Why does it matter where lines are drawn on a map? Is it just a question of being correct? Why do we feel upset when lines are drawn incorrectly on a map? Explore!

In May 2010, my friend Girish alerted me to an ad on CitiBank’s website. On this page, CitiBank  and AirAsia (both multinational corporations), offered a special travel package deal for their customers. Customers could click on the map of one of several countries to book tickets from those countries and for information.

Girish pointed out the error in the map of India. This is what it looked like:

Notice that Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) is missing. Further, the tilt of the map almost hides this error. This is glaring because none of the other countries’ maps are similarly tilted.

The CitiBank/AirAsia map as it was.

Why should Girish have cared? Or, for that matter, why should anyone in India have cared?

There are several reasons.

After India was partitioned in 1947 to form India and Pakistan (at the time West Pakistan and East Pakistan, the latter became Bangladesh in 1971), the position of J&K became a point of contention between the two countries. Each claimed the region as its own territory. This contention is still unresolved not only between the two countries, but within the union of India because J&K has been accorded special status by the Government of India.

India and Pakistan have fought several wars, the most recent one being the Kargill war in the late 1990s.

The claims over territory are represented in each country’s maps. Maps produced by a country’s government (the Survey of India is the authority for this in India) reflect the official position of that country. Because of these competing claims over J&K, maps show J&K differently depending on which country produces it.

How do countries determine boundaries? This is a very complex processes that involves geography, history, culture, politics, economics, etc.

Internationally, there are several steps that are recognized: allocation (definition of sovereignty over an area of land and its people), delimitation (marking the line that divides any two countries on a map using geographical coordinates), demarcation (building a wall, fence, etc. on the ground), and administration (now called ‘border management’, includes the enforcement of rules and regulations such as customs taxes, entry, exit, etc.). Here is a very interesting document you can read about borders, boundaries, etc.

These are then made part of a bilateral (i.e., between two countries) treaty to which both countries agree. Once this agreement is reached, both countries will depict the border lines in the same way on all their maps. If there is no agreement, the lines will be in different places on the map and on the ground – this has happened between India and Pakistan, and between India and China (in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and part of J&K). These disagreements have led to tensions, even ‘skirmishes’ and wars between the concerned countries.

Therefore, each country’s own depiction of its boundaries on their maps and the borders on the ground are considered official in that country. Usually, it is illegal to show the boundaries any differently. Therefore, in India, it is illegal to show any boundary in any way other than the official boundary as defined by the Government of India. The Survey of India is the appropriate authority that publishes the official boundary lines of the country. The criminal law amendments of 1961 and 1990, provide punishment for showing boundaries that are different from the Government of India’s official publications.

Similar laws perhaps exist in all countries for their own boundaries, including China and Pakistan, where our maps would be considered illegal and punishable under their laws.

Example of an illegal map of India

Another wrong and illegal map of India found on Wikipedia

The Commwealth Games site was caught with this map(below) on its website, on 26 January 2010. Embarrassed officials quickly replaced it.

Commonwealth Games Federation's wrong map.

Commonwealth Games Federation's wrong map.

There have been cases of websites and newspapers, and an airline company being fined or otherwise  taken to task for wrong depiction of India’s national boundaries. Here is another report on this.

Why is ‘wrong’ depiction an issue? A country is not just a state, i.e., it is not just an area of land. People have both emotional and practical attachments to the land they live in. Some call this “nationalism.” Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan, a famous geographer, has used the term ‘geo-piety’ (meaning attachment for places).

Geo-piety is part of people’s belonging to a nation (a nation is the idea that a group of people belong to a particular area of land and share common cultural values). Anything that people see as threatening that idea, they object to. This is a part of their fundamental right. From all these, it is understandable why my friend Girish objected to the map that I mentioned earlier.

After several of us joined him and wrote to the concerned person at CitiBank, the bank responded with an apology and replaced the map with this one (seen on 25 January 2011):

Corrected India map on CitiBank site

Corrected India map on CitiBank site

In the rapidly growing online world, the very concept of “boundary” becomes very difficult to grasp and even more difficult to enforce. This is only one of many instances where technology unsettles geography.

UPDATE 30 November 2011:Here is a correct map of India.  More of these downloadable maps will be posted in the georesources page soon.

Correct map of India. (Downloadable)

If you live in India,

  1. Whenever you come across a map of India showing wrong boundaries, be aware. If you can, bring the error to the attention of the author/administrator of the website.
  2. Always check to see that the world country maps and India maps you use at your school or organization always reflect the correct boundaries.

[A version of this blog was published in the “Young World” supplement of The Hindu, on 25 January 2011]

  • What are your thoughts on this post?
  • Would you like to have more information like this presented at your school?
  • Do you have any other geography topics you would like to learn more about?
  • Give us your feedback (use the comment box below).


2 Responses

  1. All the issues of the Indian map,
    Came straight to our lap,

    We understand, lines are not just lines,
    Or it is not also just signs,

    It is indeed our own picture,
    We just can’t tolerate with a suture.


  2. […] Yet it is precisely these kinds of difficulties that, according to Lucas, make studies of political warfare so potentially fruitful. In common with other students of Cold War history, Lucas argues that a scholarly division currently exists. On the one hand are those works which stress the conflict’s diplomatic, economic, military and political dimensions, typically privileging the state and emphasizing questions of geopolitics and national security (which he sees as the dominant complex of ‘diplomatic’ approaches). On the other are those studies which focus on such things as ethnicity, race, gender and the media in relation to the Cold War, works which for some critics attend less to agency or causation than context and discourse (in his view a marginalized, ‘cultural’ set of approaches developed in more recent years). By focusing on the ways in which during the 1940s and 1950s a public–private alliance came into being, motivated Nice related topic here: http://tiigs.org/new/blog/2011/01/when-a-line-is-more-than-a-line/ […]

Share your thoughts