Politics of maps

I’m thinking of some sessions for next year’s AAG conference in Boston, perhaps on the politics of maps. There are so may ways to go on this topic however: historical, regional or some kind of cross-cutting theme.

A review in the New Yorker highlights this issue. Sixty years ago, India was partitioned:

Cyril Radcliffe, a London barrister, was flown to Delhi and given forty days to define precisely the strange political geography of an India flanked by an eastern and a western wing called Pakistan. He did not visit the villages, communities, rivers, or forests divided by the lines he drew on paper. Ill-informed about the relation between agricultural hinterlands and industrial centers, he made a mistake of enormous economic consequence when, dividing Bengal on religious lines, he deprived the Muslim majority in the eastern region of its major city, Calcutta, condemning East Pakistan—and, later, Bangladesh—to decades of rural backwardness.

It was in Punjab that Radcliffe’s mapmaking sparked the biggest conflagration. As Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs on either side of the new border suddenly found themselves reduced to a religious minority, the tensions of the preceding months exploded into the violence of ethnic cleansing. It seems extraordinary today that so few among the cabal of Indian leaders whom Mountbatten consulted anticipated that the drawing of borders and the crystallizing of national identities along religious lines would plunge millions into bewilderment, panic, and murderous rage. If the British were eager to divide and quit, their successors wanted to savor power. No one had prepared for a massive transfer of population. Even as armed militias roamed the countryside, looking for people to kidnap, rape, and kill, houses to loot, and trains to derail and burn, the only force capable of restoring order, the British Indian Army, was itself being divided along religious lines—Muslim soldiers to Pakistan, Hindus to India. Soon, many of the communalized soldiers would join their co-religionists in killing sprees, giving the violence of partition its genocidal cast. Radcliffe never returned to India. Just before his death, in 1977, he told a journalist, “I suspect they’d shoot me out of hand—both sides.”

This is what I’m talking about. To some extent this cartographic partitioning is both unusual and extremely consequential (similar events occurred after the two World Wars, in Yugoslavia, Palestine and now possibly Iraq). At such, this might be the “height” of the politics of maps. From being a reasonably varied country, people began to partition themselves:

The British policy of defining communities based on religious identity radically altered Indian self-perceptions, as von Tunzelmann points out: “Many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.”

Maps are a way of operationalizing these boxes or categories of thought. Putting into play the knowledges: this is what you might call the politics of maps.

Expressed on a continuum we will find a range of effects from local town planning to the geographical way we tell stories about ourselves. I don’t know if there’s interest in this from the larger community, I guess I’ll just have to see!

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