Khushwant Singh described her lavishly, stickily, in a book where he pithily introduced India to Indians, complete with head, torso, groin and legs. “They visualise it as Mother India with her head in the snowy Himalayas, her arms stretched from the Punjab to Assam, her ample bosom and middle (the Indian concept of feminine beauty requires a woman to be big-breasted and heavy-hipped) resting on the Indo-Gangetic plain and the Deccan, and her feet bathed by the waters of the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka is like a lotus-petalled foot-stool.” In his words, after 1947, her extremities lopped off, she became more a Venus de Milo.
All of us have grown up with the map of India, as purveyed by the Survey of India, in our minds. But here’s the thing: the map Indians accept as India unquestioningly as true to life, nobody else accepts. Not a single country in the entire world, not our neighbours, from Pakistan to China to Nepal, Bangladesh, down to Sri Lanka. India as an entity mapped by the Survey of India hasn’t existed, not even for a day, minute nor moment, on the ground.
Yet it defines our imagination of where India lies. In reality, the idea of India that we carry around differs starkly from the ones that moulder in secret maps somewhere in the vaulted crypts of the boundary cell of the Survey of India in Dehradun. It begs a series of uncomfortable questions: when we lay our claim on the Line of Control with Pakistan, which map do we depend on? How is it and why is it that sometimes there is reluctance to accept our maps as authentic? Who published these maps? Have we formally handed over our claims on lands we perceive as our own so there is less ambiguity on what we claim? Except in Uttarakhand’s central sector, where have we done that? What prevents India from formally showing areas under adverse possession by China as ours in various bilateral and international fora? What prevents India from showing all of Aksai Chin under China’s control as India? Similarly with PoK. It can be argued successfully that in the last 25 years, China has surreptitiously grabbed more Indian territory than Pakistan, Kargil being their most egregious military misadventure. Whereas each confrontation with China all along our contested boundary has led to even less clarity on what our Line of Actual Control is.
Consider the flurry of grandiose but ultimately flatulent statements that our political leadership have been throwing around, without even a fig leaf of modest inhibition. “I want to make it very clear once again J&K is an integral and inseparable part of India. There is absolutely no doubt over it, and there is no legal dispute on this,” home minister Amit Shah said in the Lok Sabha on August 6, 2019. “When I say Jammu and Kashmir, it includes PoK. Both Indian and J&K Constitutions also say the state is an integral part of India and this gives us the right to form laws for the state, which includes PoK and Aksai Chin.”
“Just wait, soon people of PoK will demand they want to be with India and not under Pakistani rule… the day this happens, a goal of our Parliament will also be accomplished,” said defence minister Rajnath Singh in June, exhibiting a rich vein of wishful thinking. Then there is S. Jaishankar, till recently a bureaucrat, now a pivotal foreign policy neo-visionary: “Our position has, is and will always be very clear on PoK: it is part of India and we expect one day we will have physical jurisdiction over it.” This was last September.
Ten months later there is a refinement, and verbal staking out of a further forward position. “The era of great caution, and greater dependence on multilateralism, is behind us. We have to step out more. We have to be more confident, we have to articulate our interests better. We need to take risks. Without taking risks you can’t get ahead. Those are choices we have to make”. This is the same foreign minister who rushed to Beijing to smooth over ruffled feathers after Ladakh’s status was changed last August and the Chinese began to throw an enormous fit, the magnitude of which only now we can better appreciate.
Jaishankar was quoted as elegantly nuancing away the difference to the Chinese, explaining abrogation of Article 370 and change of Ladakh’s status “were aimed at promoting better governance and socio-economic development. There was no implication for either external boundaries or the Line of Actual Control with China.” How can New Delhi have administrative control on the levers of socio-economic development in all of Ladakh without territorial control? How does that square with what Amit Shah told the Lok Sabha? How does that square with the Parliament resolution 50 years ago that committed India to recover each and every inch of land ceded to China? Or did that commitment end with that Lok Sabha? Amit Shah roared “jaan dedenge iske liye” to emphasise his point. He doesn’t have to do that. Col. Santosh Babu and 19 others already did that in Galwan Valley alone. What policymakers have to do is put their money where their mouths are. Not their mouth where their feet are.
It’s not enough to weakly protest the start of a Kashgar-Gilgit bus service or an election in Gilgit-Baltistan as illegal. It’s not enough to encourage a captive media to run weather updates on Gilgit and Baltistan and comically claim Pakistan feels the heat of changed Indian policy where nothing seems to have changed. It’s not enough to hide behind a 1994 parliamentary resolution that largely puts the onus on Pakistan to vacate territories that it occupied. A push factor is needed. It is farcical to keep seats reserved in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly without doing anything meaningful to bring those areas into administrative control. Not to be outdone by their political bosses, both the Chief of Army Staff and the Chief of Defence Staff claim all that needs to be done is for the order to be given for the necessary military action. What are we waiting for? If the time of uncertainty and hesitation is past, at least show them the maps. Once the maps grab their eyeballs, the rest, since America seems to be the flavour of the season, as Theodore Roosevelt famously predicted, may follow.