How the Indian government plays stamps and stickers with The Economist

The magazine has a long history of India censoring its maps of Kashmir.

ByAyush Tiwari
How the Indian government plays stamps and stickers with The Economist
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In the first week of March this year, London-based magazine The Economist devoted its cover story to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Titled “Modi’s dangerous moment”, its central subject was the cross-border aerial skirmishes that transpired between India and Pakistan in late February. Assessing his track record as a political leader, the piece argued that Modi, who has “made a career of playing with fire”, should de-escalate the crisis with India’s Islamic neighbour since “the price of miscalculation does not bear thinking about”.

Another piece in the same issue titled “On perilous ground” warned that “skirmishing between South Asia’s two nuclear powers may spiral into something far more serious.” What stood out in the article, however, was a black patch on the top of the page with a note for the readers. It read: “Sadly, India censors maps that show the current effective border, insisting instead that only its full territorial claims be shown. It is more intolerant on this issue than either China or Pakistan. Indian readers will, therefore, be deprived of this map. Unlike their government, we think our Indian readers can face political reality. Those who want to see an accurate depiction of the various territorial claims can do so using our interactive map at Economist.com/asianborders.”

The March 2, 2019 edition of The Economist without the black sticker shows the Indian territory without Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. NL can’t show it since we risk being penalised for it.

This most recent riposte by the magazine comes after long-standing censorship by the Indian government over the last nine years.

Newslaundry reached out to the magazine’s South Asia Bureau Chief Max Rodenbeck and asked him why the magazine took this decision. “As I understand it, we do this because the paper can be confiscated or banned in India if any map we print does not show India’s borders as claimed by India,” Rodenbeck said. He added that the practice is “quite expensive”.

According to media reports, the Indian government has been forcing the magazine to black out maps of India showing Kashmir in the print editions of The Economist since 2011. These maps have been covered up with black stickers because they do not show the external boundaries of the state of Jammu and Kashmir as claimed by India.

Other forms of censorship by the Indian government extends back to several decades. Rodenbeck says that the publication has been facing censorship of maps in India “since at least the 1970s.” He added that those who have been associated with the magazine corroborate this: “I just spoke with Swaminathan Aiyar, our India stringer in the 1970s and ‘80s, who says it was a constant bother for as long as he can remember.”

Alex Travelli, the magazine’s Delhi-based Asia news editor, told Newslaundry that India’s sticker censorship took over from humbler antecedents sometime in the last decade: “The sticker regime replaced the previous methods of censorship (i.e. stamping, markering and sometimes page removal) sometime in the past 10 years, but I’m not sure when.”

Before 2011, Indian maps were rubber-stamped with this text: “The external boundaries of India as depicted are neither correct nor authentic.”

So what made the Indian authorities switch from stamps to sticks? According to Adam Roberts, former South Asia bureau chief of The Economist, “in 2011 there was a change of heart at Indian customs, to threaten that any map imported to India that did not conform to the official position would contravene the law. Instead of agreeing to stamp each issue, as before, the customs officials threatened to imprison those who import(ed) such maps.”

An editorial in The Economist in September 2010 claimed that “India has censored 31 issues and at first glance might look like the worst culprit”. It added that the magazine had faced the censor’s wrath in Sri Lanka, Libya, Malaysia and Pakistan. In the cover of its Christmas issue in 2009, a bare-chested Eve was covered up by Malaysian authorities. Adam, on the other hand, did not pass muster in Pakistan, where authorities claimed that the depiction of Koranic figures was prohibited.

China too created hurdles. “China is more proscriptive. Distributors destroy copies or remove articles that contain contentious political content, and maps of Taiwan are usually blacked out,” said the editorial.

Not just Taiwan, but the magazine has been facing censorship blues in China for Arunachal Pradesh as well, according to Rodenbeck. “India has been the most troublesome country for us,” he said, “but China did recently confiscate thousands of maps that showed Arunachal as part of India.”   

Between May 2011 and March 2019, Newslaundry identified at least six black stickers in various editions of the publication (including the instance mentioned above). In addition, we identified eight stamped texts on the magazine’s maps between 1999 and 2007.

The Economist has also been avoiding censorship thanks to a cartographical jugaad: strategically covering up the Kashmir region with a text bubble.

Blackouts

Media reports suggest that the first censor sticker in The Economist appeared in an edition with a special report on the prickly India-Pakistan relationship. It was dated May 21, 2011.

An article in the special report titled “A rivalry that threatens the world” was accompanied by a map of the northern part of the Indian subcontinent focussed on Kashmir. It showed Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) as “Kashmir (administered by Pakistan)” and the Aksai Chin region as “Area held by China, claimed by India”. The colour coding of these regions also presented them with a different shade as that used for India.

According to a Hindustan Times report, Indian officials had prevented the distribution of this edition. Additionally, customs officers had ordered that 28,000 copies of the issue should have stickers manually placed over a map showing how Kashmir is territorially split between India, Pakistan and China.

The May 21, 2011 edition of The Economist with the black sticker.

The May 21, 2011 edition of The Economist without the black sticker shows the Indian territory without Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. NL can’t show it since we risk being penalised for it.

Another special report in the September 29, 2012 issue titled “Aim higher” contained a bigger black patch. Taking note of India’s troubled economy, the piece argued that the country’s “prospects have dimmed as politicians shrink from big reforms”. On the second page, the piece was accompanied by a map of India comparing and contrasting the GDPs and population levels of Indian states.

However, in the northern reaches, the publication printed what it calls the “current effective borders” between India and Pakistan, and described “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” as “Pakistan-administered Kashmir”.

The September 29, 2012 edition of The Economist with the black sticker.

The September 29, 2012 edition of The Economist without the black sticker shows the Indian territory without Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. NL can’t show it since we risk being penalised for it.

The July 22, 2017 edition of the magazine also had a map of Kashmir blacked out. It was a part of an article titled “Vale of darkness” which encapsulated the turbulent political history of Kashmir. The map lay in the centre of the article.

The May 27, 2017 edition of The Economist carried an article on India’s policy on Kashmir (“Talking to the enemy”). It argued that the Indian government has exacerbated the crisis in Kashmir “by refusing to differentiate between the new type of demonstrator and the guerrillas.” A map in the issue showing Kashmir was covered with a black sticker.

The sticker that appeared in the magazine’s January 12 edition this year was unique, since the article was not concerned with India as such. “Tales of self-harm” was a profile of Pakistan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Imran Khan and argued that Khan will struggle to mop up Pakistan’s problems. But it did carry a map of Kashmir.

The January 12, 2019 edition of The Economist with the black sticker.

The January 12, 2019 edition of The Economist without the black sticker shows the Indian territory without Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. NL can’t show it since we risk being penalised for it.

Rubber stamps

In the eight instances of rubber-stamped maps that Newslaundry came across, four alone appeared in a special report in the publication’s May 22, 1999 edition. Titled “Creative chaos”, it argued that the assertiveness of India’s marginalised population despite the country’s “appalling poverty and stunning social inequality” made Indian democracy a work in progress.

The edition was published in the middle of the Kargil war in Kashmir, where Indian forces were pushing back Pakistani invaders who had crossed the LOC that summer. However, the four maps that this report carried showed the borders that the Indian government did not approve of. All four were stamped with the following text: “The external boundaries of India as depicted are neither correct nor authentic.”

Rodenbeck says that such rubber-stamping of maps in the Indian edition of The Economist began in the 1970s.

Roberts describes the stamps as a “reasonably elegant fudge”. He adds that it allowed Indian readers to “see the reality (the fact that part of Kashmir is of course under the military control of Pakistan, and has been for a long time) while allowing Indian officials and commercial importers to conform with the law. It avoided embarrassment for the Indian authorities, too.”

According to the magazine, Indian authorities cite a law from 1961 to justify such censorship. In fact, The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1961, does state punishments for those who publish a map of India that is at odds with Indian claims. Clause 2(2) of the law reads: “ Whoever publishes a map of India, which is not in conformity with the maps of India as published by the Survey of India, shall be punishable with imprisonment which may be extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.”

Additionally, if found guilty of the above, says Clause 4(1), the state government can “declare every copy of the issue of the newspaper containing such matter and every copy of such book or other document to be forfeited to the Government, and thereupon any police officer may seize the same wherever found and any magistrate may by warrant authorise any police officer…to enter upon and search for the same in any premises where any copy of such issue or any copy of such book or other document may be or may be reasonably suspected to be.”

Rodenbeck says the attitude of the Modi regime towards Indian maps in The Economist is no different when compared to previous regimes. He adds: “Thankfully for all, a mooted law in 2016 that would have imposed a $15m fine did not see the light of day.”

In May 2016, the Indian government uploaded a draft law online titled The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016. The draft law dished out a fine between ₹1 crore to ₹100 crore for those who “shall depict, disseminate, publish or distribute any wrong or false topographic information of India including international boundaries through internet platforms or online services or in any electronic or physical form.”

The draft law also made the procurement of licences mandatory for all individuals and companies that produced maps in India, and all Indian citizens who did so anywhere around the world.

In a 2016 interview to Live Mint, Rodenbeck had described the draft law as “appalling, ridiculous and dumb”. The draft was soon taken down without any explanation from the government.

Jugaad

Despite the belligerent bouncers thrown by the Indian authorities, The Economist has managed to nick a few around the field instead of just ducking. Since 2011, the magazine has published multiple maps of India without putting stickers.

It has done this by covering the Kashmir region with a text bubble or a logo. Rodenbeck confirmed to Newslaundry that this indeed is a tactic meant to avoid censorship in India.

Here are some such instances:


From the July 28, 2018 edition of The Economist.

From the July 28, 2018 edition of The Economist

From the May 26, 2018 edition of The Economist

From the April 28, 2018 edition of The Economist

From the February 4, 2012 edition of The Economist

Coda

Why does The Economist publish maps that show regions claimed by India as part of Pakistan (POK) and China (Aksai Chin)? Rodenbeck says the publication, after all, follows the rules prescribed by the United Nations regarding disputed territories.

A UN map of South Asia carries its own qualifiers. It states that boundaries in its map “do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.” However, the dotted border between India and Pakistan in its map represents “approximately the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir agreed upon by India and Pakistan.” This has the same ring as the Economist’s “current effective border” reasoning.

Rodenbeck points out that Google Maps and other such services circumvent the problem by displaying different versions. He gives an example: “In India, it is impossible to know where the LOC actually lies. As soon as you cross to Pakistan (or indeed travel anywhere outside India), Google displays the LOC as an international border.”

In what may appear unfair to Rodenbeck, the Indian government does not censor Indian editions of other British publications. The Indian edition of the London-based The Guardian Weekly, for instance, carries the problematic map of India and Kashmir on the contents page of its every issue. But these maps lay unmolested by stamps and stickers.

In 2015, the Indian government had banned Qatar-based Al Jazeera from broadcasting for five days after it showed a map of India without “clarity and proper shape” on multiple occasions in various programmes. The import and distribution of Financial Times was also prevented for the same reason.

The Economist claims it faced censorship in 12 countries between 2009 and 2010. Rodenbeck says: “Some countries—for example, Saudi Arabia—have banned entire issues, or distributed them with pages ripped out. Some countries—for example, North Korea—don’t permit sale of The Economist at all.”

Roberts, now the Midwest correspondent for the magazine in the US, says that such censorship is “a sign of a lack of confidence”. He believes that the censorship is “ineffective” and “harmful”, and that Indians will not be corrupted by the depiction of ground realities. “Official over-sensitivity, in turn, frankly looks embarrassing for a country that should be more self-confident about its growing place in the world,” he adds.

Recent developments in India do not bode an easing of tensions between the publication and the government. With national security increasingly dominating India’s policymaking and nationalism driving politics, the chances of The Economist moving beyond India’s sticker regime appears bleak.

Newslaundry has sent a questionnaire to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India regarding censorship in The Economist. The piece will be updated as and when the ministry responds.

The author would also like to thank the staff of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) and the library at the British Council in New Delhi.

This piece has been updated with Adam Roberts’s comments. An earlier version of the piece also showed editions of The Economist without the stamp, which have been removed in accordance with the law.

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