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A country’s map tends to get etched in the consciousness of its people. So, any reminder of how India’s de facto borders have shifted since Independence, as Mint’s Plain Facts section showed on Tuesday, could come as a surprise. The truth is that the outline of the country as we know it took quite some time to form, with princely states like Hyderabad and non-British colonies like Goa being annexed or amalgamated by and by. Then, there were some changes imposed by the vagaries of history (and hostility). Within a year of casting off Britain’s imperial yoke, for example, we lost two northern chunks of mountainous territory to Pakistan, which ceded the north-western part in the 1960s to China, with which our Line of Actual Control along the Himalayas has never been converted to a mutually-agreed border, despite diplomatic efforts. There have been a few other inductions, too, such as Sikkim’s in 1975. Also, a few minor handovers, like the Kabaw Valley that we gave to Myanmar as a friendly gesture in 1953 and Katchatheevu island awarded to Sri Lanka in 1974 under a maritime deal. Even a cursory awareness of these changes would make it clear that our map has never been hard cast. Sure, this may partly be because the nature of the terrain in some outlying areas, from high-altitude glaciers to marshy rivulets, has enforced a certain fluidity of borders. But, overall, the very mutability of our landmass should nudge us not to be fixated on a fixed map as a nation-state.

Yet, the world of realpolitik is never quite so simple. So long as nation-states remain the principal actors in global affairs, borders will not only remain relevant, they need to be defended from the incursive aims of aggressive countries. Borders are powerful markers of relations with neighbours, especially if a brute force on the other side sees their redefinition at its own whim as a way of asserting its dominance. While India has long had a dispute with China over the 3,500-odd-kilometre stretch that separates the two, and has fought a war with the latter in 1962, the loss of 20 Indian soldiers in a military scuffle this summer in Ladakh has served us a wake-up call on the need to pay our territorial integrity greater attention. Despite the government’s silence on the matter, there are signs that a significant patch of Indian land might still be under Chinese control. It is not clear if Beijing’s tactical “salami slicing" game of tiny incursions is aimed at gaining some sort of leverage over New Delhi in other geostrategic spheres, but we must insist on a reversion to the status quo ante, enhance border security, and foil whatever plans our adversary has.

What we also need is an officially-approved national map that is not stored somewhere in a cupboard to be unrolled from time to time for high-level scrutiny, but is available in digital form on the internet for anyone to click open and zoom in for the tiniest of details. As Google Maps has shown, satellites, drones and other modern tools now allow high-resolution cartography. The Survey of India does have an ongoing project to this end, but its map is expected only next year. Its accuracy parameters have been set to enable clear demarcations of property for land records, and it could serve other practical purposes such as aiding home delivery businesses. But that’s not the only reason the project should be speeded up. In this age of democratic transparency, we should all be in a position to go online and check the country’s borders for ourselves.

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