We are still living in the changes authored by the years 1979 and 1989
TCA Raghavan | 27 Dec, 2019
China’s Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping with US President Jimmy Carter, Washington DC, January 1979 (Photos: Getty Images)
DATES ARE OF significance in history because they are the pegs that trigger chains of events and are the basis on which narratives are constructed. 2019 certainly illustrates this, as the list of anniversaries that fall in it are not only significant but also impressive in terms of illustrating how the past dogs the present.
1919 is an obvious starting point since the centenary both of the Treaty of Versailles and the founding of the League of Nations marked 2019. The League Centenary in India has internationally received less attention as compared with Versailles. That is a pity—notwithstanding the League’s subsequent spectacular failures, its establishment was a landmark event for India. India became in 1919 a full-fledged and founding member of the League when it was still a colony. It thus acquired status as an international entity even when it was a subject nation without sovereignty in any real sense. If this was, and was recognised to be, anomalous, nevertheless it did mark the beginning of Indian diplomatic multilateralism. The first formal meeting of the League took place in January 1920. India attended, and 2020 will therefore mark a century of Indian multilateralism.
2020 in fact will mark another anniversary: 75 years of the UN as the successor organisation of the League of Nations and where India again was present as a founder member. Seventy-five years ago in October 1945 when the members of the UN met in San Francisco, India was still formally a colony but poised at freedom’s threshold, so the power equations were significantly different.
Both these anniversaries have an obvious salience today—beyond that of a chronological milestone. A narrative gaining ground internationally has as its subtext concerns about the future and stability of the global order as it has existed since 1945, which was further cemented by the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This anxiety is informed by a number of factors but principally cluster around four pegs: US isolationism and unilateralism; the erosion of and consequent anxiety about the future of globalisation; the weakening of the idea of Europe; and the dramatic consolidation of China’s rise. Thus, in this narrative, the normative structure that underwrote the global order—and one may term that architecture as ‘Western’ or ‘liberal’ depending on political preference—is now under stress. So anniversaries of the League and the UN with India as a participant when the pillars of that architecture were first constructed have an obvious relevance today.
There are, however, other anniversaries that fell in 2019 which illuminate much about our predicaments today and of the world to be of not just 2020 but of the next decade. Two in particular stand out: those of 1979 and 1989. If an onion peeling of the historical forces that stalk us today is attempted, many of the dilemmas and choices that confront us would lead to one or both of these years—three and four decades earlier respectively. Certainly as we reflect on the anxieties about a ‘liberal’ world order today, both these years would also stand out as markers of when it all began. In any event for us in India as we ponder some of the central questions that we interface with—the rise of China, terrorism, extremism and radicalism, the Pakistan and Afghanistan dilemmas and all the other issues posed by our neighbours, Kashmir—both 1979 and 1989 contain the seeds of the issues that not only preoccupy us today but will also continue to do so in the future.
WHY CHOOSE THESE years in particular—apart from the fact we are now exactly three and four decades distant from them? The barebones of the chronology itself provides many answers. 1979 saw a chain of events that transformed our immediate external environment in ways that continue to affect us deeply. The year in fact had begun with an event not unexpected in itself but whose influence was in many ways transformational: the US and China established diplomatic relations on January 1st, 1979, and the US began on its policy of facilitating the peaceful rise of China as a strategy to make it less communist and more of an ally. For many in India then, this was as clear a sign as any that East Asia had to constantly remain on our radar. This assessment was reinforced by other developments around the same time—Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in January 1979, to overthrow the government of Pol Pot which was responsible for widespread genocide. Vietnam then found itself having to contend with a Chinese military invasion of its own territory in February 1979. The Cold War in Southeast and East Asia had resurfaced and India, supportive of Vietnam, found itself on the opposing side of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Western Alliance and China. Southeast Asia was already a growth centre—the heartland of the tiger economies. The upswing in China-US relations combined with China’s own modernisation meant that from 1979 onwards the whole of our eastern neighbourhood was now embarking on a high growth trajectory. Whatever may have been the theoretical merits of a Look East policy for India then, regional politics and the divisions over Cambodia meant that we would not be able to embark on such a policy for the next decade and a half. Even if India was on the right side, at least from a humanitarian perspective, as far as the genocide in Cambodia was concerned, we were effectively shut out of Southeast Asia. For many others, inclusive of the entire Western alliance, Vietnamese aggression on Cambodia rather than putting an end to Pol Pot’s genocide was the central issue. The central axis driving events was the US-China understanding and very evidently this was concert aimed at the Soviet Union. Stable relations with the US, at the very least, further smoothened and facilitated China’s remarkable growth story. That the US-China common ground has now come or is coming to an end is therefore an additional reason to evoke the circumstances in which the alliance emerged.
These events and developments to our east are matched—even outmatched—by the drama in South, South West and West Asia. January 1979 saw the Shah of Iran flee Tehran amidst a revolutionary takeover. By the end of the year, the revolution had not just consolidated but had also presided over a breakdown of US-Iran relations—animated most by the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran and a large number of US diplomats being taken hostage; this antagonism continues till today with no signs of abating. Yet from an Indian perspective, these developments in Iran, important in themselves, were embedded in another and even larger chain of events. As revolution had unfolded in Iran, reaction to a fledgling democracy had consolidated in Pakistan. Amidst international outcry, but silence in both India and Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed in Pakistan in April that year. Possibly—perhaps arguably for some—this was a setback to democracy in Pakistan from which it is yet to recover.
Further to the west, three other developments of significance are noteworthy. In March, Egypt under Anwar el-Sadat and Israel under Menachem Begin signed in Washington a treaty providing for mutual recognition and establishment of diplomatic relations. The edifice of Arab, even Islamic unity, was broken and, superficial as it always was, could not be put together again. If the Iranian revolution was a major setback for the US, the Egypt-Israel agreement just a few months earlier had been a triumph—signed in the White House with President Jimmy Carter as a witness. In many ways, 2019 has marked the end of the negotiation strategy that Israel had embarked upon four decades earlier. Prospects for a two-state solution as the platform of the resolution of the Palestinian issue have dimmed to the point of extinction.
A few months later in November 1979 a fresh crisis erupted—in Saudi Arabia—with armed Islamic radicals urging overthrow of the monarchy seizing control of the grand mosque, the Masjid al Haram, in Mecca. Order was restored only after a bloody battle but the shadow of Islamic radicalism and extremism this event cast, not just on Saudi Arabia, but on the entire region, remains. Many trace to this event also the crystallisation of street level anti-Americanism in the Arab world—with the US seen as an ally of corrupt and decadent feudal regimes and in concert with Israel. One fallout of the 1979 mosque crisis in Saudi Arabia was the attack on, and the burning down of, in November 1979 of the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan—an early sign but taken note of even in those days that there was much beneath the placid waters of Islamabad that missed the eye.
A look back at the pivotal period defined by 1979 and 1989 is full of instruction. There is an occasional historian’s debate about whether the 20th century ended and the 21st began in 1979 or in 1989. Was 1979-1989 the most dangerous decade for India?
Yet casting into the shade all this was another development close to India and one whose consequences continue to unfold to this day. By year-end, Iran and Saudi Arabia had been pushed out of the front pages by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the metanarrative this fostered would push all others to the background. Soviet troops went into Afghanistan in December 1979 and for the next decade this became the real theatre of the Cold War—as also its final one. There were many explanations for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: a search for warm water ports, concern at increased US influence, ending Afghanistan’s buffer state status, amongst others. Yet in big picture terms what was clear was that the Soviet Union now had its Vietnam and the world would not be the same again for a long time.
It is interesting to see that these fundamental changes in our immediate neighbourhood and the reconfiguration of great powers around us also coincided with a novel phase in India’s own history. 1979 began in India with the appointment of the Mandal Commission. Its report—accepted about a decade later—changed not just politics but also the social landscape of India. 1979 was also the closing year of India’s first experiment with a non-Congress Government that had begun after Emergency in 1977. In India, the news of the Soviet troops moving into Kabul was accompanied, perhaps even overshadowed by electoral coverage and the usual speculations about the results of the General Election. Indira Gandhi and the Congress triumphantly returned to power even as the debate on the issue of the Soviet move began in the UN. Since then there have been numerous discussions on India and elsewhere on the question of whether a different election result may have meant a different public position by India on the Soviet invasion.
But this question apart, the point was that India’s world had changed dramatically over the course of 1979. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan were now an Islamic arc of crisis across India’s west and northwest. Some parallels with 1919 are again inescapable. The defeat of the Ottomans in the First World War and the penalties imposed on it by the peace agreements of 1919 contributed to the growth of pan-Islamism and the Khilafat agitation in India was one outcome. Yet the intensity of the churn in global Islam in 1979 was even greater and it was now moreover the principal front of the Cold War. 1979 in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan meant that both from within and without the Islamic world had changed irreversibly.
Soon the conflict in Afghanistan—the US against the Soviet Union with Pakistan, mistakenly termed a proxy but actually a major actor, playing a critical role—was outmatched in durability and intensity by another. By September 1980, Iran was at war with Iraq and this war was to continue for eight years until August 1988—almost as long as the conflict in Afghanistan.
As we fast-forward to our next year of reckoning—1989—Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq war provide a line of continuity from the events of 1979. These two bookend years are associated with numerous other threads but three in particular stand out.
The first of these is entirely Eurocentric: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the East-West division of Europe and also the end of the Cold War. From all this emerged the idea of Europe as a single entity—fuelled as much by the sentiment of a shared past and destiny as by clinical geopolitical logic—to address concerns in other countries in Europe about a large and unified Germany. By 2019, this idea of Europe has run its course and only the coming years will show how much of its original impulse can survive.
Second, 1989 is also marked by a seismic event outside Europe. Protests in the heart of Beijing in Tiananmen Square appeared to herald change in China of a similar quality as in Europe. The trajectory here was however different and the old order was to prove far more durable. The protests, although effectively crushed, nevertheless seemed to galvanise China even more strongly along the path of economic modernisation amidst tight state and societal control that it had chosen in 1979.
The third thread from 1989 is even closer to India. The end of the Cold War with the coming down of the Berlin Wall is for the Western world the defining event of 1989 and forms a metanarrative in itself drowning out all others. Yet for India there were other events that crowded our landscape. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is the most significant of these but not only because of its larger than life character of the Afghan jihad as a critical theatre of the Cold War. Regardless of its larger global implications the perspective in India was that the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan had engendered a sense of triumphalism in Pakistan and particularly in its military. That the jihad fostered by the Inter-Services Intelligence with US assistance could have consequences in Europe far beyond the military defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan imparted a heady flavour of success to their endeavours. That by the beginning of the 1990s the Soviet Union was itself was tottering and came apart like a giant house of cards cemented this sense of Pakistani triumphalism that it was their jihad that had given an empire its push into oblivion.
A sense of this vainglory and how widely it was shared and appreciated elsewhere in the world is conveyed by a gift from a visiting German general to his Pakistani counterpart. The gift, preserved in a military mess at the Khyber Pass, was a piece of rubble from the Berlin Wall framed as a memento along with an inscription that read: ‘For Striking the First Blow.’ Many thus felt in Pakistan that if jihad fashioned into a military and political instrument could humiliate and defeat a superpower in Afghanistan, if a new cartography was consequently emerging in Europe, if the Soviet Union could break up, then Kashmir could certainly once more be pried open and made a live issue. To this mindset, if post-World War II borders in Europe were mutable, there was no reason why they should be inviolate in South Asia.
The end of the Cold War with the coming down of the Berlin Wall is for the western world the defining event of 1989. Yet for India there were other events that crowded our landscape. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is the most significant of these
IT IS THEREFORE no coincidence that as the last of the Soviet troops made their way out of Afghanistan in February 1989, and as the Berlin Wall came down in November and a united Germany emerged with the collapse and incorporation of the German Democratic Republic into the erstwhile West Germany, an insurgency that has continued since began in Jammu and Kashmir by the end of the year. All these events took place amidst a time of political transition in India. In early December 1989, India began its second non-Congress Government experiment with the added novelty that it had the country’s first Muslim and first Kashmiri as the Union Home Minister. Within days his daughter was kidnapped by terrorists in Srinagar—not to be released till some jailed militants were released. The Kashmir insurgency had begun and it moved quickly as a first step towards ethnically cleansing Hindus from the Kashmir Valley. 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of these events also and it remains an open question whether the legislative changes of August this year will restore much needed calm in Kashmir. Yet as another great power manages its exit out of Afghanistan, we do need to also reflect on the past when answering this question.
1989 exposed another set of dilemmas with regard to another equally significant neighbor: Sri Lanka. In December 1989, the new Government in India grappling with the transforming situation in Kashmir agreed to the Sri Lankan government’s request for the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Thirty years later it remains unclear whether a full stocktaking or indeed a clinical post-mortem, of what has been India’s most ambitious external military venture in peace time, has been undertaken.
As Sri Lanka settles in another new government three decades later, it would be brave to claim that the ethnic quagmire that sucked India in during the mid-1980s has been finally settled. India, moreover, deals today with Sri Lanka and indeed its entire neighbourhood in a new policy environment radically transformed with the rise of China. That change itself has of course much to do, as we saw, with the forces unleashed in 1979 and 1989. Yet whatever may have been the origins or the quality of the process the ascendancy of China has meant that all of India’s relationships with its neighbours are affected by this change.
Apart from specific events and landmark events of 1979 and 1989, the entire decade of the 1980s, framed at either end by these two years, is also worth recalling for a process of far-reaching importance. Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the UK in 1979, Ronald Regan President of the US a year later. Between them they personify and animate the beginning of the process of globalisation: the freeing of controls on the mobility of capital. Globalisation dramatically transformed the world economy—both in terms of wealth creation but also by widening inequalities.
Three decades or so later, globalisation is now a faltering force. But as the contrarian process has now set in, ‘de-globalisation’ is the more ascendant impulse. Whether in trading arrangements for market access, investment and capital flows or indeed in the freer movement of people, it is regionalism that drives today’s narratives. The World Trade Organisation stands greatly weakened—perhaps fatally so. The world moves steadily in the direction of division into regional trading blocs. The storm centres of globalisation in the 1980s—the UK and the US—are now in many senses the crucibles of the reaction to it in the form of Brexit and ‘America First’. India, in contrast to China and others in East and Southeast Asia, was both a late as well as a reluctant ‘globaliser’. India is however equally a reluctant ‘deglobaliser’ as its recent decision to stay out of the Regional Economic Cooperation Partnership suggests. Very evidently the nature of our own challenges and our unique starting conditions inform our perspectives both on globalisation and retreat from it.
So if a large canvas is deployed of India’s challenges in the coming decade, a look back at the pivotal period defined by 1979 and 1989 is obviously full of instruction. There is an occasional historian’s debate about whether the 20th century ended and the 21st began in 1979 or in 1989. Was 1979-1989 the most dangerous decade for us? Certainly many of our current predicaments, challenges and opportunities have their roots in that decade. But surrounded as we are by the flux of history, possibly other periods have been equally transformative. Yet 1979, 1989 and the years in-between do appear uncannily close to the decade we are to embark upon. To be aware and conscious of this history and yet not to be bound by it—that may well be the principle which would help us steer our way through the choppy waters that face us.