The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cartographers beware: India warns of $15 million fine for maps it doesn’t like

India's Border Security Force "Daredevils" perform as they carry a cut-out depicting a map of Indian territory during the 63rd Republic Day parade in 2012. (B Mathur/Reuters)

Let's start with a basic fact: India claims much more land than it controls.

Thus, any map of India and its neighbors makes an inherently political statement based on how it depicts their borders. The issue is particularly thorny because the border disputes are with India's great rivals: Pakistan and China.

On Thursday, a draft law reflecting India's sensitivity over maps was uploaded by the government online before being swiftly removed for reasons unknown. The draft law would define how India's international borders are drawn once and for all, and punish offenders with up to seven years in jail or fines ranging from $150,000 to $15 million. It would also require all individuals and companies producing maps in India, and all Indian citizens doing so globally, to procure a license from the government.

Pakistan and India both claim jurisdiction over the entirety of Jammu and Kashmir, an area that spans fertile plains, lush foothills, towering Himalayan mountains and the alpine barrens of the Tibetan Plateau. It is also the theater of India and Pakistan's defining conflict, which has led to three wars and once brought the subcontinent surprisingly close to the verge of mutual nuclear annihilation. Both nations occupy parts of Kashmir and station hundreds of thousands of troops there, mostly along the incredibly tense Line of Control (LoC) that serves as the de facto border.

China also claims — and controls — a sizable chunk of (what was once) Kashmir known as Aksai Chin, which it subsumed after handily defeating India in a 1962 war. The border there is slightly more definitive, which is reflected in the name India uses for it: the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China also claims almost all of another Indian state called Arunachal Pradesh, which stretches between Bhutan and Myanmar. China refers to it as "South Tibet." India administers the state, and Chinese incursions are very rare.

The map that India wants the world to see, of course, bestows it all these disputed regions. If it actually becomes law, it would certainly complicate the operations of technology companies that rely on maps, such as Google and Uber. Already, Google shows different borders to users in different countries. From the United States, India's disputed borders are shown on the website as dotted lines.

The draft law is in line with the nationalist agenda of India's two-year-old government led by Narendra Modi. His government's supporters have brought what they see to be numerous map-based transgressions to the fore through social media. A year ago, Al Jazeera was forced to stop broadcasting in the country for five days after the surveyor general announced that "a portion of Indian territory has not been shown as a part of India in some of [Al Jazeera's] maps while the territorial boundary of India is not shown with clarity and proper shape in another map."

Soon after that, Chinese state television showed a map of India without Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh while Modi himself was visiting Beijing.

Even Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive officer, inadvertently stepped into the middle of this when a post of his documenting his company's spread around the world included a map of India apparently without any of Kashmir. In 2011, customs officials ordered that 28,000 copies of the Economist magazine have stickers manually applied to maps of India that "corrected" its borders, despite cries of media censorship.

Shoaib Daniyal, a journalist working for the Indian website, wrote a column on Friday that calls out the Indian government for the hypocrisy the draft law might entail should it come into effect. Modi spent decades working for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, Hindu nationalist volunteer organization that is the ideological parent of his political party, and a major influence on national politics. In the RSS headquarters, there is a map on the wall. Depicted on that map is "Akhand Bharat," long a dream of the RSS and its acolytes, which translates roughly to "Undivided India." That version of India includes all of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and sometimes Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. It was the wish of Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, and who shouted "Long live Akhand Bharat" just before he was hanged.

Daniyal asks: "If incorrect depictions of India’s borders are a crime, will RSS be prosecuted for ‘Akhand Bharat?’ "