Maps, a famous British historian is supposed to have quipped, are designed to make men mad. The remark was made in the context of the shifting boundaries during the partition of Africa by the imperialist powers. But the statement has an almost universal ring to it and has a deep resonance in India. India, since the time of the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, and over the McMahon Line with China, has been unusually prickly about its borders and their representations on maps. Books, magazines and journals have often been proscribed because their version of India’s borders did not represent India’s position on official maps drawn by the Survey of India. To this has now been added a new dimension, because of which maps prepared in India for civilian use might become completely useless. The Survey of India is under pressure from the ministry of defence to do away with contour-lines and the highlighting of intersections between latitudes and longitudes. These, according to paranoid defence ministry officials, are a danger to India’s security. According to the defenders of national security, missile technology uses contour-lines and hence, revealing the latter endangers security. Cartography and national security seem to be at loggerheads.
The words “seems to be” in the previous sentence are used advisedly. There is actually no conflict, since the arguments of the defence ministry have no substance and are illogical in the extreme. The deletion of contour-lines makes no sense, given advances in technology. Contour-lines on maps, to use a colloquialism, show the lie of the land. The lie of the land and other geographical details are now easily discerned and tracked through remote-sensing satellite images. Similarly, the grids that latitudes and longitudes provide can be worked out with a little bit of mathematics, from any available point. Their absence on Indian maps will not hinder anybody from finding out the geographical location of any place or site. Thus the deletion of contour-lines and intersection-points between longitudes and latitudes will not stop anyone who wants to threaten India’s security and has the necessary resources and technology to do so. The ministry of defence is only making life difficult for ordinary people who use maps for travelling and trekking, and more important, for students who use maps to study geography. The ministry would be well advised to map its own work and to chart its own responsibilities instead of making a mockery of cartography. The geography of India is not amenable to censorship.