K Subrahmanyam, RIP

If only the Indian government had heeded a hundredth of what he had to say…

K Subrahmanyam passed away in New Delhi yesterday. He was the single most important strategist in independent India.

I had the good fortune of knowing him since around 2006, and he has been a source of encouragement and support to us at INI, Pragati and Takshashila. He would respond to some of my blog posts and articles over email, wrote for and gave an interview for Pragati, and, despite his age and health, turned up at the first Takshashila executive programme in New Delhi in December 2009.

You should listen to the interview in his own voice. You can also download the published interview in PDF.

Here’s a excerpt:

Nitin Pai: Looking back over the decades, what would you say were the best and worst moments?
K Subrahmanyam: One of the best moments was on 16th December 1971, when we achieved success in Bangladesh and the other has to be split into two—18th May 1974 and 11th May 1998, when we conducted nuclear tests.

One of the worst moments was on 18th November 1962. I was then working in the defence ministry, when I came to know that Prime Minister Nehru had written to President Kennedy asking for American aircraft to operate from India soil against the Chinese. This was when India itself had not even used its own air force. The imposition of emergency on 25th of June 1975 was the second worst moment.

10th April 2008

What were the learning points from 1962?
It is a learning point in a big sense. We had an army whose leadership was immature as they had been promoted too rapidly. They were incapable of handling such situations. This was true not only of military but also of the diplomatic community and to some extent it was true of politicians including Jawaharlal Nehru. He was persuaded that it would be either a full-scale war in which case other major nations were expected to support India or that it would remain as patrol clashes. That the Chinese could calibrate the operation so very carefully, mainly to humiliate him, and then withdraw, was something that did not occur to him. It was a very masterful strategy of the Chinese who took full advantage of Cuban missile crisis.

Have the lessons been learnt?
No. Take the liberation of Bangladesh as a case study. Pakistan held free and fair election in December of 1970 under a mistaken assumption that nobody would win a clear majority and the army would still be able to manipulate the country. I was convinced that the army would not hand over power and that we had to be prepared for problems. Then came the hijacking of the Indian aircraft that was blown up in Lahore after which Pakistani planes were banned from Indian airspace. The Pakistanis started building up troops in Bangladesh and the ships were going via Colombo. Everybody knew about it. But we didn’t do anything to warn our armed forces to be ready till 25th March 1971 when Pakistanis began the crack down (See page 21). When asked to intervene on 30th March, the Indian army requested for more time. When they got the time that they needed, they did the job beautifully well. But we did not anticipate this eventuality.

Let us take Kargil as another example. In the Kargil committee report, we have said that the Cabinet Committee on Security should have a regular intelligence briefing by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. But the government has not accepted this. There is no sensitivity to intelligence in India. The top decision-makers do not get themselves briefed on the state of affairs. They only expect to get an update if something happens. This attitude still persists and this is a major weakness.

The whole attitude to intelligence needs to change. Professor Manohar Lal Sondhi used to say that since I was the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, I should have nothing to do with academics! During the second world war, all the intellectuals were in intelligence.

American professors used to encourage students to join the intelligence community. Even today, I see many CIA advertisements in university campuses across America.

But when I ask people in Jawaharlal Nehru University to consider a career in intelligence, they simply refuse. Many consider it unethical. [Download the rest]

10 thoughts on “K Subrahmanyam, RIP”

  1. > when I ask people in Jawaharlal Nehru University to consider a career in intelligence, they simply refuse.

    Why is this surprising? We’ve known for decades that people at JNU don’t have any intelligence

  2. Thanks for this good post. I had opportunity to meet him and his wife in the mid of 2010 during a book release function. His talk very interesting as he spoke about his career and the march of India’s strategic affairs. For his talk is really memorable.


  3. Nitin,
    Thanks for posting the interview with K. Subrahmanyam. One hopes that the Indian government will have some sense to listen to key strategists than being focused on only the economy and scams.

  4. Not only the Intelligence, even the armed forces are held in low esteem by the politicians and the civil service. The last painful reminder of this was when Field Marshal Manekshaw died — the three service chiefs, PM, President, VP, leader of the opposition,Chief ministers, governors, the Italian queen bee, the heir apparent were all conspicuous by their absence. Junior minister Pallam Raju (Defence Production) was the only “dignitary” present. While the late FM was accorded this insult, we have an avenue named after Krishna Menon, the architect of the 1962 disaster and defeat!!

  5. Thanks for the interview. Great Insight.

    “But when I ask people in Jawaharlal Nehru University to consider a career in intelligence, they simply refuse. Many consider it unethical.” — This may be because of the inability of the concerned people to sell the career(intelligence ) properly. In India because of wide spread unemployment, the government employers are content with publishing advertisement and wait for the applicants. There is seen no need to aggressively pursue talent. This is short-sightedness.

  6. Mr. K Subrahmanyam was truly one of the greatest experts on strategic affairs. His analytical comments on various issues relating to national security will be sorely missed and the void created by his sad demise will be difficult to fill. India, a few days earler, lost another expert, Mr. R. Swaminathan, a former DG (Security) in the Cabinet Secretariat. However, he passed away almost unsung. And which is quite unfortunate.

  7. It is indeed sad that JNU is the only option that people turn to for intelligence. There are other places, and some departments in DU and other universities, where strategic affairs is a daily pre-occupation with students, which very often go wasted.

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