The proposed government law on maps is yet another example of how Indians tend to accept symbolism as a substitute for reality. In this, the Modi government has proved to be no different from its predecessors. When confronted with a terrorist attack in Pathankot, it fought a mighty diplomatic battle in a UN committee and with China - instead of frontally dealing with the problem.
Now, unable to resolve border disputes through negotiation and compromise, it has decided to solve the problem by passing a law which will prevent Indians from knowing that their borders are not recognised, as we would like to have them, by most countries in the world.
No matter what the Home Ministry (MHA) says about regulating geospatial information, it is actually the government’s long-standing neuroses over how India’s borders must be depicted that motivates the new law.
Indian geospatial policy is a mess, with competing platform and services, and over-ridden by 19th century security concerns.
In an era when the latitude and longitude of every point can be measured by the satellite-based GPS, India hesitates in giving digital map access to public. The MHA will argue that the main aim of the Bill is to set things right and create a regulated use of India’s geospatial information.
But the ambition of the Bill is stupefying - all maps and changes to them will have to be vetted by the government. Companies that rely on geospatial services, whether or not they operate in India, will have to get a licence “to disseminate, publish or distribute any geospatial information of India outside India”, from the to-be-established Security Vetting Authority.
The real motive of the Bill emerges from its drastic penalties for the display of information that is likely to affect the “security, sovereignty or integrity” of the country.
But since when does a line on a map affect anything? Recall, the Mumbai attackers found their way to their targets in 2008 using commercially-available GPS devices purchased abroad.
As of now, the rules are an irritant; magazines like The Economist are forced to black-out maps showing the Indian borders as they really are. But with the new law, instead of digitally connecting with the world, India may isolate itself from it. It is not the data which is a threat, but the people who misuse it. Surely, the MHA needs to focus on those people, organisations and entities and not create a regime in which a food delivery service is penalised because the maps they use have India’s boundaries in a particular way.
Forcing people to accept the official boundary has an old history in India. In 1948, a year after independence and in 1950, the government of the day issued a White Paper to define what “India” was all about from its component states upward and beginning with the advent of the British into India and detailing every aspect of the new successor entities including the privy purses given to the erstwhile rulers of princely states.
Attached to it was a map, presumably authoritative, which showed India’s boundaries with China. In the north, from the Afghan to Nepal, the map was marked “border undefined” along the area that India believed was its border. In the east, the boundary including Arunachal Pradesh to India was clearly laid out, though the notation said “border undemarcated”. And of course, Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal were shown as entities outside India.
In 1954, Pandit Nehru’s border policy began to come apart so he decided that India would unilaterally stake out its border. All old maps, including the ones attached to the White Papers, were seized, and new maps were issued showing the borders as we see them now.
But, of course, this did not convince the Chinese or anyone else that the borders India had unilaterally drawn up were sacrosanct. They maintained their pressure and seized even more territory in Aksai Chin - though fortunately for us, they captured and returned Arunachal Pradesh.
The border now is defined by a notional Line of Actual Control. No country in the world accepts the version of the border that India depicts on its maps, especially in Jammu & Kashmir. They believe that the final Sino-Indian and India-Pakistan border in Kashmir must be worked out through negotiation.
In these circumstances, the new geospatial law could create endless problems for India and Indians. It could lead popular services like Google and Facebook to exit India, and deter others who want to offer geospatial services in the country.
Though, ironically, geolocation technologies can ensure that when you open Google Maps in India, it shows the boundaries the way Indians want it; when you open the site elsewhere, it shows the real picture.
Hopefully, the Ministry of Home Affairs has made a realistic assessment of India’s clout before going on to tilt the global geospatial windmills. But first, it should ask itself whether symbolic sleight-of-hand will give us the borders we want.
Mail Today May 8, 2016