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Collusion between nationalist fantasy and official cartography fuels conflict across South Asia

Imran Khan isn’t the first Pakistani leader to nurse fantasies: the Pakistani military commanders who commanded the war of 1947-1948 in Kashmir used the code-name “General Tariq”, invoking the commander of the Ummayid conquest of Gibraltar, while the wars of 1965 and 1971 were suffused with imagery drawn from medieval conquests in India.

August 09, 2020 / 07:51 AM IST
File image

File image

Long, long ago, in a country far, far away, there was a King who lived in his palace with hundreds of dogs, each given its own room, and cared for by a servant who adorned them with silks and gold. The marriage of the King’s favourites, Roshanara and Bobby, involved a ritual nikah, a decorated four-horse carriage procession, fireworks, and performances by nautch girls. Frédéric Chopin’s Funeral March — written, his lover George Sands claimed, to mourn the passing of her dog Maquis — would be played when a dog died, as they were buried with state honours.

Last week, this magic-realist kingdom, documented in Ann Morrow’s cracking read Highness, was resurrected in Pakistan’s nationalist imagination, after Islamabad issued a map laying claim to the territories of Mahabat Khan Babi III in India’s Gujarat, along with pre-independence Jammu and Kashmir. For all the nationalist fervour Prime Minister Imran Khan’s map has whipped up, though, there’s one strange fact: this isn’t a new map. Pakistan has always laid claim to all of Kashmir, and Junagarh. (Below: maps from Atlas of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 2012)

Map 1

Map 2

There’s a bigger story here: Nation-states are, among other things, acts of imagination. Fantasies have fed cartographic efforts in all South Asian nation-states, a process that tells us something important, the anxieties that underpin the nationalisms that birthed them.


Through much of the summer of 1947, as the fate of his kingdom — and dogs — hung in the balance, Mahbub Khan III had been on vacation in Europe. He returned home just before August 15, and decided to join Pakistan— ignoring the wishes of his mainly Hindu subjects and the imperatives of geography, as the terms of Indian independence entitled him to do. British paramountcy was lapsing, the argument went, leaving the rulers of the so-called Princely states free to join India, Pakistan or independence.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding patriarch, had promised that he would not allow Junagarh to be “starved out or tyrannised”— but this was a promise considerably more easy to make than keep.

Faced with the prospect of a Pakistani enclave deep inside India, and the prospect of communal violence breaking out in the region, New Delhi responded by choking the kingdom’s supplies, and threatening the use of force. Babriawad and Mangrol, among the complex, interlocked feudal possessions of Junagarh, rebelled and acceded to India. Insurrection broke out against Mahbub Khan III’s rule inside Junagarh itself.

Even as Shah Nawaz Bhutto—Mahub Khan III’s prime minister, and Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s father—implored Pakistan to place “aeroplanes at our disposal and also an armed force”—it became clear nothing of the kind would happen. Bhutto handed India control of Junagarh, and left.

New Delhi still had the problem, though, of how to legitimise its rule of Junagarh—which had, after all, legally acceded to Pakistan. In February, 1948, ninety-five percent of the kingdom’s 200,000 registered voters participated in a referendum; a less-than-overwhelming 91 picked Pakistan.

That referendum is at the heart of Prime Minister Khan’s decision to reissue a map staking claim to the kingdom: if a referendum could be held to settle the fate of a Hindu-majority kingdom which joined Pakistan, why not one for Muslim-majority Kashmir, which joined India? There are many good responses to that question — key among them, as scholar C Christine Fair has pointed out, that Islamabad has not honoured the United Nations resolutions which sought to enable one—but that’s not the issue here.

Living in Karachi until his death in 1951, the Maharaja was set up as a living emblem of Pakistan’s ambitions: his expansive fleet of cars, by treaty, bore special, red licence-plate emblazoned only with the word ‘Junagarh’.

In the years after the 1971 war, though, the claim to Junagarh seemed to slowly disappear from Pakistan’s official consciousness — the consequence of defeat in all three wars it launched to capture Kashmir.  Indeed, in the Atlas of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 2012, geographer Martin Lewis has noted, Junagarh appeared in separate maps both as a part of Pakistan and as a separate, independent country.

Through reasserting Pakistan’s territorial claims, Prime Minister Khan seeks to cast himself as the leader of Pakistan not as it is, but as it ought to be, a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia. Like ideologue Chaudhary Rahmat Ali's map of Pakistan, the one Prime Minister Khan has is driven by ideology, not the tawdry realities of geopolitics.

(Below: Chaudhary Rahmat Ali’s map of Pakistan, c. 1940)

Map 3

Expansive claims are not, of course, a uniquely Pakistani preoccupation. Sri Lanka fought bitterly with India until 1976—when good sense prevailed in New Delhi—over its claims to Katchatheevu, 285 acres of uninhabited volcanic island in the Indian ocean that neither country had any real use for. Nepal has become increasingly assertive over its claims to Kalapani, occupied since 1962 by Indian border guards, and never meaningfully administered by either country. Bangladesh and Myanmar even had a naval stand-off in 2008, over energy-rich maritime territory.

New Delhi’s claims to Aksai Chin and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, similarly, reflect nationalist ambition and sentiment, not hard-nosed reality: No government since 1971 has shown any actual intent to retake these territories, public pronouncements notwithstanding.

Map 4 -new

India’s map-making process on its eastern borders illustrates, however, cartographic processes can become embedded inside popular consciousness, fuelling myth-making which makes sensible decision-making difficult. Few Indians, for example, know that India’s first official map, issued in 1950, included no claim to Aksai Chin, recording its Ladakh frontier with China as “undefined”. New Delhi didn’t even come to know China had begun building a road through Aksai Chin in 1951, for the good reasons that there were no Indian officials there.

Prime Minister Nehru, advised that asserting Imperial British claims to the borders with China were necessary to strengthen India’s case that it had sovereignty over all of Kashmir, later pushed the borders eastwards—the first step along the long road to war in 1962.

Beijing’s claims were, similarly, built whole out of thin air. In 1958, an official map first asserted claims over the whole of what was then India’s North-East Frontier Agency, with the exception of Tirap, as well as parts of Ladakh. Prime Minister Zhou En-lai responded to Indian protests by claiming that the maps were based on old Kuomintang cartography—adding that China hadn’t surveyed its boundaries, nor consulted with other countries on the issue.

For the most part, what we now think of as historical borders were the outcome of imperial Qing and British expansionism, Bérénice Guyot-Réchard’s path-breaking scholarship teaches us, as the two empires struggled to assert power over populations which had no sense of being either Chinese or Indian.

In many cases, cartographic imagination is shaped by geopolitical need. Indian media reports, for example, sought to contest China’s claims to the Galwan valley by asserting that it was discovered by the Ladakhi adventurer Ghulam Rasool Galwan. The claim was first made by the great chronicler of the Himalaya, Harish Kapdia, who attributed it to the nineteenth century adventurers Fanny Bullock and  Willan Bullock.

There is no reference in the couple’s book, though, to Galwan—nor a claim of discovery made in Galwan’s 1923 autobiography, Servant of Sahibs, or Francis Younghusband’s record of the expedition during which he travelled to the region.

The word Galwan—which translates as ‘thief’, and is used in early twentieth century ethnography to describe a caste of pony-thieves—could simply have been used to denote the use of the valley. Galwan’s autobiography, interestingly, describes a rich array of criminals, tribal chieftains and traders traversing the inner Himalayas—but no semblance of effective control by any colonial government.

Little imagination is needed to understand why such tenuous claims to territory are so important in South Asia’s political culture: In regions where feudalism still influences social and cultural mores, the having of land, and the seizing of it, are critical signifiers of authority. Territory is important not as a space in which nation-states govern — or even as a resource— but as a signifier of the prestige and authority of leaders.

This should not surprise us: The modern European nation-state, as the scholar Charles Tilly taught us, was birthed by endless conflict between warlords, followed by nationalist expansionism which, among other things, resulted two world wars. Millions died before Europe understood the value of negotiation and compromise.

Europe’s bloody follies, though, are pitfalls to be avoided—not models to be emulated—as South Asia’s desperately-poor nation states struggle to drag their enormous populations towards economic security. There’s a thin line between nationalist fantasy and official cartography, and crossing it can have real costs.

Imran Khan isn’t the first Pakistani leader to nurse fantasies: the Pakistani military commanders who commanded the war of 1947-1948 in Kashmir used the code-name “General Tariq”, invoking the commander of the Ummayid conquest of Gibraltar, while the wars of 1965 and 1971 were suffused with imagery drawn from medieval conquests in India.

The outcomes should make clear to him— and other nationalists across the region — something no one over four years old should fail to understand: imagining things to be true doesn’t make them true.
Praveen Swami
first published: Aug 8, 2020 07:57 am

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