Maps and borders

Updated 07 Aug 2020


The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

THE announcement by the prime minster earlier this week of a ‘new political map’ of the country in which India-occupied Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are depicted as part of Pakistan is, on the surface, much ado about nothing. Designed to coincide with the first anniversary of the Modi regime’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special constitutional status, it reasserts Pakistani officialdom’s age-old position on the disputed region. But PR exercises are very rarely just that.

The redrawing of maps and simulating of borders has been one of the pillars of modern statecraft. For much of the history of settled society, nation states laying claim to demarcated territories did not exist, nor was every inch of land navigable on universally accepted maps. Ancient and mediaeval empires certainly claimed large swathes of territory but borders were constantly disputed, rumour and propaganda as important as actual physical conquest in the struggle to control them.

The fledgling nation state in early modern Europe emerged through centuries of conflict between rival kingdoms and their bourgeois successors. It was not until 1871, for instance, that Germany started to approximate the form that it takes on a map today. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, European colonial powers were busy dividing up the world, as much through the manipulation of maps as through physical conquest. Most notably, French, German, Belgian, English, Italian, Portuguese and other European diplomats sat around a table at the Berlin Conference in 1895 and literally drew straight lines on a map of Africa, divvying up territories with reckless abandon.

The impact of colonial diktats in India was no less acute. It is still remarkable to consider the role of individuals like Cyril Radcliffe in determining the boundaries of the new states of India and Pakistan at Partition in 1947. The so-called Radcliffe commission was a high-powered cabal of men engaged in a politically explosive exercise of map-making; they simply divided up hundreds of thousands of miles of territory, determining the fate of hundreds of millions occupying those lands with little care of consequence.

Partition left many border people in the lurch.

In the event, the Partition exercise left many ‘border’ peoples in the lurch, which is where they remain today. The fate of Kashmiris as well as the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh rests in the hands of at least three states: India, Pakistan and China. Pakhtuns remain divided across the Durand Line, Baloch peoples are today split up into at least three different territorial states, and others also divided across formal borders.

There are more examples of entire nations that fell prey to the cynical wrangling of colonial states and their successors. Stateless peoples like the Kurds, Palestinians and Rohingya stand out, but there is hardly any region in which the politics of maps and borders has not generated subjugation for some, even as it secures power and riches for others.

The resurgence of xenophobic forms of nationalism all over does not augur well for long-suffering peoples. Demagogues like Modi claim to resurrect an ‘authentic’ Indian culture freed from the contaminating influences of ‘foreign invaders’. In fact, they sanctify the exclusionary nation state form that has existed since the late colonial period, brutalising Muslims, Dalits, indigenous Adivasi populations and many more segments of Indian society that can trace their lineage back as far as any ‘pure’ Indian.

In short, the drawing and redrawing of maps and the simulation of borders is an inherently political act that always draws on a statist interpretation of history. Both in the subcontinent and beyond, many ethnic and religious groups are sacrificed at the altar of ‘territorial sovereignty’; the question is whether meaningful countervailing power can be fom­ented to forge a peaceful, egalitarian future for such peoples.

Calling for an end to the IHK siege also brings into focus abominations in our own backyard. Meanwhile, the refrain for the ‘international community’ to play its role in addressing the plight of Kashmiris is neither here nor there. There is no underlying principle of justice of fair play operative in the conduct of global affairs any more than there is within the borders of nation states.

The imaginary of freedom for all peoples, especially long brutalised ones, is worth hanging on to. But such an imaginary can only become reality if we acknowledge the real history of the modern nation state and the international system we take as a given today. Modern state-making, as the political sociologist Charles Tilly asserted, was inextricably tied to the process of war-making. To transcend state-sponsored exclusions of caste, creed and colour — or, for that matter gender and class — means removing the tinted statist glasses through which we see life, and creating an entirely new map for our putatively shared world.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2020