City Wrap Specials: The map is not the territory

The government issuing the Geospatial Bill is part of the modernist enterprise to tell a unified and uncontested story of the Indian nation-state


A file photo of a visitor looking at paintings by Belgian artist Rene Magritte, behind an installation of a giant smoking pipe, a symbol of Magritte’s art, at the Krasnoyarsk Museum Centre in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of a visitor looking at paintings by Belgian artist Rene Magritte, behind an installation of a giant smoking pipe, a symbol of Magritte’s art, at the Krasnoyarsk Museum Centre in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Photo: Reuters

The Mint Cities Wrap is a curation of the most compelling stories emerging from our cities today. While the focus is on urban centres, the Mint Cities Wrap engages with wider geographies in the effort to connect stories with each other across places and borders.

What would Magritte say?

The painter René Magritte would have laughed out loud at the draft ‘Geospatial Information Regulation Bill’. All the government’s cartographers would prepare to take offence at the temerity of an artist’s laughter, a Belgian Surrealist no less. Then Magritte would point to his famous painting of a pipe and say , “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe.) Like a cartographer, Magritte was concerned with the complex relations that underlie what we see, what we represent, and what we know. The painting of the pipe sought to tell us that what was in the frame is not a pipe, it is an image of the pipe as seen by a certain set of people at a particular moment in history.

In short, the representation of the thing is not the thing itself.

And the map is not the territory.

Depicting a nation-state

The draft Bill intends to regulate the geospatial data and imagery of India. A newly created entity called the Security Vetting Authority will oversee and permit the acquisition and dissemination of geospatial information. Moreover, the Authority’s jurisdiction extends to parties outside India using geospatial data of India. The “wrong depiction ” of India could result in a fine ranging from Rs.10 lakh to Rs.100 crore, and/or imprisonment for up to seven years. This would mean that the contested regions of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh would be represented as resolved ground—Indian territory.

Despite what detractors might say about the Bill, it has to be appreciated that it is any state’s key interest to protect its boundaries, whether real, imagined or demanded. It has a keen stake in controlling the representation of itself. The government issuing such a Bill is part of the modernist enterprise to tell a unified and uncontested story of the Indian nation-state.

But do we defend Quixote?

No, we laugh at Don Quixote, who is Miguel de Cervantes’s most influential creation . We use Quixote as a metonym for the impractically lofty and ludicrous. Quixote came across his exhausted horse and saw a majestic stallion fit for a knight, and named it ‘Rocinante’. He encounters an ordinary farm girl and sees a dame of unparalleled beauty and rank. He names her ‘Dulcinea del Toboso’, preparing to fight and die for her, all while she is unaware of this. He comes upon windmills and sees ferocious giants. We see a map, and see territory, identity, claims, the “us” and the “them”. And forget about that quixotic gap between imagination and reality.

In the book Ways of Seeing, John Berger argued that there is always something unsettled between what is seen and what is understood. So it is important to understand that cartography is not just a powerful political exercise, it is also an imaginative exercise.

A map, as we know, is an abstraction of how we visualize space. This gaze is by no means neutral, bearing the onus of pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. Early European maps of the Americas depicted cannibalism without any proof of the activity, because it symbolized a reading of the people in the New World. The history of map-making abounds in imaginative leaps and poetic licence , at times to stake a claim, other times to reclaim it.

For this ‘Security Vetting Authority’, the marshy ground now would be the actual regulation of the use of maps from a plethora of service providers, as well as the claims of identity emerging from such maps. The contestation in politically fraught territories doesn’t show up on sanitized maps, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The map is not the truth of the territory, it is, at best, something like it.

To conclude

No City Wrap is complete without a poem, so here are a few lines from Alexander McCall Smith, who has a few things to say about maps.

Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines

Reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear

On the location of Australia, and the Outer Hebrides;

More precious, though,

Are the unpublished maps we make ourselves,

Of our city, our place, our daily world, our life;

Those maps of our private world

We use every day; here I was happy, in that place

I left my coat behind after a party,

That is where I met my love; I cried there once,

I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner

Once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth,

Things of that sort, our personal memories,

That make the private tapestry of our lives.”