An assault on the map: why the dispute between India and China in Ladakh may continue to escalate
The logic of proud nationalism dictates that maps may become larger, but they certainly cannot be allowed to shrink. This requirement to defend the map at any cost is part of the essential character of the nation-state.
Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire
There are reports of fresh tensions between the Indian and Chinese militaries in Ladakh from around Pangong Tso. The situation there has smouldered since the bloody clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley area in June in which 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died in hand-to-hand fighting.
The Chinese, according to a report in The Hindu, are currently occupying around 1,000 sq km of territory in Ladakh that was not in their possession before this year. This is in addition to the whole of Aksai Chin, the barren high-altitude desert between Ladakh and Tibet that appears on Indian maps as a part of India, although it has never been in the physical occupation of any government of independent India. India on its part rules Arunachal Pradesh, which appears in Chinese maps as their territory. The latest reports indicate that Indian forces also pre-emptively occupied the heights on the southern banks of Pangong Tso in Ladakh, thus pushing into areas where they were not formerly present.
Differing maps present countries with a problem that is very difficult to solve. It is not politically feasible for any government to align maps to ground realities because that would be seen as giving away swathes of the country’s territory. Even though the territories in dispute may never actually have been ruled by either of the contending parties, national pride is involved. Historical realities are forgotten and clashes, possibly escalating into war, become a path that cannot be avoided.
The territorial dispute between India and China is over borderlands that are at the edges of both countries. They are over spaces that were largely blanks on the map until after 1800, and in some cases, even after 1900. The fight over them is actually a consequence of technologies of communication that have enabled state cores to expand their reaches to distant peripheries. The clash is fundamentally one caused by nation-states colonising what were formerly non-state spaces.
Take Aksai Chin, for example. The area was and is a forbidding desert that remained uninhabited and uninhabitable for most of the history. It ended up finding its way into the map of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir thanks to a junior civilian sub-assistant of the Survey of India named WH Johnson, whose cartographic exertions in 1865 made it Kashmiri territory. In 2003, writing (paywall) on this in the Economic and Political Weekly, Mohan Guruswamy noted that “Johnson’s survey is not without some controversy. To have completed the journey to Khotan, which lay well beyond the forbidding Kuen Lun range, and to return to Leh in the time he did, he would have had to be covering over 30 kms a day. Even if that frenetic pace were possible, it is doubtful any serious survey effort would have been possible”.
Regardless of the quality and veracity of Johnson’s surveying and map-making, the Maharaja of Kashmir was pleased to find his territory suddenly enlarged. Johnson resigned from his Survey of India job and was appointed governor of Ladakh by the Maharaja. The territory he had quite literally drawn into Jammu and Kashmir however remained unoccupied. A few years later, according to an article by AG Noorani, the British Viceroy of India, Lord Lansdowne, believing the territory to be of no value, and not wishing to leave a no-man’s land between their domains and China, suggested the Chinese should be encouraged to take it as a way of ensuring the Russians, then seen as the primary threat for British India, did not find a way in.
The status of Aksai Chin remained unclear even after India and China emerged as modern nation-states in their present avatars in 1947 and 1949 respectively. Praveen Swami, in a piece for Firstpost earlier this year, pointed out that “India’s 1950 map of its borders included no claim to Aksai Chin, recording the Ladakh frontier areas as ‘undefined’”. Ladakh sort of shaded into Tibet on that map; there was no line between them.
India and China today are now fighting over those very same “no-man’s lands” that neither of them had actually previously owned, or even particularly wanted.
The case of Arunachal Pradesh is similar. Much of the area in dispute appeared as blanks on the map until after 1900. The first surveys from the Indian side were done in the early 1900s by British expeditions that followed the course of one or the other of the Brahmaputra river’s formative tributaries, the Lohit, Dibang and Siang. There were no roads, the rivers were not navigable by boat, and the thick jungles were inhabited by tribes that were hostile to strangers, often greeting them with murderous physical attacks. There was of course no question of any existing administrative machinery, either Indian or Chinese, of any kind. No emperor in Delhi or Beijing, and no king in Tibet or Assam, had ever ruled those lands.
These areas, which had never belonged to anyone but the local tribes, gradually began to appear on Indian and Chinese maps as their own territories. They became an administrative territory called the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) under Indian rule, after being part of Assam immediately after Independence. Beijing first laid claim to NEFA, with the exception of Tirap, as well as parts of Ladakh, in a 1958 official map, according to Swami.
The maps then took on a life of their own. The nation-state deified them. For India, an expansive map even became a backdrop to the image of Bharat Mata – although the original painting of Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore in 1905 had no such cartographic character to it.
Neither India nor China can now allow changes to their maps. The logic of proud nationalism dictates that maps may become larger, but they certainly cannot be allowed to shrink. This requirement to defend the map at any cost is part of the essential character of the nation-state. Flag-waving populism and majoritarianism only make it more obvious.
Majoritarianism is part and parcel of the nation-state, which by definition belongs to a certain group, explicitly in many cases, but implicitly in others. We know that England belongs to the English and Spain to the Spaniards, China to the Han Chinese and Japan to the Japanese, Pakistan to Muslims and Israel to Jews. However, all countries tend to have internal diversity, because that is simply how the human world is. The degree of diversity varies, but there is diversity everywhere. The internally diverse population of the country is united under the majority in the nation-state by the imagery of map and flag, the emotional tune of the national anthem, and the social contract of the Constitution. Without these bindings, the centre cannot hold.
Any assault on its map, flag, anthem or Constitution is thus an existential issue for the nation-state.
This is why the escalating dispute between India and China in Ladakh may continue to escalate. The territory in question may be a sliver of land in a high-altitude cold desert far away from the national heartlands, inhabited by populations very different from the respective dominant majorities on either side… but if in our perception it is ours, and in their perception it is theirs, both sides are now bound to defend their maps, as they were in the past.
Having embarked upon a path of confrontation, it will be extremely difficult for India and China to back down from their positions and claims.
— Featured image via Press Trust of India
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