Off the Map: Careful culturalization in India

Any glance at the current geopolitical landscape of Asia quickly reveals that there are undeniable movers and shakers within the region. If asked, most people would readily say that China is a dominant economic and cultural force in the region, and they might add Japan as well. Yet among the quickly emerging economies and influential geopolitical powers of the region and in fact the world, India must be considered for not only its strong position in the information technology sector and its growing influence, but its long history and rich cultural heritage.

Along with its emergence as a political and economic force, India is quickly becoming a larger target market for a wide variety of content being produced in North America and Europe. While Hindi remains the official language of India (and English a secondary official language), the government of India has also granted “official” status to another 22 languages, among the over 1,000 languages catalogued within the country. Due to the colonial legacy of the former British Empire, the prevalence of the English language as the lingua franca of India has become a critical aspect of the culture’s interoperability. As far as localization efforts, this has the potential of greatly helping external content to be accessible to much of the Indian population, while also possibly creating a misperception that Indian English and thus Indian culture is both homogeneous in nature and lacking diversity from Western-based English speaking cultures.

Beyond its linguistic complexity, the cultural depth and diversity of India make content culturalization a formidable challenge along several dimensions, most notably in the areas of geopolitics and religion. As with many other locales, the government of India takes care to protect the cultural image of its people and practices, in addition to reinforcing the territorial integrity of the nation as much as possible.

In the category of geopolitics, one of the widely-known characteristics of the Indian market is the government regulations regarding the depiction of its geographic territory. This is due to India’s involvement in one of the most complex geopolitical disputes of our time — the pending resolution of sovereignty over the region known as Jammu and Kashmir, or more commonly just Kashmir. Currently, India controls about half of Kashmir, while Pakistan and China maintain control over the remaining portions. Unfortunately, their respective assertions of sovereignty over these areas has not been without conflict, as there have been at least three wars and numerous small conflicts fought over the decades following the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 and then the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The conflict zone around the Siachen Glacier zone in the northern part of Kashmir is actually one of the most volatile areas in the world; no boundary has ever been demarcated there amidst the barren, high-altitude landscape of the Karakoram Mountains.

Obviously, this issue is quite sensitive on the larger geopolitical scale, but it’s also contentious for content producers, particularly those who must create or manage cartographic content. Like many other countries, India has long reinforced its territorial perspective via maps, with strict local guidelines for cartographic representations, especially when it concerns the disputed Kashmir region. Maps that are intended for use within India must show the entire disputed Kashmir region as wholly Indian territory with no ambiguity. In addition, any other border dispute with its neighbors must likewise be shown as undisputed Indian territory. This includes numerous minor disputes along the border with Pakistan, Bangladesh and China (including, with the latter, a major dispute over much of the Indian-controlled state of Arunachal Pradesh). Put simply, India doesn’t recognize or permit any of its territorial disputes to be considered as “disputed.” India is undoubtedly overt about its strict cartographic control, but it’s not alone. China has likewise been quite aggressive about reinforcing its local perception of sovereignty over areas like the Aksai Chin portion of Kashmir, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The problem with content laws and regulations like the Kashmir example in India is that any form of content exclusivity can be a major hindrance for content developers. Most companies would like to be able to leverage their non-linguistic content across as many locales as possible, primarily for the sake of saving additional culturalization costs. However, when a specific country introduces requirements that make its locale an exception, it forces companies to make decisions about the viability of that market. So it essentially requires businesses and content developers to balance the potential risks and rewards of choosing to spend the extra time and money to create a unique map for a single locale. As one should surmise, this discussion can pertain to any kind of content, not just a map.

Is there any way around such strict requirements? Unfortunately not, for if a business wishes to distribute a product that contains a map in India or China, it must conform to these governments’ expectations or else face immediate sanctions. And when it comes to an issue like Kashmir, the expectations of these two governments are completely incompatible, requiring a unique culturalized version for each locale. The potential benefit is that if the product absolutely requires a map, it will be properly culturalized for that single locale and it may increase local appeal, especially in conjunction with proper language localization. The key is to weigh the chosen solution against the company’s goals and distribution policies, and determine if the return on investment and the potentially improved government relations are worth the effort. With markets of such great potential as India and China, most companies opt to make the necessary customizations.

But geopolitics is only part of the challenge of content distribution in India. Along with the great linguistic and cultural diversity of the country comes a tremendous diversity in faiths and belief systems. In fact, as the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism — religion has been a prevalent force that has shaped the culture and people of the region. Generally speaking, a society based on sacred tenets is potentially less flexible to content that deviates from the expected context because they are following the expectations of a higher standard.

One example previously mentioned in this column relates well to the religious factor, and that is the 2009 video game Fallout 3. In its setting of a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., the developers included a creature that was called a brahmin, which was essentially a mutated, two-headed Brahman bull. In the Hindu faith, Brahman cattle are sacred as the earthly representation of the goddess Kamadhenu and some state governments in India have altogether banned or severely restricted their slaughter. A similar example arose in another video game project in which I was involved some years back (the name of which I’m withholding for confidentiality reasons). During the development process, one of the “boss” characters in the game — a formidable enemy for the player to fight — closely resembled the Hindu god Ganesha, which is highly revered and typically appears as an anthropomorphic elephant with four arms. The similarity between the boss and Ganesha were far too close, so various modifications to the character were enacted to avoid any overt association with most typical depictions of Ganesha. 

In the video game Hitman 2 (Figure 1) from 2002, the game’s plot took the player to the Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple) in Amritsar, India — the sacred center of the Sikh religion. The game’s violent action included combat within the temple itself and even fighting and killing Sikhs in the course of the gameplay. After a furor of protest arose from the Sikh community, the game developer apologized and agreed to remove the offensive scenes.

While space prevents me from going into a myriad of other examples, the primary point with India and other countries with a similar level of amazing linguistic, religious and political diversity is that such locales are more challenging than most people realize. Perhaps due to either perceptions made at a distance or the leveraging of 
stereotypical viewpoints, it’s easy to think in a market such as India that everyone speaks English and/or Hindi, everyone is a Hindu, and so on. India is a good example where not only is careful culturalization a necessary practice, but even subnational culturalization is a likely consideration if a company wants to reach specific groups within the country — depending, of course, on the type of content and the product.