K. Subrahmanyam: An Institution Unto Himself
The sad demise Feb. 2, of K. Subrahmanyam has left a big vacuum in India’s strategic community. An institution-builder, a great strategic visionary, an honest and straightforward administrator, a powerful media communicator, a humane mentor and a staunch nationalist, he was, all rolled into one, an institution unto himself.
The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) grew as the premier Indian strategic think tank under his two terms of directorship during 1968-75 and 1981-86. He not only questioned the stereotype policies of the government himself, but also encouraged young minds (I was one of his recruits in 1973) to think innovatively and courageously, beyond the official mindset, on sensitive issues of national security and defense, even in an institution that was fully funded by the Ministry of Defence. He encouraged dissent and listened carefully to his critics even on issues that were close to his heart. A workaholic with an encyclopedic command over facts, he was allergic to shoddy and lethargic researchers. This is how he raised the intellectual level of IDSA, turning it into an independent think tank.
As the chief of the Joint Intelligence Committee, he underlined the difference between information and credible intelligence. When the occasion came in 1999, as the convener of the Kargil Committee, he did not hesitate to point out the lapses of the Indian intelligence system, even at the cost of displeasing veteran intelligence officers like R.N. Kao, the founder of the Research and Analysis Wing.
His prolific writings that include books, research papers, newspaper and magazine articles and various official/unofficial reports covering almost every critical aspect of India’s security and strategic projection will remain a rich heritage of knowledge for India’s strategic analysts and policymakers for years and decades to come.
The subject of defense and security was a passion for him. He laughed at being dubbed by American strategic commentators as “War Lord” - the meaning of his name “Subrahmanyam” in Indian mythology - for his strident advocacy of an assertive defense policy for India. Though a member of the elite Indian Administrative Service, IAS, he did not shy away from going public, against established norms, to plead for and support India’s military intervention in Pakistan’s “Bangladesh crisis” in 1971 calling it an “opportunity in the century.” The then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took exception and Pakistan continued to criticize him for years for these comments.
In the background of India’s security setbacks during the 1962 and 1965 wars with China and Pakistan, Subrahmanyam was convinced that strategic debate in the country had to be dragged out from behind the closed doors of official establishments into the public domain. He supported the introduction of defense studies as a regular discipline in Indian universities and later took to vigorous media writings to make the public debate on these issues more meaningful and policy-relevant. He pursued the idea of National Defence University from its inception to institutionalization.
He also strongly supported the creation of the office of the Chief of Defence Staff in the interest of streamlining higher defense management in the country. While being a part of the National Security Council system as convener of National Security Advisory Board, he questioned the wisdom of the same person holding the position of national security adviser and principal secretary to the prime minister – as was done by Brajesh Mishra in the Vajpayee government. Without Subrahmanyam, strategic studies research in India would be lagging far behind what it is today.
In the realm of policy, when India was still counting the virtues of disarmament, he initiated the debate on the necessity of building India’s nuclear capabilities and deterrent. He attacked the nonproliferation policies of the “nuclear haves” as discriminatory and rebutted, word for word, the arguments of Western “nonproliferation ayatollahas” to bring India under the prevailing nonproliferation regime. He termed the U.S. nuclear approach as racist, and that got him labeled as a hawk and “anti-American” by the U.S. strategic community.
Subrahmanyam described nuclear weapons as political weapons which India needed to possess in a hostile world. However, he was a staunch supporter of universal global disarmament and principled and nondiscriminatory nonproliferation. He strongly pleaded to outlaw nuclear weapons and was hopeful that this would happen one day as it did in the case of chemical and biological weapons. He put together a group of strategic thinkers to prepare the first credible draft for global nuclear disarmament that was presented by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the United Nations in 1988. President Barack Obama’s plans for global nuclear disarmament presented at the U.N. in 2010 acknowledged the relevance of the Indian plan. Through the National Security Advisory Board, Subrahmanyam drafted India’s nuclear doctrine, which is based on no first use. He stood for India having a comprehensive (triad) but with minimum nuclear deterrent. In the post-Cold War global strategic context, Subrahmanyam also became a strong votary of the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership.
In India’s sprawling bureaucracy, Subrahmanyam, besides being an intellectual giant, also stood out as a straightforward administrator. He never hesitated in calling a spade a spade even at the displeasure of his colleagues and superiors. The envy-infested Indian bureaucratic system did not allow him to become defense secretary, a position no one deserved better than him.
When he was pushed back to his home cadre in Tamil Nadu as a home secretary, he stood by the constitution in defense of the rule of law and basic rights of freedom, ignoring political dictates from the center’s emergency regime. When shunted out of defense ministry to IDSA as its director a second time, he put his indelible imprint on the country’s strategic policies and thinking.
He declined India’s official Padma Bhushan award in 1999 on the principle that those who have been part of the government should not be candidates for such honors. He was one of the few who personally experienced Pakistani terrorism as a passenger on the hijacked Indian Airlines plane to Lahore in 1984. Even cancer could not daunt his dedication for continuous and refreshing analyses of contemporary international strategic issues affecting India until he breathed his last.
S.D. Muni is a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.