over it. Two issues (of May 18 and November 19) were treated thus.

The first had an article entitled “Fantasy frontiers” on “Indian, Pakistani and Chinese border disputes”. Subscribers receive the issue late. So did they the issue of November 19. It carried an article entitled “Unquenchable thirst” based on reports from Delhi, Dhaka, Islamabad and Srinagar. The subtitle said, “A growing rivalry between India, Pakistan and China over the region’s great rivers may be threatening South Asia’s peace.” The accompanying map on page 24 of the magazine was pasted over. But incompetence reared its head over the wrath. For, a notice on page 26 was left intact. And this piece instructed readers how to get the obliterated map.

It read thus: “Missing map? Sadly, India censors maps that show the current effective border, insisting instead that only its full territorial claims be shown. It is more intolerant on this issue than either China or Pakistan. Indian readers will therefore probably be deprived of the map in this briefing. Unlike their government, we think our Indian readers can face political reality. Those who want to see an accurate depiction of the various territorial claims can do so using our interactive map at”

When one turns to this map, one finds nothing that could offend, let alone harm, any country’s cause. Proceeding from the east to the west, the McMahon Line is clearly depicted but with the qualification “disputed border”. China raised the dispute belatedly two decades after the Simla Conference of 1914 and then through maps published privately. But in 2011 it would be manifestly wrong to deny the existence of a dispute or contest the related note on the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh that its territory, just below the Line, is now “largely claimed by China”.

The same holds true for what is known in the lingo of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute as “the middle sector” in Uttar Pradesh. A dispute did arise in 1954. Both parts of Kashmir are shown as being “administered” respectively by India and Pakistan. The Line of Control was clear. The Aksai Chin plateau, in the Ladakh province of Kashmir, is depicted as “area held by China, claimed by India”. It has been held by China for at least 50 years.

There is one statement, however, which is untrue. It concerns the Shaksgam Valley and asserts: “Area ceded by Pakistan to China”. Pakistan ceded no territory to China under their agreement of March 2, 1963. On the contrary, it received from China 750 square miles of administered territory beyond the watershed, the traditional grazing ground for people in Hunza. The added assertion “claimed by India” is factually correct. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did contest the validity of the agreement no sooner than it was published.

The map is analysed in detail because it is a classic case of much ado about nothing. The map depicts the factual position, steering clear of legality. The Economist had informed subscribers in a message that the map showed “the current effective border”.

India’s statute book has been defiled. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1961, was enacted to send to prison anyone who “questions” the territorial integrity of India whether by “words”, spoken or written, or by “visual representation” or even “by signs”, a feat not very easy to accomplish. Time, the proverbial healer, let the nation down miserably. Three decades later came the Criminal Law Amendment (Amending) Act, 1990. It ordains: “Whoever publishes a map of India, which is not in conformity with maps of India as published by the Survey of India shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.”

The difference between the 1961 and 1990 Acts is that the former requires proof that the publication is, at the least, “likely to be prejudicial to the interests of the safety or security of India” not prejudicial merely to the government’s diplomacy or publicity campaign. There must be a real likelihood of the nation’s “safety or security” being imperilled not the policy of the government of the day.

The 1990 Act drops this requirement in respect of maps altogether.

Of course, the Act is brazenly unconstitutional. A citizen is perfectly within his rights in asserting that there does exist a dispute over the future of Kashmir or that the northern boundary is wrongly depicted in official maps. He can say that in words or by maps. It would be unwise of him to attempt that “by signs”.

But which among the “maps of India as published by the Survey of India” is the citizen bound blindly to accept on pain of imprisonment?

The Ministry of States, headed by Vallabhbhai Patel, published not one but two White Papers on Indian States, each containing a map bearing the imprimatur of the Surveyor-General of India. The one of July 1948 showed the boundary as on Independence Day, 1947. Not only were Kashmir’s northern and eastern boundaries shown “undefined” but even the yellow colour wash did not cover this region. The one of February 1950 also bore the legend “boundary undefined”. So did the middle sector. In contrast, the McMahon Line was shown clearly as a defined boundary. A political map published in 1950 also showed the contrasting states of the western and eastern sectors of the northern boundary. Only in 1954 was a map published officially to show a defined boundary in the western sector. Zhou Enlai’s circular letter, dated November 15, 1962, to the leaders of Asian and African countries reproduced both the 1950 and 1954 maps (as Reference Maps 3 and 4, respectively). They did little to enhance our credibility.

1954 was a fateful year. The Panchsheel agreement on Tibet, which India and China signed on April 29, 1954, contained a pledge to respect “each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”. The pledge related to the maps of 1948 and 1950, both of which showed the boundary in the Aksai Chin as well as the middle sector in U.P. as “undefined” while showing the McMahon Line very clearly.

However, on July 1, 1954, Nehru wrote a 17-paragraph memorandum ordering the withdrawal of “all our old maps”. New maps should be printed, he said, in which a clear line should be shown for the entire frontier. “This frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody”. In October Nehru visited China. The maps of 1948 and 1950 were printed in the October 24, 2008, issue of Frontline to illustrate this writer’s article “Maps and Borders”.

Nehru prided himself on his “expertise” in foreign affairs. But can any educated person believe that a state can freely alter its maps and insist that the rest of the world should accept its altered map? There is not one country in the entire wide world which regards the Aksai Chin as anything but disputed territory.

It is not without significance that on July 17, 1954, China sent a Note to India alleging violation of its boundary in Bara Holi in U.P., Wu – Je, as China calls it (White Paper I; 1954-1959; page 1). China had, of course, taken full notice of the 1954 map.

It is sheer illiteracy to be in awe of maps or to imagine that one’s own map contains the revealed truth. A map is no different from a statement couched in words. It is a cartographic statement. Maps are not documents of title. They can serve only as pieces of evidence. If published bona fide as a matter of course, without any awareness of a dispute, a map can support the party’s case as an assertion of title or belie its claim if the line it depicts supports the adversary’s stand. A map manufactured to create evidence is worthless. Maps afloat in international journals do not constitute evidence at all. Those in an old atlas of repute might, depending on the circumstances. No claim to territory can rest on a map unless it embodies an accord between them or the adversary has for long acquiesced in it. A map, a statement by cartography rather than in words, has no greater weight than any assertion in words. It is not a document of title, has no intrinsic force and cannot, by itself, cede territory. Only a treaty of cession can, the annexed map illustrating the written text. A boundary agreement defines the boundary in an area where the boundary had not been defined. The document lays down the alignment of the boundary; the map illustrates the alignment; after joint surveys, the defined boundary is demarcated on the ground and a new agreed map finally settles the matter.

In the classic Arbitral Award in the Island of Palmas Case the distinguished Judge Max Huber said: “Only with the greatest caution can account be taken of maps in deciding a question of sovereignty.”
—(To be concluded)
—(Courtesy: The Frontline)