Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

K. Subrahmanyam (1929-2011)

02.03.2011 · Posted in Personal History

In many ways, and for many people, he left an indelible impression.


To those who met him—and to thousands who came to know him through his prolific newspaper columns and regular television appearances—K. Subrahmanyam was an extraordinary individual. Growing up in a peripatetic household in provincial Madras—his father was a school teacher and administrator—Subrahmanyam was known as “Ambi” or “Mani” to his family. Later, friends and colleagues in Delhi referred to him as “Subbu” or “KS”. To us grandchildren, he was simply “Thatha”. My earliest memory of him was not at a seminar at IISS, a discussion in the India International Centre lounge, or a visit to his former office in Sapru House. It was in a basement of our home in suburban Washington one December in the mid-1980s, when he came bearing bounteous gifts for his young grandchildren.  “Who needs Santa Claus,” I remember thinking as I observed the tall man with a shock of white hair taking considerable interest in helping me assemble my new toys. “I have my very own.”

KS brought that same sense of generosity to his professional life, displaying a kindness that was not always discernible to those whose first impressions were often overshadowed by his stern demeanor and intimidating reserves of knowledge. At the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), which he directed for many years, he supported the efforts of many individuals outside the traditional hierarchy, including young academics with controversial political views and government employees considered too junior to write. A good idea deserved to be heard, he felt, no matter who came up with it. The same spirit was evident later in his career too: a number of promising young scholars, many of them doctoral candidates, have told me how impressed they were that he would make the effort to attend, and actively participate in, their research presentations. The large number of people who consider him a mentor, and their wide age range, is a telling sign of his remarkable willingness to encourage individuals, regardless of their age or background.

KS was also frustrated by that same sense of rigidity that he sought to overcome. Although he attempted to incorporate IDSA more closely with Jawaharlal Nehru University, he was prevented from teaching there on the grounds that he did not have a doctorate, or a higher education in political science or a related field (his highest degree was an M.Sc. in chemistry). He was the first to appreciate the irony that Cambridge—where he was later made a professor—had no such qualms about his being appointed.

While he was controversial, and his views often polarizing, KS rarely—if ever—engaged in personal criticism in public discourse, although he was occasionally the object of heated invective. Two years ago, he wrote a pointedly reproachful note to me related to some posts on this blog, where I had mentioned individuals by name whose arguments I disagreed with. Although he couched it in terms that he thought I would find more appealing—that certain people may not be accustomed to personal criticism—his view was that even mentioning individuals in policy discussions risked personalizing debates and eroded a sense of collegiality within the strategic community. That sense of collegiality at a time when criticism and debate have become more personal on blogs,  Twitter and television talk shows was upheld almost to a fault: it explained the sometimes roundabout and passive beginnings to his articles—”It has been said that…”—before he proceeded to systematically demolish a certain viewpoint.

KS may never have used Twitter and did not have a blog, but for someone who grew up in a household without electricity or a transistor radio, he took surprisingly well to new forms of media and mass communication. During the Bangladesh war, he made appearances on All India Radio and later featured on television, both on Doordarshan and subsequently on the many cable news channels that sprung up. The move from think tank scholar to newspaper columnist was considered unusual when he made that transition, and the present host of regular columnists on strategic affairs in India have followed a trail that he was among the earliest to blaze. Although he continued to write his columns in long-hand, never being much of a typist, he became a prolific online reader, signing up to a large number of mailing lists, which he followed assiduously. A number of people were surprised when he, an eminence grise now in his late 70s or early 80s, would approach them and  discuss some article they had written in an obscure publication and circulated only on a private listserv.

But perhaps the most remarkable characteristic that marked KS was his ability to tailor his views to the times, often against prevailing orthodoxy. This was seen most markedly in his calls for an Indian nuclear deterrent, but his advocacy of a minimal deterrent once India had achieved a nuclear capability, as well as his defense of a close relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War followed by ardent support for the U.S.-India relationship in the post-Cold War era. He understood, earlier than most, the importance of liberal economic reforms for national security, and more recently made impassioned pleas for changes in Indian governance and political culture.  Again, his understanding of the need for change was reflected in his personal life as much as his professional one.  The product of a traditional household, KS was no rebel. He went to Presidency College in Madras, took the civil services exam and joined the Indian Administrative Service, becoming a family breadwinner at an early age while staying near his aging parents.  But although he remained an avowed vegetarian and was well-versed in Hindu religious texts, he was also an atheist. 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 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 and that they were married to individuals who were American, French, Dutch and Japanese.

But while there are many lessons one can draw from his life and work, my colleague at Pragmatic Euphony may have articulated the most important one (on Twitter, where else?):  “The best tribute to K Subrahmanyam would be to not fossilise his thoughts or propagate his views as a dogma. We Indians are masters at both.” KS would  have been the first to agree.

Further Reading

4 Responses to “K. Subrahmanyam (1929-2011)”

  1. [...] I have often wondered which word in Sanskrit most accurately reflects “strategy”. Rana-niti refers to battlefield tactics. Then there is vyuha which refers to a formation. Recalling a conversation between K. Subhramanyam and George Tanham of the RAND Corporation, Journalist Inder Malhotra had this to say: came to see Subbu when he was doing a study on Indian strategic thought. Subbu told him, “What can I say about something that doesn’t exist?” It is strange that the land that produced the oldest precursors of the most popular modern day strategy games Chess, failed to sustain its traditions and schools of Strategic Thinking for so  many centuries.  Somewhere along the line we became argumentative Indians who will split hair endlessly on futile squabbles while losing the big picture to the detriment of our own strategic interests.     The tradition of strong Institutions and selfless Institution Builders who would look out for the long term interests of this great land of ours was almost lost and forgotten. That tradition which once at its zenith had produced Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Takshashila saw a new beginning in the last decade of the 20th century.   We must celebrate K. Subrahmanyam’s life as a key moment in the revival of that ancient tradition of strong Institutions and selfless Institution Builders who would look out for the interests of this Nation, far beyond the myopic eye can see.   Some excellent writing on his life by S Varadarajan, Rohan and a must read and listen interview (podcast) by Nitin Pai.   This touching note by his grandson Dhruva. [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by pragmatic_desi, Aditi Malhotra. Aditi Malhotra said: RT @pragmatic_d A touching tribute from a grandson.Fellow INI blogger Dhruva Jaishankar on his “Thatha”,K Subrahmanyam: http://bit.ly/gYsRCx [...]

  3. [...] 4, 2011 at 5:26 pm | 0 comments   Photo: Medha Jaishankar Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam 1929-2011 A remembrance and an interview he have Pragati in April [...]

  4. lakshmi srinivas says:

    Wonderful tribute by a family member. The ‘Further reading’ is a thoughtful addendum. Hopefully you’d write another instalment on ‘K Subrahmanyam’, the man. It’s certainly a desideratum as he was almost the last of the Nehruvian era. What such stellar gentlemen such as K Subrahmanyam were made of is a matter of great cultural and intellectual interest for Indians.