Cartography as a weapon


In struggles of sovereignty, cartography is a weapon. I first saw the truth in this statement in the work of Bernard Nietschmann, a professor of mine at Berkeley who partnered with indigenous groups in Nicaragua, Mexico, and Australia to map their traditional territories and fishing areas. These maps became critical tools in the groups’ struggles with local governments for indigenous control over resource rights.

I was recently reminded of Nietschmann’s work when a friend here in Mumbai reported that her copy of the most recent Economist was marked with a blue stamp painstakingly applied on a page containing a map of India. The stamp read: “The external boundries [sic] of India as depicted are neither correct nor authentic.” Much confusion ensued, but an explanation was soon found.

So even as the Information and Broadcasting Ministry plans to ease regulations on advertising in foreign print media, an archaic practice is delaying their distribution.Every edition which carries a map of India — particularly one depicting the Indo-Pak border — is delayed by at least two days. The reason: a special cell of the Customs department stamps each map in every single copy imported with the message: ‘The external boundaries of India as depicted are neither accurate nor authentic.’

In New Delhi, the process starts at the Indira Gandhi International terminal’s cargo shed. The Joint Commissioner, Cargo, heads a 40-member team with an Inspector and Superintendent who have been deputed the job of checking all printed material for anything that may be “inflammatory” or any representation of India in maps which is considered “incorrect”.

In case of any “offensive” representation, the clearing agent of the magazine’s publishing house in India is called to the Customs office. The consignment is opened, and each map in every single copy is then stamped.

The Indian Express article quotes the Economist as writing in a 2007 editorial:

Some readers in India seem to suspect us of malice: perhaps we publish such maps purely to irk the authorities and add to the overtime earnings of the hard-pressed stampers. The truth is more benign: in using “the line of control” that divides Kashmir in the absence of an agreed international frontier we are merely noting the status quo, not endorsing it.

Yet noting the cartographic status quo does grant it legitimacy in a way that obviously threatens the Indian government. In this particular struggle for sovereignty, cartography is a weapon that can be used by any group to articulate and advance their agenda. Indian maps show Kashmir as all Indian territory, Pakistani maps no doubt show the reverse. And despite the Economist’s stated benign intentions, do not mistake this seemingly innocuous statement (from the same article) as anything but a bold agenda of its own:

We use maps not to portray the world as it ought to be, or even as we would like it to be, but as it is.

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