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Map fetish

Published : Jan 27, 2012 00:00 IST



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.

ICJ ruling

Rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) are clear on the intrinsic worth of maps. Cambodia won its case on the Preah Vihar temple because Thailand had by its conduct accepted a crucial map though in its inception and at the moment of its production, it had no binding character.

In the Frontier Dispute between Burkina Faso and Mali, the ICJ's ruling of December 22, 1986, lays down the law on maps:

Whether in frontier delimitations or in international territorial conflicts, maps merely constitute information which varies in accuracy from case to case; of themselves, and by virtue solely of their existence, they cannot constitute a territorial title, that is, a document endowed by international law with intrinsic legal force for the purpose of establishing territorial rights. Of course, in some cases maps may acquire such legal force, but where this is so the legal force does not arise solely from their intrinsic merits; it is because such maps fall into the category of physical expressions of the will of the State or States concerned. This is the case, for example, when maps are annexed to an official text of which they form an integral part. Except in this clearly defined case, maps are only extrinsic evidence of varying reliability or unreliability which may be used, along with other evidence of a circumstantial kind, to establish or reconstitute the real facts.

The actual weight to be attributed to maps as evidence depends on a range of considerations. Some of these relate to the technical reliability of the maps. This has considerably increased, owing particularly to the progress achieved by aerial and satellite photography since the 1950s. But the only result is a more faithful rendering of nature by the map, and an increasingly accurate match between the two information derived from human intervention, such as the names of places and of geographical features (the toponymy) and the depiction of frontiers and other political boundaries, does not thereby become more reliable. Of course, the reliability of the toponymic information has also increased, although to a lesser degree, owing to verification on the ground; but in the opinion of cartographers, errors are still common in the representation of frontiers, especially when these are shown in border areas to which access is difficult.

Other considerations which determine the weight of maps as evidence relate to the neutrality of their sources towards the dispute in question and the parties to that dispute. Since relatively distant times, judicial decisions have treated maps with a considerable degree of caution; less so in more recent decisions, at least as regards the technical reliability of maps. But even where the guarantees described above are present, maps can still have no greater legal value than that of corroborative evidence endorsing a conclusion at which a court has arrived by other means unconnected with the maps. In consequence, except when the maps are in the category of a physical expression of the will of the state, they cannot in themselves alone be treated as evidence of a frontier since in that event they would form an irrebuttable presumption, tantamount in fact to legal title.

On December 17, 2002, the court reaffirmed, in the case between Malaysia and Indonesia concerning the two islands of Ligitan and Sipadan, the ruling it had delivered earlier in 1986 in the landmark case on the frontier dispute between Burkina Faso and Mali. How on earth can maps published in periodicals, Indian or foreign, affect India or, for that matter, China's rights and interests. The map defining the India-Pakistan boundary in the Sir Creek supported Pakistan's case, while the text it illustrated supported India (Map 44). In his award in the Indo-Pakistan Western Boundary case dated February 19, 1968, the Chairman Judge Gunnar Lagergren referred to maps issued by the Survey of India. It was a dispute between two parts of Indian territory in British India and Kutch, a princely state. Most of India's claim was upheld. The opposition mounted protests.

Nath Pai, Member of Parliament from Ratnagiri, led a march in the region. Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau, then on a visit to India, remarked to this writer as we were driving up to Faridabad for a seminar, Your country must be the only one in the world which wins 90 per cent of its claim before a tribunal and calls it defeat.

Soviet maps of India

But the wrath is selective. Maps published in the Soviet Union, the Soviet Atlas Mira (World Atlas), depicted the McMahon Line as India's boundary, but the Aksai Chin was shown as Chinese territory. More, the line to the west of the Karakoram Pass was shown as described in the Sino-Pak Boundary agreement of March 2, 1963. This was the state of Soviet maps until as late as 1985. It had begun 30 years earlier. In 1955, the Soviet Embassy presented to President Rajendra Prasad a copy of the Soviet Atlas which did not conform to India's maps in depicting India's northern frontier. But it was not until August 1, 1960, that the Government of India revealed this and the diplomatic exchanges that had followed. Sadath Ali Khan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, said that the India-China boundary was delineated as on the Chinese maps; that is, including Aksai Chin, Nilaang-Jhadang and a great part of NEFA [North-East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh] in China.

The Government of India promptly took up the matter with the Soviet government, which promised to look into it. India sent an aide-memoir to which we, have not so far received any reply, he added. Reminders were sent in 1957, 1958 and 1959. In November 1960, the Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, in charge of the relevant division, spoke to the Counsellor of the Soviet Embassy about it.

The 1959 edition of Atlas Mira showed Sikkim as an independent state. Earlier, it had been shown as an Indian protectorate. Publicising the issue proved to be of no avail. It was raised in the Lok Sabha, once again, on April 1, 1965, because a Soviet Embassy publication, Soviet Land, carried a map which lopped off the entire Aksai Chin area from Indian territory. External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh said: The international boundary of India as shown in this map does not conform to the well-recognised international boundary as shown in Indian maps.

In May 1970 came the 30 volumes of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. A map published on page 280 of the volume, which covered India, depicted the entire Aksai Chin and NEFA as Chinese territory. There was no mistaking its importance. The preface acknowledged that the current third edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia is published in conformity with the decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The scientific programme of the encyclopaedia was defined by the decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Swaran Singh told the Lok Sabha on August 6, 1970: Notwithstanding their assurances that these erroneous maps would be corrected in later publications, we are disappointed that they have not carried out their assurances. I do not condone that. He added: The fact is that they have not published the map correctly even in a single publication. These things are not done in a haphazard manner. This is a representation of a particular position taken by them on an earlier occasion, and they continue to repeat it. He was alive to the fact that there are long-range implications. And that is why we are pressing them from time to time.

The Government of India took up the matter with greater vigour. On September 24, 1970, President V.V. Giri made a personal demarche to President Nikolai Podgorny. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister raised the question with their hosts during their visit to Moscow, as they revealed in New Delhi on October 27, 1970. They have already given an assurance to our President, Indira Gandhi said.

On November 8, the Soviet Ambassador informed New Delhi that his government was shortly going to publish a new map of India which will show the Sino-Indian border as an unsettled border. Swaran Singh broke the happy news to the Lok Sabha the very next day. A map published recently in the Soviet Encyclopaedia did, indeed, mark the border in dotted lines to indicate its disputed character. But the dotted lines ran according to the Chinese alignment. Swaran Singh counselled patience.

That is not the new map which they intend to issue, he said on November 18, 1970. The signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty on August 9, 1971, invested the map question with greater importance. Of what avail the mutual assurance of help in the event of either party being subjected to an attack or the promise by each to respect the territorial integrity of other party if the two differed on the alignment of India's frontier in a crucial sector? The day after the treaty was signed Swaran Singh assured Parliament: They told us that they would take steps to correct it.

Swaran Singh was a man who would have given Job (of biblical fame) a hard time in a contest of sheer patience. But on May 25, 1972, he admitted defeat: The continued existence of (wrong) maps does affect our interest.

It took them six years to make a correction and a partial one at that. The 1978 edition of Atlas Mira (at page 41) followed the McMahon Line. But the Aksai Chin and the areas west were shown as Chinese territory.

In a definitive statement on foreign maps, in the Lok Sabha on May 17, 1979, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Minister of External Affairs, noted that the atlas showed Kashmir as an integral part of India but the Aksai Chin area as a part of China. Not for the first time in diplomacy was the aid of cartography invoked to deliver a message.

Interestingly, during this entire period, our card-carrying patriots in the print media did not censure the Soviet Union. Ignorant television anchors came later on the scene to add fuel to the fires of chauvinism. Here this writer must utter a mea culpa. My assessment that the alignments in the Soviet maps were deliberate and were prompted by a desire not to close the option of a rapprochement with China was only partly true. If at all. For Soviet writers had no qualms then about encouraging the Tibetans' claim to independence. It was only in the course of research in the archives for my book India-China Boundary Problem, 1846-1947 (Oxford, 2011) that I found that all through the latter half of the 19th century and beyond, Russia had warned China against settling the boundary in the north and east of Kashmir. It had objected to British maps. Regimes change, but they do not erase the corporate memory of an ably staffed Foreign Service. Soviet leaders were torn between the claims of diplomacy and those of history.

But neither the babus nor the pack of chauvinists dare attack the United Nations. If they do, they will receive a riposte that will stun them We are only depicting the truth; wake up to the reality. The legend accompanying U.N. maps says, the final status of Jammu & Kashmir has not yet been determined. On February 25, 1955, Lakshmi Charan asked in the Lok Sabha: In view of the fact that the Kashmir Constituent Assembly has ratified the accession of the state to India, what will be the terms of discussion on Kashmir with the Pakistani Prime Minister? Jawaharlal Nehru replied: A question like this cannot be solved unilaterally.

However, on both Kashmir and the boundary dispute with China, he had not only bolted the door to settlement but whipped up public opinion. The hounds' appetite was whetted and their yelp has become bolder, shriller. Television readily lends its services to them, night after night.

The map lunacy is a symptom of a deeper malaise. We must ask ourselves in all honesty, are we going to settle those disputes on Kashmir and the boundary with China unilaterally or by a settlement with Pakistan and China? To be sure, no settlement is possible except by a compromise acceptable to both sides. And compromise entails concessions on both sides.

An irresponsible opposition and an ignorant as well as irresponsible media can be trusted to denounce any concessions not only on the idiot box but in columns in the pages of most mainstream dailies, especially ones constituted by retirees from the defence services and the foreign service.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 27, 2012.)



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