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A gentleman Brahmin

Policy guru K Subrahmanyam towered over fellow hawks because of his professionalism and vision. Adversary and admirer Shiv Visvanathan pays a tribute.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:09 IST
Shiv Visvanathan

It's a strange paradox of life that sometimes when someone who agrees with you dies, you shrug in sadness, but when an opponent you have disagreed with passes away, you want to salute him. For someone raised in the alternative tradition of pluralism and peace, K Subrahmanyam was the opponent. He literally founded defence studies in India, differentiated it from international relations, gave it an identity and a different competence.

I never knew him but I loved hearing stories about him from colleagues, relatives and friends. One was from an Indian Civil Service officer in my college days. The gentleman, fondly called 'Annaji', had retired from service and was still known for his alertness and curiosity. One day, almost nostalgically, he said, "Wonder what happened to a young man I knew. He did chemistry I think. Subbu. He is the one to watch. He will go far." I think the comments were prescient because Subrahmanyam became one of the great policy intellectuals of our era.

When one mentions the word policy intellectual, one thinks of PC Mahalanobis, Sukhamoy Chakravarti, Pitamber Pant or MS Swaminathan. Subrahmanyam stands tall even in this tribe. He took the idea of defence and rescued it from illiteracy and panic after the 1962 China defeat.

At that time, I worked at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), which was vociferous in its critique of him. My senior colleagues tried to create a sociological picture of him. They argued he was like all displaced Tamil Brahmins: having no power in Chennai, the Tamil Brahmin was the source of a hawkish ideology. As a generalisation, it was true, even insightful. But Subrahmanyam, for all his nationalism, escaped such stereotypes. Like my senior colleagues at the CSDS such as Rajni Kothari, Ashis Nandy and Giri Deshingkar, KS understood power. And like them, he was never seduced by power. But the former critiqued policy, KS made it. Subrahmanyam stood at the centre of power as an immaculate maverick. He was never tempted by it. He never fetishised it. He could dissent with equal ease as he did during the Emergency.

He could stand up quietly for his ideas. In that sense, he was a presence without being a performance. He was a strategist in all senses, but tactical enough to realise when change was essential. He was a patriot who lived out the travails of the Indian Nation-State at its most vulnerable moments. He was neither overtly left or right. What made him maddening was that he was utterly matter of fact about it. He played caretaker and trustee of defence policy and created, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), the nursery for independent and autonomous ideas about defence. He was the ideal policy intellectual as a role model, and yet unique enough to deny imitations.

My former colleague and a leading China hand, the late Giri Deshingkar, was constructed as an intellectual foil to

KS. Yet, two stories I heard from Giri best capture KS. Giri was a creature of habit. He worked hard the whole day needing his drink at six in the evening. One day I saw him hurrying out at five. "Where are you going?" I asked. "Subbu's son is getting married I have to be there," adding, "Subbu, he is one of us." It was a tribute to an adversary as a friend.

On August 24, 1984, the Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Lahore and onward to Dubai. I walked into Giri's corner room soon after and found him reading Subrahmanyam's hijack diaries marking its key points. "What a man," said Giri. "He gets hijacked and produces a meticulous diary while everyone produces complaints. It's the Brahmin in him... Subbu was never an opportunist. But look at the opportunism of the man. He sees the hijack as a learning experience!"

Deshingkar saw 'KS the Brahmin' as a hero. This was a sense of the Brahminic not as a caste orientation or in the sense of ritual or status. It was the Brahmin as advisor to kings: learned, scholarly, true to the mandarin code, yet distant from the seduction of power, austere, productive almost as a form of everyday discipline, prolific beyond 60 where the word retirement was an epithet for lesser mortals.

I must confess that for a peacenik and an anti-nuclear activist like me, Subrahmanyam was anathema. I felt the KS who talked peace had no sense of peace movements. I could not understand his pro-nuclear stand and my ambivalence to the man stemmed from this. I felt he was separating the ethical and the tactical. I guess he probably felt there was a touch of romance about people like me. He was probably more aware of India's vulnerability in an age that produced the genocidal impulse of a Kissinger or the epidemic of terrorism. Yet KS was always the hawk who advised nuclear restraint; a discourse that sees the Nation-State as vulnerable allows little focus for civil society views of vulnerability.

I remember during the heyday of the United Nations University projects on militarisation and demilitarisation, Rajni Kothari asked me to take over the little magazine on militarisation and demilitarisation in Asia. He jokingly added that he was setting up one 'Tam-Brahm' to fight another. There was no prejudice in what Kothari said. It was a challenge to civil society views of peace to meet the standards of integrity that KS had set. Even in his absence, he was a presence. Even as an opponent, KS almost became the muse.

KS died fighting cancer. I am sure if he had time he might have produced a systematic book on that too. But I guess the nation kept him absorbed. He towered over other hawks because of his vision and his professionalism. Yet deep down he represented a style of Brahmin scholar-bureaucrats. One will always miss him for the austerity, the inventiveness and the integrity he brought to public life.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist. The views expressed by the author are personal.