SOME YEARS AGO, a friend in publishing swept into the BBC’s Bush House in London in a whirlwind of agitation. She caught sight of me in the lobby. “Andrew, thank God you are here. I am so worried – just how bad is it?” she asked. “It’s the map! I think we’ve got Kashmir wrong!”
In her hand she had, hot off the press and with the launch imminent, a copy of Imran Khan’s autobiography. She opened it on the page of maps in the preface and thrust it urgently into my face. “Someone says we’ve given Kashmir to India. Please tell me it isn’t so!”
A quick glance, and I had to confirm my friend’s foreboding. “It looks like this is the Indian version of how to map Kashmir”, I told her. “And in a book by a prominent Pakistani public figure, that’s probably not too good!”
“Oh Lord, oh Lord!” she responded, “what on earth shall we do!” And she hurried away in even more of a tizz, leaving me with that copy of the memoirs with the “rogue” map. I have it still. A collector’s item perhaps. That edition of the book was recalled, I believe, and the maps amended for those copies destined for sale in South Asia.
From time-to-time, colleagues inside the BBC – aware of my interest in Kashmir – would phone or message saying: “Can you spare a moment to give me some advice on a Kashmir map?” That advice was simple. Don’t. The perils of mapping Kashmir greatly outweigh the benefits. Somebody somewhere is likely to take exception. And if you manage to reflect the competing claims to Kashmir as well as the ground realities, you end up with a map which has such an assortment of bold lines, dotted lines and different shades that, for an international audience, it confuses rather than explains.
Al Jazeera has paid the price for mapping Kashmir. Its English network was forced to stop broadcasting in India for five days last year for showing maps which suggested that parts of Kashmir are with Pakistan and China. In the past, erring maps were over-stamped saying that the borders shown “are neither authentic nor correct”. A few years back, the Economist had to do a sticker cover-up. But the brief banning of Al Jazeera – “censorship”, the network complained – shows that sensitivities to the charting of disputed territories are becoming more acute.
India is now considering legislation which would, in essence, bring the prospect of large fines for anyone publishing or broadcasting unapproved maps. Unsurprisingly, that prompted a diplomatic spat with Pakistan. But it really is an Alice in Wonderland situation. For almost half-a-century, the quiet goal of Indian diplomacy has been to turn the Line of Control which, in effect, partitions Kashmir into an international border. In common parlance, it is the line that demarcates that part of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control from Indian Kashmir (yes, I know China has a stake in this too – but it’s not the core issue). But if you show the line as if a boundary, then you could – if the law passes – be fined up to 100 crores.
It shouldn’t be that way. Maps should be matters of reference, and just as you would never think of rerouting a river or moving a mountain because its presence is inconvenient, there’s no good reason why maps reflect political aspiration rather than reality.
India hasn’t had any authority over that part of Kashmir across the line of control for almost 70 years. Pakistan neither rules Jammu or Ladakh, nor indeed has anything more than a notional claim to those areas. So why insist that maps misrepresent what’s happening on the ground?
I remember on my first visit to Pakistan, calling in at a government office with a large map of the region on the wall. I was astonished. Not only Jammu and Kashmir, but Hyderabad and Junagadh as well, were shown as part of Pakistan. This really was wishful thinking; a map showing – to corrupt Jinnah’s famous comment about the territory allotted to Pakistan – a “moth-eaten” India.
That trip was quite a while back, and that wall map was even then a political relic. But both India and Pakistan have turned to maps to conjure up a geopolitical landscape that simply doesn’t exist, however much they might want it to.
Is that really what maps are for?
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