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Issue 2

Am I my Map? Cartography and Reworking Identity

Sanya Chandra

Cartography creates an ‘India’ on paper while simultaneously conversations, laws and political mechanisms create the ‘Indian’ in our minds. While robust borders and stagnant maps reinforce security, should we be conscious of them?

We live in states as docile citizens and take a lot of things for granted. There are many facets which directly affect our nation that we have never even thought about. Maps are one of them. 

The very creation of a map entails conceptualisation of borders and their representation. That is why maps are called ‘projections’. The idea is to take an orange peel (originally spherical) and spread it flat, it can never fit neatly into a rectangle without stretching, cutting and bending it. When an n-dimensional globe is reduced to a 2 dimensional image on paper, it will lose its precision. We do this exercise with the orange peel on a global scale (quite literally) whenever we make maps. 

We use maps in our daily lives. States use them to assert dominance and demarcate territory. In the process, we implicitly agree that the word ‘projection’ allows for distortions. On top of that, we understand that distortions are acceptable in any form of representation. The question here is exactly which distortions are we willing to accept?  

Knowing this, it is unfathomable that borders are sort of a given. The more robust your border, the more secure your national identity. This is why soldiers get stationed to harsh climates, fight over land which is uninhabitable (as in the case of Ladakh) and countries use their maps to assert influence. The question to ask is why does your national identity depend on a border you have never seen? 

We are all products of different identities– caste, class, gender, race; it’s just a matter of context which identity gets called upon at what time. With the nation state, the identity that gets called upon most often is that of the citizen. As Sankaran Krishna brings up in his work, Cartographic Anxiety, While we don’t relinquish our religious, linguistic or regional identity, they are rendered vestigial, at least for the time being. Cartography creates an ‘India’ on paper while simultaneously conversations, laws and political mechanisms create the ‘Indian’ in our minds. The existence of one serves as reinforcement for the other.

This conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; India has experienced threats to its borders from Pakistan, Nepal and China in the past couple of months. These are intrinsically tied to cartographic representation as maps become important for both escalation of conflict and its eventual disengagement relevant in the current context. 

Pakistan’s new map, as explained by Prime Minister Imran Khan, shows the aspirations of its  people as well as the people of Kashmir. For India, these aspirations mean showing the Indian territories of Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and parts of Gujarat as disputed. The new map came as a response to India’s inclusion of areas like parts of POK and Gilgit-Baltistan in its own November 2019 map. While Pakistan claims to stand for the Kashmiri cause, India has called this battle of the maps “an exercise in political absurdity.” The map here is defining the state’s position but it’s also defining what national matters are because it defines where the nation begins and ends quite physically in a political imagination. 

In the case of Nepal, the new issue of the Indian map of November 2019 was exacerbated by another issue– the virtual inauguration of a road to Lipulekh by the Indian defence minister in May 2020. Nepal claimed that at least 17 kms of this road fell on its land. The issue gained traction in Nepali domestic politics as it saw protests with #BackOffIndia trending on social media. In the following month of June, Nepal’s Parliament approved a revised map showing the disputed areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as its own.

The root of the Nepal problem can be tied back to different interpretations of the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 which demarcates the origin of the Mahakali river as the natural boundary. The countries differ on the point of origin. We have inherited borders drawn by British colonial powers. India is anxious to cement them in areas such as the western front, and contest them at other fronts. 

India also shares a 3488 km long border with China. It is one of the longest disputed borders in the world. The current standoff at Galwan Valley deals, among other things, in occupying land that the two nations perceive to be theirs. It is a game of perceptions where ground reality matters little, simply because it would mean one side or the other giving up their claim. 

The three instances seen through this lens tell us one thing– there is a connect between military confrontation, people’s stance and map-making. 

Nations can allow their maps to engulf more territories but never to shrink. Looking at India and its neighbours, redrawing the map must be seen in light of people’s opinion and diplomatic arcs. Bookings Fellow Constantino Xavier said in an interview to Scroll “India cannot afford to think of permanent friends anymore in its neighbourhood.”

In conjunction to this question of maps, we need to ask ourselves if we are taking a top-down view of the border. Does the map matter beyond the concerns of the state for border populations, especially in the case of an open border like India and Nepal? While the focus was on India, the conversation around borders and maps is larger. Questions of identity become important in dealing with refugee crises, in camps deliberately placed outside legal boundaries and in treating people as foreign, alien and different.

Many mechanisms are used to reinforce our citizenship. The map is one of them, it imprints a visual image in our mind of where we belong. This is why people in Nepal protest Indian encroachment, and Indians break TVs at a call to boycott Chinese products in the climate of the standoff. Maps show you the state as a natural, ideal entity. By placing troops, defiling natural features and building walls among others, the state seeks to fit this ideal.

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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