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Monday, 5 November 2012

The Map, and the Territory! - by Shantiveer Kaul

Once upon a time, there was a man. A man in a state of intellectual ennui in turbulent times. His name was Henry Mortimer Durand. One morning he picked up the map of the parcel of terra firma that some imperial Surveyor General had surveyed and drawn some other time and he was now inhabiting. Lazily he drew a line on the map with the pencil he was using to solve the Times crossword puzzle of six months ago. End of story? No! Beginning of several stories, the least consequential being that the said Henry was later knighted. Once upon another time, there was another man. His name was Arthur Henry MacMahon. He also drew a line. He was also knighted. Once upon yet another time, there was yet another man. His name was Cyril John Radcliffe. He was not knighted, yet the stroke of his pen left a benighted legacy behind.

Alfred Korzybski, the Polish-American philosopher once famously said: ‘If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure, and structure alone!’ For this influential philosopher, seminal thinker and founder of the discipline of General Semantics, the distinction between a map and territory (word and thing) was pretty structural. The map is a cartographic construct, a word meant to signify the ‘thing’ territory which it signifies but is not actually a synonym of, since territory is an ‘idea-landscape’. When Radcliffe drew the ‘line’, it was more than a graphic formalization of a partition that had already occurred many years prior to that, in the minds of people who were holding aspirations of a subcontinent in trust. Radcliffe’s line put the official imprimatur of an Emperor ‘withdrawing to his ante-chamber’ or saying ‘takhliya’. The die was cast. The subcontinent was forever to be cleaved into two, never mind if it was a case of separating conjoined twins. It, the Indian subcontinent, was to be known henceforth as South Asia. But is the map South Asia the territory South Asia?

Today, many decades after Radcliffe drew his line, when I meet a friend from Pakistan, I do not feel the same as I do when I am meeting a person from say Iran, or Srilanka. I feel completely at ease with Pakistani friends, share similar world-views and feel that we have sprung from the same substrate. The feeling of easy camaraderie is quite palpable even when we have sharp ideological or political differences. Our yearnings are also similar in nature. We tend to gravitate towards territorial landmarks even while these are in ‘other’ maps. I have for long wanted to go to Lahore and visit Dabbi Bazaar (if extant), where my father lived for some of his formative years, to get a feel of what he would, several years later, recount with nostalgia and had captured in a poem (unfortunately not extant) with the refrain ‘Lahore mein kya kya jee lee hai’. My friend from Karachi, who visited India recently on family business, went to his ancestral house in UP at the first opportunity he had – like a homing pigeon. It does not matter that these are not ‘our’ maps, because these are our territories. I suspect that this easy co-existence has to do with that same old pet subject of mine, the thesis that one can respect another being different, without being the ‘other’. The moment this little niggle is out of the way, many things get automatically sorted out. The uncomfortable fact, however, is that this ‘othering’ is at the root of identity politics which is the overriding subcontinental paradigm. So even if I am in a natural comfort zone with someone, contemporary political positioning on national and subnational level will not allow even that individual comfort zone, that little oasis, to exist for too long since it threatens the dynamic balance of power that has been arrived at by vested stakeholders. To expect a multiplicity of such comfort zones to exist is pretty unrealistic in the current scenario. That said, there is an unmistakable people-to-people movement in the direction of creating such territories of accord, while respecting the territorial sovereignties of the map kind. The exception, and greatest danger, to this evolving modus vivendi is the ultra anarchists who do not believe in nation states as constructs at all and are all set on destabilizing such constructs in the name of creating new, unnamed ones 

One might ask here, within this complex South Asian architecture of the mind, where does J&K get situated? Irrespective of affinities that a nascent sub-nationalism may seek to find with Central Asia, the fact is that J&K can never be outside the geo-strategic ambit of South Asia, nor outside its overall cultural ethos – which though amorphous, is not inconsistent. The case of Jammu and Ladakh provinces is not difficult from the geo-cultural point of view but the new aspirational Kashmiri identity, even if it dissociates itself from mainland India by ‘othering’ the same, can’t leapfrog over Pakistan and seek direct existential contiguity with Afghanistan, Iran or Greater Arabia. The irony today is that there is little culturally that is Pakistani, which is not Indian as well. All continuities with South Asia that Kashmir has must encounter this unipolar reality in any equation. Correspondingly, all cultural discontinuities that Kashmir perceives having with India will be there in equal, if not greater measure in its vis-à-vis with Pakistan. In today’s highly interdependent world, the Kashmir identity, and even Kashmir’s identity politics, can’t remain insular for long – even though its choices are severely limited. It will be subsumed by larger political identities any-so-how, whatever its ideological protestations to the contrary. While one concedes the possibility of irreconciliable political differences in some given equations, these can’t have an underpinning of only cultural identity. There has to be more meat on the bone. There has to be more ‘thinking’, mere sentiment won’t last the distance!

Another memorable quote of Korzybski is: "There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking."

(This appeared earlier as an article in The Kashmir Monitor) 

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