2 February 2011: K. Subrahmanyam, strategic affairs expert, died

Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, one of India’s most influential security and defence analysts, was born on 19 January 1929.  He died on 2 February 2011.

K. Subrahmanyam spent his childhood mainly in Tiruchirapalli and Madras. He later studied at Presidency College and secured an MSc in Chemistry. He topped the Civil Services Examination and was appointed to the IAS. He served in the Tamil Nadu cadre as well as the ministry of defence.

In 1966 he went to the London School of Economics as a Rockefeller Fellow in Strategic Studies. After returning to India he became director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), which had just been created. He would hold the position till 1975.

In a tribute to Subrahmanyam in February 2011, strategic affairs expert C. Raja Mohan wrote in The Indian Express: “When he started writing on foreign and defence policies in the 1960s as the Director of IDSA, he confronted resistance from many official quarters. The Foreign Office, the Defence Ministry and the Service headquarters were all outraged by the young IAS officer’s temerity to write on subjects that were considered beyond public discourse. If academia was irritated at a civil servant’s foray into the study of war and peace, it was appalled at Subrahmanyam’s prolific writing for the popular press.”

Subrahmanyam was one of the strong voices in favour of India intervening to solve the crisis that had engulfed East Pakistan in 1971. He believed that because of the refugees entering India in their millions and mass human rights violations by the Pakistani army, India had little choice but to intervene militarily. 

As the crisis escalated Subrahmanyam once had a tense meeting with the then United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. When the India-Pakistan war broke out, the Americans deployed the U.S.S. Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal. Though this was a tactical move, it may have had greater repercussions, Subrahmanyam later hinted. In his recollections that appeared in ‘Nuclear India’, a volume that came out after the 1998 nuclear tests, he wrote: “Now we know that there were no specific operational directions to the Enterprise mission. But at that stage, the Indian government could not but assume the worst and treat it as an act of nuclear intimidation….This experience of nuclear intimidation must have influenced Mrs. Gandhi in giving the green signal to the Atomic Energy Department to go ahead with the nuclear test in 1972.”

He compiled important reports on the 1971 war.

Subrahmanyam championed India’s nuclear programme and led the strategic affairs thinking in the fledgling field. After Prime Minister Morarji Desai shut down India’s nuclear weapons programme, Subrahmanyam, as the then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, wrote a Cabinet note pressing for its resumption.  

He often stressed on the continuity of the Indian nuclear policy under successive governments. He once wrote in The Indian Express: “While campaigning against nuclear weapons,India’s leadership from Nehru onwards also kept the nuclear option alive. India was compelled to declare itself a nuclear weapon power in 1998, only after the international community legitimised nuclear weapons by indefinitely extending the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and China armed Pakistan with nuclear weapons to balance India. Once India declared its nuclear capability, the attitudes of major powers changed.”

In the 1970s and 1980s he served in several think-thanks and strategic affairs groups, both national and global. In 1987 he was a Visiting Professor at St John's College, Cambridge.

He wrote regularly on issues of defence and strategic affairs in dozens of publications and newspapers till his last days, and came to be regarded as the doyen of the Indian strategic affairs community. He headed the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Global Strategic Developments, and was appointed convenor of the first National Security Council Advisory Board in 1998. He declined the Padma Bhushan in 1999, saying journalists and bureaucrats should not accept state awards.

In a tribute after his death on 2 February 2011, the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan wrote in The Hindu: “A realist in his strategic thinking, Subrahmanyam was one of the first to understand and discuss what the emergence of a multipolar world order — his preferred term was “polycentric” — meant for Indian foreign policy. He argued that India had the capacity to improve its relations with all global power centres. At the same time, he sought to leverage American interest in India's rise by pressing for the removal of restrictions on nuclear and high-tech commerce.”

On a more personal note, Subrahmanyam’s grandson Dhruva Jaishankar wrote in an article that appeared in Outlook magazine: “When many of his generation remained wedded to orthodox traditions such as arranged marriage and urging their children to pursue educational and professional opportunities in traditional fields such as engineering and business, his (Subrahmanyam’s) views on these subjects was extraordinarily liberal. He found it a source of pride, rather than embarrassment, that his children and grandchildren were civil servants, diplomats, economists, historians, architects, filmmakers and lawyers married to people who were American, French, Dutch and Japanese. He saw no contradiction between nationalism and internationalism.”

Also on this day:

1915 — Khushwant Singh, Indian novelist and journalist, was born

1963 — Arvind Gaur, Indian theatre director, was born

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