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K Subrahmanyam, 1929-2011

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4 February 2011 16:34

India's strategic community is mourning a great loss: its most respected thinker, K Subrahmanyam, passed away on Wednesday 2 February at age 82. Strategist, official, adviser, journalist, scholar, mentor: his work had a direct bearing on some of New Delhi's most profound national security decisions of the last half century.

He was an early advocate of an Indian atomic bomb, although from the outset he also urged the government to shackle it with an explicit policy of 'no first use'. His persistence paid off: both pieces of advice were eventually adopted. As early as 1970, Subrahmanyam called for an Indian nuclear deterrent against possible future coercion by China. Extraordinary at the time, this view became the official rationale for the 1998 nuclear tests, and now can be assumed to inform New Delhi's strategic policy in the face of China's continued rise.

But it would be wrong to characterise him as a hawk. He also emphasised the need for engagement with Beijing, along with a defence posture of asymmetric deterrence rather than arms racing. Moreover, all along he saw nuclear weapons as essentially unusable. In his later years he argued that the case for nuclear abolition could be advanced by establishing dialogue between militaries, in which they would come to agree on the 'unfightability' of nuclear war.

Indeed, he surprised some of his fellow realists with his support in 2008 for the nuclear disarmament efforts of US elder statesmen Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn.

That said, I am not sure many of his fellow Indians would wholeheartedly agree with his being called 'India's Kissinger' — the sub-editor's headline to this obituary I wrote for Foreign Policy.

Subbu, as he was affectionately known, was renowned in India for his humble, egalitarian and bipartisan ethos, as well as his sense of 'dharma' (duty). His was a lifetime spent in service to his nation above all else. He rejected official honours, and was outspoken in defence of democracy and pluralism within India – he was not afraid to speak out against the 2002 violence in Gujarat. He was a mentor to generations of strategists and officials. And throughout his life he was generous with his time. I cannot claim to have known him well, although in recent years I benefited from some memorable conversations with him. I will leave the last word to one of his intellectual heirs, Raja Mohan:

Unwilling to be co-opted by the allures of office and privilege, he spoke truth to power, often risking his own career advancement...As India rises on the world stage, Subrahmanyam’s contribution in getting its security establishment to ponder the nature of power and its political purpose will long outlast him.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.